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Conscientious objector

A conscientious objector (CO) is an individual who, on religious, moral or ethical grounds, refuses to participate as a combatant in war or, in some cases, to take any role that would support a combatant organization armed forces. In the first case, conscientious objectors may be willing to accept non-combatant roles during conscription or military service. In the second case, the CO objects to any role within armed forces and results in complete rejection of conscription or military service and, in some countries, assignment to an alternative civilian service as a substitute for conscription or military service. Some conscientious objectors may consider themselves either pacifist, non-resistant, or antimilitarist.

The international definition of conscientious objection officially broadened 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.”

On June 4, 1967, an address was given at Western Maryland College, USA by John Courtney Murray, S. J. concerning a more specific type of conscientious objection: “the issue of selective conscientious objection, conscientious objection to particular wars, or as it is sometimes called, discretionary armed service.”


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. Acceptable grounds for granting conscientious objector status have broadened in many countries.

Conscientious objection and doing civilian service (ie civilian tasks as an alternative to compulsory military service) has, in many countries, evolved into a veritable institution. Today in some countries such as Germany and Austria, those who are fulfilling their civilian service in the nursing or social domain bear a huge part of the workload in these areas.

United Nations

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, Para. 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 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 2005, The Peace Tax Seven analyzed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with this statement: “If the right to life is the first of all human rights, being the one on which all other rights depend, the right to refuse to kill must be the second.”

Religious motives

The reasons for refusing to perform military service are varied. Many conscientious objectors cite religious reasons. Members of the Historic Peace Churches 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. 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 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.

After the Roman Empire officially embraced Christianity, the Just War theory 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.

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. In Switzerland, virtually every Jehovah's Witness is exempted from military service. The Finnish government exempts Jehovah's Witnesses from the draft completely.

"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. 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.

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, the highest religious authority in Tibetan Buddhism, 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 famous example of a conscientious objector was the Austrian devout Roman Catholic Christian Franz Jägerstetter, who was executed on the 9. August 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 well respected in and out of his homeland by religious and non-religious persons alike as a symbol of self-sacrificing resistance against a criminal regime.

Alternatives for objectors

Some conscientious objectors are unwilling to serve the military in any capacity, while others accept noncombatant roles. Alternatives to military or civilian service include serving an imprisonment or other punishment for refusing conscription, falsely claiming unfitness for duty by feigning an allergy or a heart condition, delaying conscription until the maximum drafting age, or seeking refuge in a country which does not extradite those wanted for military conscription. Avoiding military service is sometimes labeled draft dodging, particularly if the goal is accomplished through dishonesty or evasive maneuvers. However, many people who support conscription will distinguish between "bona fide" conscientious objection and draft dodging, which they view as evasion of military service without a valid excuse.

Conscientious objection exists since the incorporation of forced military service but was not officially recognized until the twentieth century, when it was gradually recognized as a fundamental human right as a part of the freedom of conscience.

Despite the fact that international institutions like the United Nations (UN) or the Council of Europe (CoE) regard and promote conscientious objection as a human right, as of 2004, it still does not have a legal basis in most countries. Among the roughly one-hundred countries that have conscription, only thirty countries have some legal provisions, 25 of them in Europe. In Europe, most countries with conscription more or less fulfill international guidelines on conscientious objection legislation (except for Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Finland and Russia) today. In many countries outside Europe, especially in armed conflict areas (Israel/Palestine, Democratic Republic of the Congo), conscientious objection is punished severely.

While conscientious objectors - otherwise CO's - used to be seen as deserters, traitors, cowards, slackers or simply un-patriotic, their image has changed drastically in the Western world in past decades. Especially in Europe, where objectors usually serve an alternative civilian service, they are regarded as making an equally important contribution to society as conscripts. Parallel to that, the number of objectors has risen significantly, too: e.g., in Germany, where conscientious objection is a constitutional right, from less than one percent of all eligible men to more than fifty percent in 2003.

