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Greece: WRI at the United Nations Human Rights Committee

Kat Barton, QPSW Peaceworker with War Resisters' International, presented WRI's report on conscientious objection in Greece (which she authored) at the meeting of the Human Rights Committee in New York. She highlighted War Resisters' International's main concerns regarding the situation of conscientious objectors in Greece, and she also attended a meeting organised by WRI's UN representative in New York, John Miller. These activities were part of WRI's campaign on conscientious objection in Greece, which will culminate with activities in Greece from 9-15 May 2005, and solidarity actions all over the world on International Conscientious Objectors' Day - 15 May 2005.

According to the reports of the meeting, it seems the Human Rights Committee took up some of the issues raised by War Resisters' International.

Extracts from HR/CT/634, 24 March 2005

Delegation's Response to Written Questions

(...)Another member of the delegation flagged rules governing conscientious objection, saying that the law required such objectors to perform civilian service, equal in service to that which would have been done if they had served in an armed capacity -- increased, however, by 18 months. The term of service for religious objection, as of 1997 was 30 months (basic service of 18 months plus one year). For objections based on philosophical or moral beliefs, the term of service was 36 months (basic service of 18 months, plus another year and a half).(...)

Experts' Comments and Questions

Mr. KHALIL, expert from Egypt: (...) "Turning to the reductions in the terms of military service and alternative service that had occurred, he asked if that was an ongoing practice now or whether there would be a further reduction.

He said he could not avoid the impression from the report that conscientious objectors seemed to be in an unduly vulnerable position. That negative impression had been reinforced by a reported case of someone stripped of his status as a recognized conscientious objector for refusing to do 30 months of community service because of its punitive nature. Apparently, in June 2003, he was reportedly given a suspended 20-month prison sentence by a military court and could be called upon for military service, with the understanding that if he refused the latter, he would have to serve that suspended sentence. There were reportedly some 20 plus individuals in identical or similar situations.

Noting that those who refused to fulfil alternative civilian service were declared insubordinate, he asked whether insubordination led directly to a court martial, and whether the conscientious objector had the right to choose the alternatives to military service. He also asked about the basis of the practice of depriving conscientious objectives of their status if they carried out trade union activities or participated in a strike." (...)

"Picking up the points made earlier about conscientious objectors, HIPOLITO SOLARI-YRIGOYEN, expert from Argentina, said that not having arms was very important in terms of recognizing the right of conscientious objectors not to carry them, so to require military instruction, even if unarmed, was not an explicit recognition of the right to conscientious objection, as protected by article 18 of the Covenant. While the new law of 2004 had reduced the duration of alternative service, it was still long. According to the country's report, military service was 12 months, and unarmed service was six months more, and civil service was 11 months more than military service. The current reality was that a conscientious objector either had to carry out military service or a much longer alternative service.

Although the delegation had said that decision had been based on objective reasons, that was not sufficient, he said, adding that there were defensive and political reasons, and military reasons were cited in the report. Those were not sufficient to fail to recognize a clearly protected right under the Covenant. The Committee had also been told that during periods of armed conflict, the alternative services option could be suspended and, thereby obliging the conscientious objector to provide military service. That had led him to determine that the right of conscientious objectors had not been complied with nor had it conformed to the norms of article 18 of the Covenant. He, therefore, concluded that the legislation governing recognition of the right of conscientious objector was not convincing. Military and unarmed military service was not explicit recognition of conscientious objection, and the alternative civilian service must neither be discriminatory nor punitive, nor derogable, even in wartime."

(...) "Returning to the issue of conscientious objection, Mr. RODLEY, expert from the United Kingdom, noted that the Government distinguished between conscientious objection based on religious belief versus conscientious objection based on philosophical or moral beliefs, with religious belief demanding less extra time in the alternative service, according to the delegation's written response. He sought some explanation about that particular distinction. The delegation had already stated that extra time spent in alternative service was proportionate, given the nature of the two respective tasks, but how was the calculation made of "extra onerousness"? Certainly it was not just the number of extra days involved that would explain a nearly 100 per cent increase in the amount of time being spent.

Furthermore, some NGO sources had said that it was actually possible for those doing military service to complete only one third of the 12 months by buying themselves out of the other eight months, he said, seeking confirmation."(...)

Delegation's Response

"On the state of siege and conscientious objectors, another representative said the Greek Constitution and International Covenant had taken different approaches: the Covenant had enumerated rights that were not derogable, while the Constitution had enumerated rights that were derogable. That meant that the rights in the Covenant were not derogable even in a state of siege, but freedom of movement were among the relevant articles of the Constitution that were derogable.

Further reduction of conscientious objector service in the near future appeared not to be possible, he said in reply to a series of questions on that topic. The last reduction had been in July 2004, but the objectors might benefit indirectly from the step-by-step reduction of normal military service.

He then explained in detail the case of a Greek conscript who had been called to join the army in 1992. His case was still pending in the courts. The military courts had jurisdiction over objectors only for the crime of insubordination. The same applied to the normal conscript who had not yet joined the army. Trade union activists or participants in a strike were not permissible. The same rule applied to the regular soldiers, who also could not exercise such rights. To the question about the 26 objectors who had not been given objector status, he said that was because they had not submitted the required papers.

The length of military service in Greece depended on the country's defensive needs and the dangers and threats it faced. Greece was threatened by a neighbouring country, so the length of service of the conscientious objector depended on the length of the normal military service for those reasons. The special committee which had exempted the objectors' applications had consisted or professors from Greek universities, one recruiting army officer, and one doctor-military officer.

In addition, he said, the Minister of Defence could suspend the right of a conscript to carry out an alternative service, and that was justified when the country faced a "serious threat for its life". In such a situation, one might revoke the right or status of the objector in order to avoid the dangers of war. He also provided some examples where civilian service was "less heavy" than armed service. The core of the different treatment lay in proportionate equality, rights and obligations, as recognized by the Constitution."

(...) "Summing up, ELISABETH PALM, Vice-Chair and expert from Sweden, said that, although the delegation had taken great care to answer the Committee's questions, there were still some doubts as to the country's treatment of minorities and what was being done to improve prison conditions. Doubts also remained about protecting the rights of children and rules regarding conscientious objection.

War Resisters' International is now waiting for the release of the Human Rights Committee's recommendations regarding Greece.

Sources: UN Press Release HR/CT/633, 23 March 2005
UN Press Release HR/CT/634, 24 March 2005