Professionalisation of the military – end of conscientious objection in Europe?

15 May – International Day on Conscientious Objection

In recent years many European countries abolished conscription, or suspended conscription in times of peace. Presently, out of the 27 European Union member states only 10 maintain conscription, and it is expected that of those ten some more will abolish conscription in the near future – Poland is expected to abolish conscription in 2010–2012, and Sweden is just now in the process of abolishing conscription. But even in countries that maintain conscription, “voluntary” professional soldiers generally have a more important role, i.e. within NATO or other foreign operations or the European Union battle groups. The reasons for maintaining conscription are often more ideological than military.

Almost unnoticed there is a parallel development: the right to conscientious objection for conscripts, which had been widely recognised within the European Union, is being undermined; professional soldiers generally do not have the right to conscientious objection. While all 27 present EU member states recognise the right to CO for conscripts, only two states – Germany and Britain – also recognise the right to CO for professional soldiers.

CO and professional soldiers

The European Union – generally proud of its human rights standards – is itself violating international standards here. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, and Article 10 of the European Charter on Fundamental Rights) logically also includes the right to change one’s beliefs at any time. Consequently the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe demanded from member states on 24 March 2006 in a decision on human rights in the Armed Forces to “introduce into their legislation the right to be registered as a conscientious objector at any time, namely before, during or after implementation of military service, as well as the right of career servicemen to obtain the status of conscientious objector”. Already Council of Europe recommendation 1581 of 2001 suggested to member states to recognise the right to conscientious objection also for professional soldiers.

However, in practice nothing much is happening, and there is a lack of political pressure to implement this right. It is often argued that this is not a problem, because there are no or few cases of known conscientious objectors. However, this is wrong. As the right to CO is lacking, potential objectors will attempt to use other ways to get a discharge from military service – often a discharge for medical or psychological reasons. Or they fall within the statistics on “desertion” or “absence without leave”, and because of the complete lack of a support structure such as the GI Rights Hotline in the USA these cases will generally not become known to the public.

Working with professional soldiers: counter-recruitment and soldiers’ rights

The European CO movements so far did mostly not develop a response to the challenges posed by the end of conscription. There is neither structured and coordinated work on countering military recruitment, nor exists a visible support structure for soldiers who – for whatever reasons – want to leave the Armed Forces. This is a problem, as critical soldiers have nobody within the peace movement to connect to.

Differences in the educational and class background between potential recruits and most members of the antimilitarist movement complicate matters further. While the military often targets its recruitment efforts on disadvantaged groups – low education level, immigrants, neighbourhoods with high unemployment – most activists of antimilitarist groups come from a middle class background with higher education. This often makes it difficult to even find a common language.

The experience from the USA however shows that the work with (former) soldiers and against the recruitment efforts of the military is very important and promising. The US counter-recruitment movement campaigns against the presence of military recruiters in high schools and universities, which makes it more difficult for the military to achieve its recruitment targets. In this work, veterans from the Vietnam war and the Iraq wars, often former deserters or conscientious objectors, play an important role, as these veterans know the military from the inside, and are more easily able to deconstruct the myths a lies of the military recruiters.

Outsourcing: conscientious objection and private companies

The increasing trend towards “outsourcing” of services for the military opens up a completely new field. In a smaller and “professional” military non-central tasks are often contracted out to private companies: from catering and the laundry within the barracks to the maintenance of tanks and combat aircraft. While in conscription armies its mostly conscripts who will be responsible for some of these tasks, professional soldiers are often to expensive and are needed for more central combat duties.

While these tasks don’t require the carrying of arms, they also cannot be called “civilian”. They wouldn’t qualify for a “genuinely civilian substitute service” for conscientious objectors.

But what happens when a civilian employee develops a conscientious objection, and wants to terminate his contract? While he or she – unlike a professional soldiers – does not face criminal proceedings or a court martial, the outcome will still be unemployment, and – as it was the employee who ended the contract “voluntarily” – quite likely at least for a certain period without any unemployment benefit. There is no legal right to demand a transfer to a civilian department of the same employer.

Similar problems can arise when a “civilian” employer receives a new contract from the military: for some of the employees this can mean that they suddenly have to do the laundry for the military, or have to work on catering in the barracks. They have no right to refuse this “deployment”.

Regarding these issues, we are at totally at the beginning. There has so far not been any discussion within the CO movement, or within the trade unions.

Closing remarks

It is high time that the European CO and anti-war organisations face up to the challenges of a changing military landscape. While more and more of the European military forces take part in war operations abroad – so-called “peace enforcement” or “humanitarian” operations – and this usually mostly with professional soldiers, the CO movement so far did not develop a response. For how long can we afford not to do so?

I think it is high time to learn from the US experience, and to create a strong counter-recruitment movement in Europe too, which does not ignore those who are already in the military, but offers those who want to leave – for whatever reasons – its support.

Andreas Speck

War Resisters’ International would like to know more about “voluntary” recruitment for the Armed Forces. Please send us information on how the military promotes its “jobs” in your country.