United States

During the American Revolutionary War exemptions varied by state. Pennsylvania required conscientious objectors, who would not join companies of voluntary soldiers called Associations, to pay a fine roughly equal to the time they would have spent in military drill. Quakers who refused this extra tax had their property confiscated.

The first conscription in the United States came with the Civil War. Although conscientious objection was not part of the draft law, individuals could provide a substitute or pay $300 to hire one. By 1864 the draft act allowed the $300 to be paid for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers. Conscientious objectors in Confederate States initially had few options. Responses included moving to northern states, hiding in the mountains, joining the army but refusing to use a weapon or imprisonment. Between late 1862 and 1864 a payment of $500 into the public treasury exempted conscientious objectors from Confederate military duty. Nevertheless, three Quakers were sentenced to death for refusing to bear arms in the Confederate Army, but a firing squad refused to fire on them after one called out "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" as Jesus had on the cross. They were pardoned and marched into the Battle of Gettysburg with rifles strapped onto their bodies, emerging miraculously unscathed.

In the United States during World War I, conscientious objectors were permitted to serve in noncombatant military roles. About 2000 absolute conscientious objectors refused to cooperate in any way with the military. These men were imprisoned in military facilities such as Fort Lewis (Washington), Alcatraz Island (California) and Fort Leavenworth (Kansas). The government failed to take into account that some conscientious objectors viewed any cooperation with the military as contributing to the war effort. Their refusal to put on a uniform or cooperate in any way caused difficulties for both the government and the COs. The mistreatment received by these absolute COs included short rations, solitary confinement and physical abuse severe enough as to cause the deaths of two Hutterite draftees.

Eventually, because of the shortage of farm labor, the conscientious objectors were granted furloughs either for farm service or relief work in France under the American Friends Service Committee. A limited number performed alternative service as fire fighters in the Cascade Range in the vicinity of Camp Lewis, Washington and in a Virginia psychiatric hospital.

During World War II, all registrants were sent a questionnaire covering basic facts about their identification, physical condition, history and also provided a checkoff to indicate opposition to military service because of religious training or belief. Men marking the latter option received a DSS 47 form with ten questions:

  1. Describe the nature of your belief which is the basis of your claim.
  2. Explain how, when, and from whom or from what source you received the training and acquired the belief which is the basis of your claim.
  3. Give the name and present address of the individual upon whom you rely most for religious guidance.
  4. Under what circumstances, if any, do you believe in the use of force?
  5. Describe the actions and behavior in your life which in your opinion most conspicuously demonstrate the consistency and depth of your religious convictions.
  6. Have you ever given public expression, written or oral, to the views herein expressed as the basis for your claim made above? If so, specify when and where.
  7. Have you ever been a member of any military organization or establishment? If so, state the name and address of same and give reasons why you became a member.
  8. Are you a member of a religious sect or organization?
  9. Describe carefully the creed or official statements of said religious sect or organization as it relates to participation in war.
  10. Describe your relationships with and activities in all organizations with which you are or have been affiliated other than religious or military.

Civilian Public Service (CPS) provided conscientious objectors in the United States an alternative to military service during World War II. From 1941 to 1947 nearly 12,000 draftees, unwilling to do any type of military service, performed work of national importance in 152 CPS camps throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. The work was initially done in areas isolated from the general population both because of the government's concern that pacifist philosophy would spread and conscientious objectors would not be tolerated in neighboring communities. A constant problem through the duration of the program, especially in camps located in national forests for fire control, was make-work projects designed to occupy the men's time in the off-season and between fires. For instance, men at a camp on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia shoveled snow from an unused roadway while a snowplow was parked nearby. The uselessness of this type of work led to low morale and loss of experienced men as they requested transfers to other camps hoping for more meaningful work. Draftees from the historic peace churches and other faiths worked in areas such as soil conservation, forestry, fire fighting, agriculture, social services, and mental health.

