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In some countries, conscientious objectors are assigned to an alternative civilian service as a substitute for conscription or military service. Some conscientious objectors consider themselves pacifist, non-interventionist, non-resistant, or antimilitarist.
The international definition of conscientious objection officially broadened on March 8, 1995 when the United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 1995/83 stated that "persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service." That definition was re-affirmed in 1998, when the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights document called "Conscientious objection to military service, United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77" officially recognized that "persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections."
- See also: War resister
Introduction[edit | edit source]
Historically, many conscientious objectors have been executed, imprisoned, or otherwise penalized when their beliefs led to actions conflicting with their society's legal system or government. The legal definition and status of conscientious objection has varied over the years and from nation to nation. Religious beliefs were a starting point in many nations for legally granting conscientious objector status.
Conscientious objection and doing civilian service (i.e. civilian tasks as an alternative to compulsory military service) in Germany grew into a veritable institution, especially in the health service. The suspension of conscription in Germany in 2011 is therefore reported to have caused problems for "caring" activities previously undertaken by objectors doing civilian service.  Some conscientious objectors served as smokejumpers and aides in mental institutions in the U.S. during World War II and the Korean War.
United Nations[edit | edit source]
Universal Declaration of Human Rights[edit | edit source]
In 1948, the issue of the right to "conscience" was dealt with by the United Nations General Assembly in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." The proclamation was ratified during the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 by a vote of 48 in favour, 0 against, with 8 abstentions.
In 1974, the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Sean MacBride said, in his Nobel Lecture, "To the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights one more might, with relevance, be added. It is 'The Right to Refuse to Kill.'" 
In 1976, the United Nations treaty the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entered into force. It was based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was originally created in 1966. Nations that have signed this treaty are bound by it. Its Article 18 begins: "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. …"
However, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights left the issue of conscientious objection inexplicit, as we see in this quote from War Resisters International: "Article 18 of the Covenant does put some limits on the right [to freedom of thought, conscience and religion], stating that [its] manifestations must not infringe on public safety, order, health or morals. Some states argue that such limitations [on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion] would [derivatively] permit them to make conscientious objection during time of war a threat to public safety, or mass conscientious objection a disruption to public order,...[Some states] even [argue] that it is a 'moral' duty to serve the state in its military."
On July 30, 1993, explicit clarification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 18 was made in the United Nations Human Rights Committee general comment 22, Paragraph 11: "The Covenant does not explicitly refer to a right to conscientious objection, but the Committee believes that such a right can be derived from article 18, inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force may seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one's religion or belief." In 2006, the Committee has found for the first time a right to conscientious objection under article 18, although not unanimously.
In 1997, an announcement of Amnesty International's forthcoming campaign and briefing for the UN Commission on Human Rights included this quote: "The right to conscientious objection to military service is not a marginal concern outside the mainstream of international human rights protection and promotion."
In 1998, the Human Rights Commission reiterated previous statements and added "states should . . . refrain from subjecting conscientious objectors . . . to repeated punishment for failure to perform military service."  It also encouraged states "to consider granting asylum to those conscientious objectors compelled to leave their country of origin because they fear persecution owing to their refusal to perform military service . . . ."
Nuremberg Principle IV[edit | edit source]
The Nuremberg Principles were a set of guidelines for determining what constitutes a war crime. The document was created by the International Law Commission of the United Nations to recognize the legal principles underlying the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi party members following World War II.
Nuremberg Principle IV states: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."
Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status[edit | edit source]
The Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status (the Handbook) of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states:
"171. Not every conviction, genuine though it may be, will constitute a sufficient reason for claiming refugee status after desertion or draft-evasion. It is not enough for a person to be in disagreement with his government regarding the political justification for a particular military action. Where, however, the type of military action, with which an individual does not wish to be associated, is condemned by the international community as contrary to basic rules of human conduct, punishment for desertion or draft-evasion could, in the light of all other requirements of the definition, in itself be regarded as persecution." 
Religious motives[edit | edit source]
Cases of behaviour which could be considered as religiously motivated conscientious objection are historically attested long before the modern term appeared. For example, the Medieval Orkneyinga Saga mentions that Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney - the future Saint Magnus - had a reputation for piety and gentleness, and because of his religious convictions refused to fight in a Viking raid on Anglesey, Wales, instead staying on board his ship singing psalms.
