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General panorama of Conscientious Objection in the World

Presentation at the "International Meeting of Solidarity for Conscientious Objection in Colombia", Bogota, 18-20 July 2006


It is difficult to give a panorama of the right to conscientious objection within the available time - the world is big, and situations are quite different. Conscientious objection in Western Europe for example means something very different from conscientious objection in Eritrea, or South Korea, or Israel, or Russia, or Latin America. And you all know that even within Latin America situations vary, and it is hard to compare Paraguay with its more than 100,000 conscientious objectors with the situation here in Colombia.

What I want to do is to give some general ideas and show some trends, which might help to "set the scene" for this very important conference. We will hear more about human rights aspects, the recognition of the right to conscientious objection, and several country examples later, so my role here is to provide the big picture.

Conscription and Conscientious Objection

While refusal to take part in war is probably as old as war itself, conscientious objection as a political and philosophical concept became more important with the introduction of conscription as a more "effective" means for recruiting (first in France on 5 September 1798), and modern warfare.

As a response, organised conscientious objection developed, especially after the First World War - War Resisters' International as the international organisation for conscientious objectors was founded in 1921. At that time only two countries - Denmark and Sweden - provided any legal recognition of the right to conscientious objection. This number grew significantly, especially after the Second World War, due to emerging movements for the right to conscientious objection, at that time mostly in Western Europe and North America.

What is conscientious objection

There are probably as many definitions of conscientious objection as there are conscientious objectors, and the political perspective is important. In 1983 the first report on conscientious objection to the United Nations offered the following definition: "By conscience is meant genuine ethical convictions, which may be of religious or humanist inspiration (...). Two major categories of convictions stand out, one that it is wrong under all circumstances to kill (the pacifist objection), and the other that the use of force is justified in some circumstances but not in others, and that therefore it is necessary to object in those other cases (partial objection to military service)"[1].

A similar definition is the basis of many CO laws. However, within the international movement of conscientious objectors - partly organised within War Resisters' International - the debate is quite different though. First of all, it mostly does not focus on the question of conscience - the objection or refusal is the focus of the debate, and the German term "Kriegsdienstverweigerung" (war service refusal), or the term insumisión (disobedience), chosen by the Spanish CO movement, reflect better the approach of conscientious objectors.

In 1973, the Italian conscientious objector Pietro Pinna defined conscientious objection in this way: "C.O. Is a focal point of antimilitarist action. By its witness of living adherence to the idea, it operates as a major focus of debate and mobilisation. In the wider revolutionary strategy, C.O. offers a fundamental indication, i.e. the assumption of responsibility, of autonomy and personal initiative; it serves as point of reference, as paradigm, for the extension of the concept of 'conscientious objection' in any other sectors of social life"[2].

Refusal and war resistance go well beyond conscientious objection - that is the open and public stand against war and military service. When we talk about refusal, then it is important to include the variety of approaches to refusal: conscientious objection as the public stand, but also draft evasion, desertion, "grey refusal" in form of medical exemptions or postponement of service, and even going into exile. In most countries, these other forms of refusal are much more widely practised then the open and confrontational conscientious objection. Although there are problems with these other forms, in that they do not openly confront militarism and the state's demand for military service, these other forms are nevertheless important. I will come back to this later.

The recognition of the right to conscientious objection

When War Resisters' International was founded in 1921, only two countries - Denmark and Sweden - recognised the right to conscientious objection. Since then, we have come a long way, although as we all know the right to CO is not universally recognised.

Sources: Prasad/Smythe 1968, RtbA 1998 (updated), QCEA 2005, updates from CO-Update e-newsletter

Prior to the end of the Cold War in 1990, the right to conscientious objection could especially be established in many Western European countries, most of which at that time maintained a conscription system. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War the right to conscientious objection could also be established in most of Eastern Europe - but not in the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

Presently, we can see a trend to abolish conscription in Europe - east and west - which goes hand in hand with abolishing the right to conscientious objection, as most countries do not recognise this right for professional soldiers. This explains the drop in countries from 2003 to 2006.

As a very rough estimate, we can probably say that the total number of conscientious objectors in those countries that recognise the right to conscientious objection is between 160,000 and 200,000 conscientious objectors annually - again, the vast majority in Europe, but about 10% in Latin America, or more specifically in Paraguay[3]. But - and this is an important 'but' - but the problem with this statistic is that it only counts conscientious objectors who go through channels legally provided by governments. It excludes all those who find other ways to stay true to their beliefs, or who don't need to go through formal procedures because they are not called up for military service - be it in a country with conscription or without. For example, during the war against Yugoslavia in 1999 it was estimated that 50,000 conscripts avoided or fled their military service in Yugoslavia.