The CPS men served without wages and minimal support from the federal government. The cost of maintaining the CPS camps and providing for the needs of the men was the responsibility of their congregations and families. CPS men served longer than regular draftees, not being released until well past the end of the war. Initially skeptical of the program, government agencies learned to appreciate the men's service and requested more workers from the program. CPS made significant contributions to forest fire prevention, erosion and flood control, medical science and especially in revolutionizing of the state-run mental health institutions which had previously been very inhumane and often cruel.

Alternatives to war bonds and war savings stamps were provided for those who would not fund the war for conscientious reasons. National Service Board for Religious Objectors offered civilian bonds and Mennonite Central Committee offered Civilian Public Service stamps and War Sufferers' Relief stamps.

Civilian Public Service was disbanded in 1947. By the early 1950s a replacement program, 1-W service, was in place for conscientious objectors classified as 1-W by Selective Service. The new program eliminated the base camps of CPS and provided wages for the men.

1-W service was divided into several categories. The Earning Service involved working in institutions such as hospitals for fairly good wages. Voluntary Service was nonpaying work done in similar institutions, mostly within North America. Pax Service was a nonpaying alternative with assignments overseas. 1-W Mission Supporting Service was like the Earning Service but the wages were used for the support of mission, relief or service projects of the draftees choice. The nonpaying services were promoted by church agencies as a sacrifice to enhance the peace witness of conscientious objectors.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), the thirty-fifth President of the United States, serving from 1961 until his assassination in 1963. once said,

"War will exist until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today."

Current legal situation

A 1971 United States Supreme Court decision broadened U.S. rules beyond religious belief but denied the inclusion of objections to specific wars as grounds for conscientious objection. Some desiring to include the objection to specific wars distinguish between wars of offensive aggression and defensive wars while others contend that religious, moral, or ethical opposition to war need not be absolute or consistent but may depend on circumstance or political conviction.

Currently, the U.S. Selective Service System states, "Beliefs which qualify a registrant for conscientious objector status may be religious in nature, but don't have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man's reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man's lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims. In the US, this applies to primary claims, that is, those filed on initial SSS registration. On the other hand, those who apply after either having registered without filing, and/or having attempted or effected a deferral, are specifically required to demonstrate a discrete and documented change in belief, including a precipitant, that converted a non-CO to a CO. The male reference is due to the current "male only" basis for conscription in the United States.

In the United States, there are two main criteria for classification as a conscientious objector. First, the objector must be opposed to war in any form, Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437. Second, the objection must be sincere, Witmer v. United States, 348 U.S. 375. That he must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief was no longer a criterion after cases broadened it to include non-religious moral belief, United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 and Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333. COs willing to perform non-combatant military functions are classed 1-A-O by the U.S.; those unwilling to serve at all are 1-O.

Emigration to Canada

Some objectors to the Iraq War (See List of Iraq War resisters) chose Canada as a place of refuge, in part because of the closeness of the Canada–United States border, as well as an historical precedence set during the 1960s, when draft dodgers were allowed into Canada without prosecution during the Vietnam War.

Pursuant to the Treaty between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, US authorities can request Canadian authorities to identify, locate, and take into custody US nationals who have committed a crime that carries a possible sentence of more than a year, and subsequently extradite the target back to the US, as per the Extradition Treaty Between the United States of America and Canada. However, the US government must promise that those extradited will not receive the death penalty, in accordance with the Supreme Court of Canada ruling in United States v. Burns. Thus, deserters who may have had an arrest warrant issued aginst them in the US are liable for arrest in Canada, unless they legalise their status, which can be done by pursuing a refugee claim, which the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) will consider. If the claim is refused, the claimant can appeal the decision in the Federal Court, the Federal Court of Appeal, and finally, the Supreme Court of Canada, if leave is granted. If, however, appeals do not overturn the decision of the IRB, the claimant must leave Canada within 30 days, under a removal order. If this is not done, or departure details are not confirmed with the Canada Border Services Agency, a deportation order is issued, enforcable by any officer of the Queen's peace in Canada.