The reasons for refusing to perform military service are varied. Many conscientious objectors cite religious reasons. Unitarian Universalists object to war in their sixth principle "The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all". Members of the Historic Peace Churches such as Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and Church of the Brethren object to war from the conviction that Christian life is incompatible with military action, because Jesus enjoins his followers to love their enemies and to refuse violence. Since the American Civil War, Seventh-day Adventists were known as non-combatants, and had done work in hospitals or to give medical care rather than combat roles, and the church has upheld the non-combative position. Jehovah's Witnesses, while not pacifist in the strict sense, refuse to participate in the armed services on the grounds that they believe they should be neutral in worldly conflicts and often cite the latter portion of Isaiah 2:4
which states, "…neither shall they learn war anymore." Other objections can stem from a deep sense of responsibility toward humanity as a whole, or from simple denial that any government possesses the moral authority to command warlike behavior from its citizens.
In the early Christian Church followers of the Christ refused to take up arms.
In as much as they [Jesus’ teachings] ruled out as illicit all use of violence and injury against others, clearly implied [was] the illegitimacy of participation in war… The early Christians took Jesus at his word, and understood his inculcations of gentleness and non-resistance in their literal sense. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war for the bloodshed which it involved.— The Early Christian Attitude to War.
After the Roman Empire officially embraced Christianity, the Just War theology was developed in order to reconcile warfare with Christian belief. After Theodosius I made Christianity an official religion of the Empire, this position slowly developed into the official position of the Western Church. In the 11th century, there was a further shift of opinion in the Latin-Christian tradition with the crusades, strengthening the idea and acceptability of Holy War. Objectors became a minority. Some theologians see the loss of a pacifist position as a great failing of the Church; see Constantinian shift and Christian pacifism.
Ben Salmon was a Catholic conscientious objector during World War I and outspoken critic of Just War theology. The Catholic Church denounced him and the The New York Times described him as a "spy suspect." The US military (in which he was never inducted) charged him with desertion and spreading propaganda, then sentenced him to death (this was later revised to 25 years hard labor). On June 5, 1917, Salmon wrote in a letter to President Wilson:
Regardless of nationality, all men are brothers. God is "our Father who art in heaven." The commandment "Thou shalt not kill" is unconditional and inexorable. … The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.
Because of their conscientious objection to participation in military service, whether armed or unarmed, Jehovah's Witnesses have often faced imprisonment or other penalties. In Greece, for example, before the introduction of alternative civilian service in 1997, hundreds of Witnesses were imprisoned, some for three years or even more for their refusal. In Armenia, young Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned (and remain in prison) because of their conscientious objection to military service. The government of South Korea also imprisons hundreds for refusing the draft. In Switzerland, virtually every Jehovah's Witness is exempted from military service. The Finnish government exempts Jehovah's Witnesses from the draft completely.
The following is said of the Seventh-day Adventists (SDA) by a neutral, non-SDA organization: "Many Seventh-day Adventists refuse to enter the army as combatants, but participate as medics, ambulance drivers, etc. During World War II in Germany, many SDA conscientious objectors were sent to concentration camps or mental institutions; some were executed. Some Seventh-day Adventists volunteered for the US Army's Operation Whitecoat, participating in research to help others. The Church preferred to call them "conscientious participants", because they were willing to risk their lives as test subjects in potentially life-threatening research. Over 2,200 Seventh-day Adventists volunteered in experiments involving various infectious agents during the 1950s through the 1970s in Fort Detrick, MD. " A schism arose during and after World War I between Seventh-day Adventists in Germany who agreed to serve in the military if conscripted and those who rejected all participation in warfare — the latter group eventually forming a separate church (the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement).
For believers in Indian religions, the opposition to warfare may be based on either the general idea of ahimsa, non-violence, or on an explicit prohibition of violence by their religion, e.g., for a Buddhist, one of the five precepts is "Pānātipātā veramaṇi sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi," or "I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures," which is in obvious opposition to the practice of warfare. The 14th Dalai Lama has stated that war "should be relegated to the dustbin of history." On the other hand, many Buddhist sects, especially in Japan, have been thoroughly militarized, warrior monks (yamabushi or sóhei) participating in the civil wars. Hindu beliefs do not go against the concept of war, as seen in the Gita. Both Sikhs and Hindus believe war should be a last resort and should be fought to sustain life and morality in society.
Some practitioners of pagan religions, particularly Wicca, may object on the grounds of the Wiccan rede, which states "An it harm none, do what ye will" (or variations). The threefold law may also be grounds for objection.
A notable example of a conscientious objector was the Austrian devout Roman Catholic Christian Franz Jägerstätter, who was executed on August 9, 1943 for openly refusing to serve in the Nazi Wehrmacht, consciously accepting the penalty of death. He was declared Blessed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 for dying for his beliefs, and is viewed as a symbol of self-sacrificing resistance.