Different faces of conscientious objection

Different political and social circumstances require a different strategy. This is true also for the CO movement. I will attempt to give a brief overview, which - as any attempt to categorise - has its flaws, but also might help to understand differences and commonalities.


Description of situation

Response/CO movement

Classical conscription system

Countries: Austria, Germany, Greece, Turkey, South Korea, and others

A system of universal conscription for (male) citizens, exemption mainly possible for medical reasons, or clearly defined personal circumstances. Practice might be different though.

Besides postponement of service (often possible for students in higher education) and medical exemption there are very few ways to not perform military service.

This means there is often a large number of people not wanting to join the military - for various reasons. A CO movement can become strong, because the state has little chance to ignore it if the movement chooses to confront the state, and if there is a sufficient number of COs. Many of the traditional Western European CO movements belong into this category, and often the right to CO was established after a number of COs went to prison, and the imprisonment of COs became more of an embarrassment to the government then granting the right to CO as an exception to the rule of military service, mostly combined with substitute service.

The existence of the right to CO does not necessarily lead to a demilitarisation of society.

Selective conscription

Countries: Chile, Denmark, Mexico, many other countries with high rate of youth and conscription

In principle conscription exists, but there are more young people (men) at conscription age than are needed by the military. Selection of conscripts is often by some form of lottery or other random means.

In practice, people with higher education have a higher chance not to get conscripted.

The situation is in many ways similar to universal conscription, but there is less "pressure", as it is easier to avoid military service.

As open CO often is done by people with higher education, it is more difficult to organise a CO movement, but in principle the strategy would often be similar.

It can be difficult to force the state to react to COs, as there is a surplus of potential recruits (Chile as an example). The state can try to ignore individual COs as long as possible.

'Dedovchina' systems 1

Countries: Former Soviet Union, other ex-Socialist countries

In principal a system of universal conscription, but the widespread abuse (dedovchina) of young conscripts by elder conscripts creates a special situation.

Although conscription is supposed to be universal, most of these countries are also characterised by a high level of corruption. Medical or other exemptions from military service can often be obtained by means of corruption - more easily for urban youth with higher education. Draft avoidance is often the individual strategy for young people, and ant CO movement faces the challenge to convince people that a public and open stand (and possibly persecution) is important. In addition, it is not appealing to serve a substitute service when avoiding service altogether is quite easy.

Conscription/forced recruitment and armed conflict

Countries: Angola, Eritrea, Colombia, DR Congo

Countries which are in a situation of armed conflict, and maintain a conscription system, and/or recruit by force. In addition, there are often several actors besides the state military.

Forced recruitment, based on conscription or not, leads to uncertainly for anyone trying to avoid military service. In addition, avoiding one military might still lead to be recruited for another armed group.

Legal conscientious objection is mostly not possible, or not worth the paper written on. Fleeing the country or some form of protection through international observers/institutions are often the only way to achieve some safety.

CO is an important public stand against any participation in the armed conflict.

'Professional' military

Countries: Britain, USA, much of Western Europe, Argentina, and others

There is no system of conscription, and in principle soldiers join the military voluntarily. However, in practice there might be economical pressure ('poverty draft'), and massive recruitment propaganda.

The absence of conscription leads to the illusion that conscientious objection is no longer necessary, as nobody is forced to join the military. COs face the problem that they have to explain why they joined in the first place. In addition, the 'poverty' draft leads to a cultural 'class; divide between often middle class peace activists and working class soldiers/COs.

CO often focuses on a present war (war in Iraq), and is not necessarily based on opposition to all war.

1 'Dedovchina' describes a system of abuse of young conscripts by superior conscripts. The system is especially widespread in the countries of the former Soviet Union.

Challenges for the CO movement

In spite of these different circumstances, CO movements face a number of more or less common challenges. I want to mention just a few.

The role of the right to conscientious objection

This conference here is about establishing the right to conscientious objection. However, it is important to be aware what can be achieved with legal recognition, and what the limitations are. Just a few words:

Protection of COs

The legal recognition of the right to conscientious objection can provide some protection for conscientious objectors. Once recognised - a process which can be very problematic - they do no longer need to fear call-up to military service. However, several limitations apply:

  • What about those COs who are not recognised by the state? Who and how is "conscience" judged? The process of establishing "if a conscientious objection is genuinely held" can be inquisitory, and leads to new injustices.
  • Often, military service will be replaced by a substitute service for conscientious objectors. What about those who have a conscientious objection which does not allow them to perform this substitute service?
  • Legal recognition only works in situation where the legal system of the state is functioning and respected. What about situations where this is not the case, or where there are several armed groups, legal, semi-legal, and illegal? Legal recognition is limited to recognition by the state, and therefore does not protect from non-state actors.