On December 6, 2007, the parliamentary Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration adopted a motion recommending that "the government immediately implement a program to allow conscientious objectors and their immediate family members (partners and dependents), who have refused or left military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations and do not have a criminal record, to apply for permanent resident status and remain in Canada; and that the government should immediately cease any removal or deportation actions that may have already commenced against such individuals. Six months later, on June 3, 2008, the House of Commons voted in a non-binding motion 137 to 110 in favour of the committee's recommendation.

US Iraq War resisters Joshua Key and Corey Glass both had their refugee claims turned down by the IRB in 2008. However, Key won an appeal to the Federal Court on July 4, requiring the IRB to re-examine his claim for refugee status, while, five days later, it was reported in the Toronto Star that Glass had been permitted to stay in Canada until the Federal Court had reached a decision on his appeal. Another resister, Robin Long, was ordered deported after he failed to meet the bail conditions placed on him after he did not attend an immigration hearing the year previous, and was removed from the country on July 15, 2008. On September 22, 2008, Jeremy Hinzman won a stay of deportation (pending further decisions). (See details)


Mennonites in Canada were automatically exempt from any type of service during World War I by provisions of the Order in Council of 1873. With pressure of public opinion, the Canadian government barred entry of additional Mennonite and Hutterite immigrants, rescinding the privileges of the Order in Council. During World War II, Canadian conscientious objectors were given the options of noncombatant military service, serving in the medical or dental corps under military control or working in parks and on roads under civilian supervision. Over 95% chose the latter and were placed in Alternative Service camps. Initially the men worked on road building, forestry and firefighting projects. After May 1943, as the labour shortage developed within the nation and another Conscription Crisis burgeoned, men were shifted into agriculture, education and industry. The 10,700 Canadian objectors were mostly Mennonites (63%) and Dukhobors (20%).

Eastern Europe

Tsarist Russia allowed Russian Mennonites to run and maintain forestry service units in South Russia in lieu of their military obligation. The program was under church control from 1881 through 1918, reaching a peak of seven thousand conscientious objectors during World War I. An additional five thousand Mennonites formed complete hospital units and transport wounded from the battlefield to Moscow and Ekaterinoslav hospitals.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Leon Trotsky issued a decree allowing alternative service for religious objectors whose sincerity was determined upon examination. Vladimir Chertkov, a follower of Leo Tolstoy, chaired the United Council of Religious Fellowships and Groups, which successfully freed 8000 conscientious objectors from military service during the Russian Civil War. The law was not applied uniformly and hundreds of objectors were imprisoned and over 200 were executed. The United Council was forced to cease activity in December 1920, but alternative service was available under the New Economic Policy until it was abolished in 1936. Unlike the earlier forestry and hospital service, later conscientious objectors were classified "enemies of the people" and their alternate service was performed in remote areas in a gulag-like environment in order to break their resistance and encourage enlistment.

After World War II, conscientious objectors in the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic were typically assigned to construction units, in the absence of a fully civilian alternative to military service.

In Czechoslovakia, those not willing to enter mandatory military service could avoid it by signing a contract for work lasting years in unattractive occupations, such as mining. Those who didn't sign were imprisoned. Both numbers were tiny. After the communist party lost its power in 1989, alternative civil service was established. As of 2006, both the Czech Republic and Slovakia have abolished conscription.

Western Europe

United Kingdom

Before 1916
The country recognized the right not to fight in the 18th century following problems with attempting to force Quakers into military service. The Militia Ballot Act of 1757 allowed Quakers to be excluded from military service. It then ceased to be a major issue, since Britain's armed forces were generally all-volunteer. However, press gangs were used to beef up army and navy rolls on occasions from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. Pressed men did have the right of appeal, in the case of sailors, to the Admiralty. The Royal Navy last took pressed men in the Napoleonic War.