Common questions[edit | edit source]
|Generality||How and when did you decide against the military service?|
|Why can't you arrange military service with your conscience?|
|What prohibits you from serving in the military?|
|Military service||Do you fear having to fight, or to use force?|
|Do you want to abolish the army?|
|What do you think about the phrase "We have the army to defend us, not to kill others"?|
|Use of force||What would you do if you were attacked?|
|What do you feel when you see that others are attacked?|
|What is violence, exactly?|
|Would you rather experience losses than having to use force?|
|Belief||What do your beliefs say?|
|Would you describe yourself as a pacifist?|
|What basic values, besides objecting to violence, do you have?|
|What entity gives you the certainty that your thinking and your feelings are right?|
|Implementation of your beliefs||Why didn't you choose to go into prison if your conscience is that strong?|
|Why didn't you use medical reasons to avoid military service?|
|What do you actually do to further peace, or is your attitude the only peaceful thing about you?|
|Personality||Who is in charge of defending your children in case of an armed conflict?|
|Do you live your ethical principles inside your family?|
|What books do you read?|
|What do you demand from yourself?|
|Are you merely a leader, a follower or a loner?|
These are common questions from Swiss hearings. By and large, these are asked in many other countries. They help to determine if the objector is politically motivated or if he is just too lazy to serve the country; or if he truly has a conflict stemming from his conscience. Arguments like "The army is senseless," "It is not just to wage wars," or opposition to involvement in a specific war (World War II, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War; a hypothetical war of West Germany against fellow Germans from the GDR during the Cold War) will hardly ever be accepted. He has only, and convincingly, to show that his conscience does not allow participation in an organisation which is intended to use violence.
Criticism[edit | edit source]
In hearings about one's personal conflicts of conscience, certain subtleties may arise. One example from interrogations in Germany is about a plank of wood floating on the sea, and you, shipwrecked, need cling to it in order to save your life. Another person swims nearby and he also is in need of this plank. If you deny him the plank, you are, according to the interrogators ready to accept the death of a fellow human being, and therefore able to serve in the military. Otherwise, if you are willing to allow the other person use of the plank you are willing to die and therefore not credible.
In other examples, the interviewers would ask if one was ready to kill in self-defense or in the defense of a friend or family member or why one had not revoked their driver's license, for driving carries a risk of accidentally killing someone.
In Britain during World War I, there was an argument put forth by a conscientious objector who asked the people who were part of the tribunal if they were Christian. When they all replied in the positive he then remarked, "Could you imagine Christ in khaki running out into no-mans land?" None of the panelists could, and the man was given total exemption due to 'religious beliefs'.
In various places, questions about such hypothetical situations have come into disuse because they do not explore the present-day state of the objector's conflict of conscience, but possible future actions which, with a great probability, will never take place. In the 1980s, these types of questions were abolished in Germany after the Federal Constitutional Court found them unconstitutional.
Similar hearings and questions about hypothetical situations were in use in Finland for most of the history of Finnish conscientious objection, from its introduction in the 1930s to the 1980s, when they were abolished. Today, draftees have to specify whether they are objecting for religious or ethical reasons by marking the appropriate checkbox on a form, but hearings are no longer held. If conscripts turn into conscientious objectors during their service, the Defense Force will inquire of their reasons for internal research purposes, but the objectors are not required to answer unless they wish to do so. Usually, a conscientious objector will be released from the military within a few hours of making the claim.
See also[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
- On July 30, 1993, explicit clarification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 18 was made in the United Nations Human Rights Committee general comment 22, Para. 11: Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Framework for communications. Conscientious Objection. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. URL accessed on 2008-05-15.
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; See Article 18. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. URL accessed on 2008-05-15.
- UN Commission on Human Rights. UN Commission on Human Rights, Conscientious objection to military service., 8 March 1995, E/CN.4/RES/1995/83 (See point #2). UN Commission on Human Rights. URL accessed on 2009-12-02.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Conscientious objection to military service; Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77; see preamble "Aware...". United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. URL accessed on 2009-12-08.
- Conscientious objection to military service; E/CN.4/RES/1998/77; See introductory paragraph. UN Commission on Human Rights. URL accessed on 2009-12-09.
- (1998). Conscientious objection to military service, Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77, Navigation to document: press "next" four times, see bottom listing, and at the right choose letter for language ("E" for English) Document: CHR 54th 4/22/1998E/CN.4/RES/1998/77. United Nations Human Rights, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. URL accessed on 2008-04-24.
- D. CHRISTOPHER DECKER, AND LUCIA FRESA. THE STATUS OF CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION UNDER ARTICLE 4 OF THE EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, 33 N.Y.U. J. INT’L L. & POL. 379 (2000); See pages 412-424, (or PDF pages 34-36). New York University School of Law, Issues - Volume 33. URL accessed on 2009-12-02.