Social recognition of conscientious objection

The legal recognition often implies a social recognition of conscientious objectors. The society accepts conscientious objection as a valid option, which has to be provided for. However, problematic is here often that this is seen as depending on "providing a service for society", which is one justification for substitute service. Social recognition therefore often depends on acceptance of the demand of the state to do a service - military servce or substitute service.

The problem of dealing with substitute service

The recognition of conscientious objection mostly leads to a substitute service, which some conscientious objectors see as a problem. Substitute service only exists because the state recruits for the military by means of conscription, and performing substitute service is an implicit recognition of the right of the state to conscript its citizens. In addition, substitute service might be assigned a role in the civilian defence of the country, thus strengthening military defence.

The question of how to deal with substitute service has been the subject of huge debates and divisions within the CO movement, going back to the 1920. It is important to find a constructive approach to the problem, and not to let a divide the COs.

Challenging hegemonic masculinity

Perceptions of one's own masculinity play an important role in producing "willingness to serve" in the military. The fear to lose one's "masculinity" can produce willingness to serve in the military in spite of opposition to military and military solutions. This is especially true for working class masculinities which emphasize physical strength, and can easily be exploited by the military. As German researcher Hanne-Margret Birckenbach puts it: "Under the disguise of 'no to killing - yes to killing for the purpose of defence' conscientious objectors and those willing to perform military service do not only fight about military violence, but also - without knowing - about ideals of masculinity"[4].

While it might be easy for refusal movements to reject the notion of the "man as warrior", it is much more difficult to embrace the issue of gender (and sexuality, for that matter) fully, but the more important. Cynthia Enloe writes: "As we have accumulated more and more evidence from more and more societies, we have become increasingly confident in this assertion that to omit gender from any explanation how militarization occurs, is not only to risk a flawed political analysis; it is to risk, too, a perpetually unsuccessful campaign to roll back that militarization"[5].

As long as we as antimilitarists continue to reproduce the gender stereotype of the "strong and powerful man" in our nonviolent actions and in the image of total resisters, who are "strong enough" to face prison, our efforts will be doomed. It will be crucial for the refusal movement (and the nonviolent movement in general) to develop forms of nonviolent action that address all forms of violence - direct physical violence, structural violence and cultural violence. If we fail to do so, then we are doomed to engage in a "perpetually unsuccessful campaign to roll back that militarization" (Enloe).


Faced with a wide variety of situations, the refusal movement faces many challenges. However, the underlying questions and principles are often the same: how to build an effective movement against war and militarism, and for social change? A movement, that is not concerned with exemptions of individuals, but with overcoming militarism and violence as constituting systems in our societies? A movement, that is aware of issues of masculinity and gender in its theory and practice?

These questions are valid, no matter whether there is conscription or not, no matter whether the right to conscientious objection is recognised or not.

It is in the end less important whether a movement accepts a law on conscientious objection, or rejects it and promotes civil disobedience or total objection. More important is to keep the issues around conscientious objection alive, and not to allow the degeneration of conscientious objection into a "choice between two equally valid options" (as in the German case).

When we fight for the right to conscientious objection, we should always be aware that this right is not the aim in itself - it is only one step in our broader struggle against militarisation, war, and violence.


[1]Question of conscientious objection to military service. Report by Mr. Eide and Mr. Mubanga-Chipoya, 27 June 1983, E/CN.4Sub.2/1983/30, paragraph 21
[2]Pietro Pinna:Functions and policy of WRI, War Resistance, Vol 3, 1st & 2nd quarters 1973
[3]This number dropped significantly when Spain abolished conscription in 2003. The estimated number of COs in Spain in 2000 was 120,000. Also Germany accounts for more than 70% of the present COs.
[4]Hanne-Margret Birckenbach: Das ambivalente Verhältnis zur Gewalt. Psychosoziale Grundlagen militärischer Kampfausbildung. In: antimilitarismus information, no 7/1986
[5]Cynthia Enloe: Beyond 'Rambo': Women and the Varieties of Militarized Masculinity. In: Eva Isaksson (ed.): Women and the Military System. Proceedings of a symposium arranged by the International Peace Bureau and Peace Union of Finland. New York/London/Toronto/Sydney/Tokyo 1988

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Article | by Dr. Radut