A more general right to refuse military service was not introduced until during World War I, when Britain introduced conscription with the Military Service Act of March 1916. The Act allowed for objectors to be absolutely exempted, to perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as a non-combatant in the army, according to the extent to which they could convince a Military Service Tribunal of the quality of their objection. Around 16,000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors, with Quakers, traditionally pacifist, playing a large role: 4500 objectors went sent to do 'work of national importance' such as farming, 7000 were ordered non-combatant duties, but 6000 were forced into the army, and when they refused orders, they were sent to prison; thirty-five were taken to France and formally sentenced to death but immediately reprieved; conditions were made very hard for conscientious objector prisoners — ten died in prison, and around seventy died elsewhere as a result of their treatment. Many objectors accepted non-combat service, for example working in the dangerous role of stretcher-bearers. Conscientious objectors who were deemed not to have made any useful contribution were disenfranchised for five years after the war, but there was no administrative machinery to enforce such disenfranchisement.

Objectors had to prove their right not to fight:

"By the end of the war, 16,000 appeared before Military Service Tribunals. Over 4,500 went sent to do work of national importance such as farming. However, 6,000 were handed over to the army, and then sentenced to severe penalties for disobeying orders. These included 35 who were sentenced to death (afterwards commuted), and many others who spent up to three years in prison on repeated sentences. Conditions were very hard for conscientious objectors, and ten of them died in prison; more than sixty died afterwards as a result of the way they had been treated. A plaque to commemorate them hangs in the offices of the pacifist organisation the Peace Pledge Union."

Britain's 1916 conscription legislation did not apply to Ireland, despite its then status as part of the United Kingdom; but see Conscription Crisis of 1918. British conscription in World War II also did not apply to Northern Ireland, or to the Irish Free State. Nevertheless, many Irishmen volunteered to fight in both world wars. The various parts of the British Empire and Commonwealth had their own laws: in general, all the larger countries of the Empire participated, and some were, in proportion to their population, major participants.

After the war, there was some revulsion at the arbitrary way the law had been applied. In A. J. Cronin's 1935 novel The Stars Look Down, there is the following exchange:

"Come now... You're a Christian, aren't you? There's nothing in the Christian religion which prevents lawful killing in the service of your country."
"There's no such thing as lawful killing...
"I haven't got any religion very much, not religion in your sense. But you talk about Christianity, the religion of Christ. Well, I can't imagine Jesus Christ taking a bayonet in His hands and sticking it into the stomach of a German soldier or an English soldier either for that matter. I can't imagine Jesus Christ sitting behind an English machine gun or a German machine gun mowing down dozens of perfectly guiltless men."

He goes to jail, as do others with a more conventionally religious view. This is described as one of the harsher tribunals, but within the range of actual events. The CO's cited stance is clearly derived from a well-known and frequently reprinted WW1 article by Dr Alfred Salter, The Religion of a Conscientious Objector, positing the incongruity of "Christ in khaki" with a bayonet.

World War Two
In World War II, following the National Service (Armed Forces) Act of 1939, there were nearly 60,000 registered Conscientious Objectors. Testing by Conscientious Objection Tribunals resumed, this time chaired by a judge, but was much less harsh; if you were not a member of the Quakers or some similar pacifist church, it was generally enough to say that you objected to "warfare as a means of settling international disputes," a phrase from the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. The tribunals could grant full exemption, exemption conditional on alternative service, exemption only from combatant duties, or dismiss the application. Of the 61,000 only 3,000 were given complete exemption and 18,000 were dismissed as false claimants. Of those directed to non-combatant military service almost 7000 were allocated to the Non-Combatant Corps, set up in mid-1940; its companies worked in clothing and food stores, in transport, or any military project not requiring the handling of "material of an aggressive nature". Around 450 NCC members worked in bomb disposal; other non-combatants worked in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Other acceptable occupations were farm work, mining, firefighting, ambulance service. About 5500 objectors were imprisoned, charged with offences relating to their unrecognised objection. A further 1000 were court-martialled by the armed forces and sent to military detention barracks or civil prisons.