- See http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,783444,00.html
- See http://www.unac.org/rights/question.html under "Who are the signatories of the Declaration?"
- (1974). The Imperatives of Survival. Nobel Foundation. URL accessed on 2008-04-30.
- > International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. URL accessed on 2008-05-15.
- A Conscientious Objector's Guide to the UN Human Rights System. War Resisters International. URL accessed on 2008-04-30.
- Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. Framework for communications. Conscientious Objection. Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. URL accessed on 2008-05-15.
- HRC views in case Yoon and Choi v. Republic of Korea, communications nos. 1321-1322/2004
- (1997). Out of the margins: the right to conscientious objection to military service in Europe. Amnesty International. URL accessed on 2008-04-30.
- Conscientious objection to military service; E/CN.4/RES/1998/77; See Point #5. UN Commission on Human Rights. URL accessed on 2009-12-09.
- United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Conscientious objection to military service; Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77; see point *7. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. URL accessed on 2009-12-08.
- Source: Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees
- Staff of the Catholic Peace Fellowship (2007). The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon. Sign of Peace 6.1 (Spring 2007).
- Torin Finney (1989). Unsung Hero of the Great War: The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon, 118 and 119.
- "The Seventh-day Adventist Church: Controversies, books and other resources", religioustolerance.org, Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
- "Origin of the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement".
- Beratungsstelle für Militärverweigerung und Zivildienst.
- The anecdote is represented in, or is coming from Cronin's 1935 novel The Stars Look Down.
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Alexander, Paul, (2008), Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God. Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing/Herald Press. A history and analysis of conscientious objection in the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination.
- Catherine Ryan, Gary Weimberg (2008), "Soldiers of Conscience" [videorecording]; Luna Productions, aired on PBS, profile of 4 US Conscientious Objectors during the Iraq War.
- Gillette v. U.S. 401 U.S. 437 (1971), 
- Selective Service, "Conscientious Objection and Alternative Service: Who Qualifies", 
- Bennett, Scott H. (2005). Army GI, Pacifist CO: The World War II Letters of Frank and Albert Dietrich (Fordham Univ. Press).
- Bennett, Scott H. (2003). Radical Pacifism: The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963. (Syracuse Univ. Press).
- Keim, Albert N. (1990). The CPS Story: An Illustrated History of Civilian Public Service, pp. 75–79. Good Books. ISBN 1-56148-002-9
- Gingerich, Melvin (1949), Service for Peace, A History of Mennonite Civilian Public Service, Mennonite Central Committee.
- Krahn, Cornelius, Gingerich, Melvin & Harms, Orlando (Eds.) (1955). The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Volume I, pp. 76–78. Mennoniite Publishing House.
- Mock, Melanie Springer (2003). Writing Peace: The Unheard Voices of Great War Mennonite Objectors, Cascadia Publishing House. ISBN 1-931038-09-0
- Pannabecker, Samuel Floyd (1975), Open Doors: A History of the General Conference Mennonite Church, Faith and Life Press. ISBN 0-87303-636-0
- Quakers in Britain — Conscientious Objectors.
- Smith, C. Henry (1981). Smith's Story of the Mennonites, Revised and expanded by Cornelius Krahn, 299–300, 311, Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press.
- Spartacus Education Pacifism page.
- Rick Tejada-Flores, Judith Ehrlich (2000), "The good war and those who refused to fight it" [videorecording]; Paradigm Productions in association with the Independent Television Service, aired on PBS.
- McNair, Donald (2008) A Pacifist at War: Military Memoirs of a Conscientious Objector in Palestine 1917-1918 Anastasia Press, Much Hadham ISBN 978-0-9536396-1-8
[edit | edit source]
- Alternative Service in the Second World War: Conscientious Objectors in Canada 1939-1945
- Conscientious objectors in a volunteer army (Chicago Tribune article by Anthony DeBartolo)
- The National Registry for Conscientious Objection
- International Conscientious Objectors' Day (War Resisters' International)
- European Court of Human Rights factsheet on case law on conscientious objection
- "Making a Choice: Conscientious Objection or Refusing to Register" (Resisters.info)
- The European Bureau for Conscientious Objection
- Mennonite Central Committee's listing of resources for conscientious objection (US and Canada)
- Refusing to Kill: conscientious objection and human rights in World War One. Peace Pledge Union, 2006.
- Watch His Conscience: A Short History Of The Conscientious Objector. By Michael D. Peabody
- Catholic Peace Fellowship
- The Right to Refuse to Bear Arms - the most authoritative recent world survey on provisions for conscientious objection to military service, by War Resisters' International
- A Conscientious Objector's Guide to the UN Human Rights System
- You have no enemies. A Call for Conscientious Objection. By Dieter Duhm
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