Nevertheless, the social stigma attached to 'conchies' (as they were called) was considerable: regardless of the genuineness of their motives, cowardice was often imputed. Objectors were required to do work that was either war-related (eg bomb disposal, firefighting or ambulance service) or classified as 'useful' eg farm work or mining.

Britain retained conscription, with rights of conscientious objection, as National Service until 1960. The use of only volunteer soldiers was hoped to remove the need to consider conscientious objectors. Ever since the First World War, however, there have been volunteer members of the armed forces who have developed a conscientious objection to continuing in service; a procedure was devised for them in the Second World War, and, with adaptations, it continues to this day.


Finland introduced conscription in 1881, but its enforcement was suspended as part of Russification in 1903. During the Finnish Civil War in 1918, conscription was reintroduced, and it was mandatory to all able-bodied Finnish males. In 1922, noncombatant military service was allowed, but those who refused to serve in the military were imprisoned. Only after the struggle of the pacifist Arndt Pekurinen was the first Finnish law of providing for a peacetime-only alternative to compulsory military service introduced in 1931, enabling a conscientious objector to opt for civilian service a.k.a non-military service (Finnish siviilipalvelus). The law was dubbed "Lex Pekurinen" after him. After the beginning of the Winter War, Pekurinen and other conscientious objectors were imprisoned immediately as they were considered dangerous to national security. After the break of Continuation War, Pekurinen was sent to the front lines. As he still refused to bear arms and dress in uniform, he was extra-judicially executed by an officer in 1941.

After World War II, the tour of duty for the conscientious objectors was often twice the length of shortest conscription, 16 months. The objectors had to prove their conviction, and should they fail to prove their conviction, they were forced to serve in the armed service. The period was shortened to 13 months (395 days) in 1987. At the same time, the Conviction Inspection Board was abolished. Any person liable for conscription (i.e., other than women, men living in demilitarized Åland and Jehovah's Witnesses as well as physically unfit men) can apply for civilian service at any time before or during their service, the application being automatically accepted. Females serving voluntarily in army can also apply to the civilian service, if they have served more than 45 days and are thereby not able to quit their military service without consequences anymore. In 2008, the service period was shortened to 12 months, matching the longest conscription term.

The persons who have fulfilled their civilian service during normal circumstances have, according to the legislation enacted in 2008, right to serve in non-military duties also during a crisis situation. However, in such a situation, the COs may be called up to serve in different duties pertaining to rescue authorities or other necessary work of non-military nature. The persons finding their conscientious objection to the military service only after a crisis has started must, however, prove their conviction to a special board. Before the new legislation, the right to conscientious objection was acknowledged only in peacetime. The changes to the service term and to the legal status of COs during a crisis situation were made as a response to the international human rights concerns. These were voiced by several international bodies (for example, the United Nations' Human Rights Committee ), who are overseeing the implementation of human rights agreements, which had demanded Finland to take measures to improve its legislation concerning COs, since it had been found to be discriminatory. None of these organizations has yet raised concerns on the current legislation.

There are a small number of total objectors who refuse even civilian service, and are imprisoned for six months. This is not registered into the person's criminal record.


According to Article 4(3) of the German constitution (Grundgesetz): "No person shall be compelled against his conscience to render military service involving the use of arms. Details shall be regulated by a federal law."

According to Article 12a, every adult male is obligated to military service called Wehrdienst. The draftee can apply for an alternative service called "Zivildienst" (civilian service), if he declares conscience reasons. The civil service may not last longer than military service. This rule has been applied since October 1, 2004. Before that date the civilian service was longer than military service, because soldiers could later be called to military exercises (Wehrübungen). In wartime, civilian draftees are expected to replace those on active military duty in their civilian professions. According to the German constitution, no one may be forced into military service. The Wehrdienst is getting increasingly controversial, because only young men are getting drafted which some consider a violation of the third article of the constitution, that every person is equal before the law, but women are not affected by the Wehrdienst. However, the German constitution also states in Article 12a section 4 that no woman may be forced to serve in the armed forces. Therefore the different treatment of men and women actually has a constitutional basis.


Until 2004 conscription was mandatory to all able-bodied Italian males. Those who were born in the last months of the year typically used to serve in the Navy, unless judged unable for ship service (in this case they could be sent back to Army or Air Force). Until 1972, objectors were considered as traitors and tried by a military tribunal. Since 1972, objectors could choose an alternative civilian service, which was eight months longer than standard military service (fifteen months, then twelve, as for Army and Air Force, 24 months, then eighteen, then twelve as for the Navy). Since such length was judged too punitive, an arrangement was made to make the civilian service as long as the military service. Since 2004, Italian males no longer need to object because military service has been turned into volunteer for both males and females.


Conscription was mandatory to all able-bodied Belgian males until 1994, when it was suspended. Civilian service was possible since 1963. Objectors could apply for the status of conscience objector. When granted, they did an alternative service with the civil service or with a socio-cultural organisation. The former would last 1.5 times as long as the shortest military service, the latter twice as long.

After their service, objectors are not allowed to take jobs that require them to carry weapons, such as police jobs.

Since conscription was suspended in 1994 and military service is voluntary, the status of conscience objector can not be granted anymore in Belgium. Women could not get this status either.


The Spanish Constitution of 1978 acknowledged conscientious objectors. The Spanish parliament established a longer service (Prestación Social Sustitutoria) as an alternative to the Army. In spite of this, a strong movement appeared that refused both services. The Red Cross was the only important organization employing objectors. Because of this, the waiting lists for the PSS were long, especially in areas like Navarre, where pacifism, Basque nationalism and a low unemployment rate discouraged young males from the army. Thousands of insumisos (non-submittants) publicly refused the PSS, and hundreds were imprisoned. In addition a number of those in the military decided to refuse further duties. A number of people not liable for military service made declarations of self-incrimination, stating that they had encouraged insumisión. The government, fearing popular reaction, reduced the length of service and instead of sentencing to insumisos to prison declared them unfit for public service.

Fronting the decreasing birth rate and the popular opposition to the army, the Spanish government tried to modernize the model carried from the Franco era, professionalizing it. The new army tried to provide an education for civilian life and participated in peace operations in Bosnia.

In spite of this, the number of professional recruits is not covering the expectations of the Ministry of Defence, and there are plans to recruit foreigners from Spanish America.

Africa and the Middle East

South Africa

During the 1980s, hundreds of South African white males dodged the draft, refused the call-up or objected to conscription in the South African Defence Force. Some simply deserted, or joined organisations such as the End Conscription Campaign, an anti-war movement banned in 1988, while others fled into exile and joined the Committee on South African War Resistance. Most lived in a state of internal exile, forced to go underground within the borders of the country until a moratorium on conscription was declared in 1993. Opposition to the Angolan War, "South Africa's Vietnam," was rife in English-speaking campuses, and later the war in the townships became the focus of these groupings.


The issue is highly controversial in Turkey. Turkey and Azerbaijan are the only two countries refusing to recognize conscientious objection and sustain their membership in the Council of Europe. In January 2006, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) found Turkey had violated article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of degrading treatment) in a case dealing the conscientious objection of Osman Murat Ulke. In 2005, Mehmet Tarhan was sentenced to four years in a military prison as a conscientious objector (he was unexpectedly released in March 2006). Journalist Perihan Magden was tried by a Turkish court for supporting Tarhan and advocating conscientious objection as a human right; but later, she was acquitted.

As of August 2008, there are 69 objectors, 13 of which are female.


Israel has a long history of individuals and groups refusing military service. Such acts are recorded since the state's foundation in 1948, but during the country's first decades involved mainly a few isolated individuals, usually of a pacifist persuasion, due to pervasive public feeling that the country was fighting for its survival and that the IDF was a "Defense Force" in fact as well as in name. Some left-wingers, especially communists, refused to take part in the 1956 Sinai War, which they perceived as an Israeli alliance with a last effort by Britain and France to keep a colonial hold over Egypt , but this remained a small-scale, isolated phenomenon.

The view of the IDF as an army of defense came into serious question only following the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, when the army took up the job of keeping a sizable Palestinian population under Israeli rule by force, often involving what were perceived by a considerable number of Israelis as violations of human rights. Moreover, a growing amount of the troops' time and energy was devoted to the safeguarding of an increasing number of settlements erected on Palestinian land acquired in ways which many in the Israeli society considered highly questionable.

The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was launched with the proclaimed goal of "creating a new order in the Middle East" and without a visible existential threat to Israel, precipitated a mass anti-war movement (comparable in many ways to the American movement against the Vietnam War) of which a major component was an organised movement by thousands of soldiers (especially reserve soldiers) refusing service in Lebanon. This movement was continued during the First Intifada, the Second Intifada and the Second Lebanon War of 2006, and has become a permanent feature of Israeli social and political life up to the present.

While some of the individuals and groups involved fit with the definition of conscientious objection common in other countries, the phenomenon of "selective refusal," soldiers who remain in the army but refuse particular orders or postings, especially to Lebanon or the Occupied Territories, seems more widespread in Israel than anywhere else. A longstanding debate continues, of which there is no definitive conclusion, on whether or not this constitutes conscientious objection in a strict sense or should be treated as a separate phenomenon.

Asia and Australasia

South Korea

Since the establishment of the Republic of Korea, thousands of young men, conscientious objectors, had no choice but to be imprisoned as criminals. (On September 2007) the South Korea government announced a program to give conscientious objectors an opportunity to participate in alternative civilian service. The program stipulates three years of civilian service that is not connected with the military in any way. (As of October 2007), 803 Jehovah's Witnesses are in prison and 90 are on trial.

The Korean government’s National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (NAP), has not shown a clear stance on the pressing human rights issues such as the National Security Act, the death penalty and the rights of conscientious objectors to military service.

It is ironic that the Republic of Korea ratified in 1990 the UN treaty, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which safeguards the freedoms of thought, conscience, and religion for all people. The Korean Military Service Act, therefore, clearly infringes on constitutional rights--a direct violation of such international standards that honor the right of people to conscientiously object to mandatory military service.

Other countries

As of 2005, conscientious objectors in several countries may serve as field paramedics in the army (although some do not consider this a genuine alternative, as they feel it merely helps to make war more humane instead of preventing it). Alternatively, they may serve without arms, although this, too, has its problems. In certain European countries such as Austria, Germany, Greece and Switzerland, there is the option of performing Civilian Service, subject to the review of a written application or after a hearing about the state of conscience (see below). In Greece, Civilian Service is twice as long as the corresponding military service and in Switzerland, the Civilian Service is one and one-half times longer. In 2005, the Swiss parliament considered whether willingness to serve one and a half times longer than an army recruit was sufficient proof of sincerity, citing that the cost of judging the state of conscience of a few thousand men per year was too great.


In the United States, military personnel who come to a conviction of conscientious objection during their tour of duty must appear in front of a panel of experts, which consists of psychiatrists, military chaplains and officers. In Switzerland, the panel consists entirely of civilians, and military personnel have no authority whatsoever. In Germany, objections to military service are filed in writing, and an oral hearing is scheduled only if the written testimonials have been unconvincing; in practice, due to the heavy workload—about half of all draftees in a given year file as conscientious objectors—the competent authority reviews written applications only summarily, and it denies the alternative of a civilian service only in cases of grave shortcomings or inconsistencies in the written testimonials. Commonly, once an objector is summoned to a hearing, he has to explain what experiences drove him to recognize a conflict concerning his conscience.

Common questions

  • In general: 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 does your belief 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.


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 of note. He 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


  • 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. Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press. ISBN 0-87303-069-9.
  • 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.


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