Demilitarisation in the global context

Presentation at the Regional conference on conscientious objection and civilian service "To Europe Through Conscientious Objection and Civilian Service", Sarajevo, 20-22 September 2004

Andreas Speck, War Resisters' International


When I got involved in the peace movement, back in the early 1980s in Germany, there was a sticker that was very popular. It read "Imagine there is a war and nobody joins"[1]

Of course, this is very naive, but still the idea is important, and it also it points to the important fact that every war is fought by people - human beings who could also make a different decision and "not join". My organisation, War Resisters' International, was founded back in 1921 to support people who don't want to join a war - conscientious objectors, war resisters, and deserters. But "not joining" goes beyond the mere refusal to fight, to join the military. War means that an entire society is organised to go to war - it is a mindset, and it includes participation on all levels of society.

This was illustrated in detail by Bart de Ligt, a Dutch pacifist anarchist, in his "Plan of Campaign Against All War and All Preparation For War", presented at the WRI conference at Digswell Park in 1934 [2]. Almost 70 years later, War Resisters' International reaffirmed his ideas in its "Call For Conscientious Objection to War and War Preparations"[3] from September 2001, a few days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In this statement, War Resisters' International urged

  • "all soldiers - in whichever forces they are supposed to fight: follow your conscience and refuse to take part: apply for conscientious objector status, refuse orders, desert, Say No!
  • all those involved in preparations for war, in administration or in arms factories: refuse to do so, Say No!
  • journalists and the media asked to promote war: refuse to do so, insist on writing and broadcasting the uncensored truth, Say No!
  • all those who pay tax: demand that your taxes are used for peace, withhold the proportion of tax used for war, Say No!
  • its members and everyone: support those refusing to participate in war and preparations for war, get involved in direct nonviolent resistance against war!"[4]

Conscientious objection and demilitarisation

Although we do not believe that just by not joining a war, we will be able to prevent or stop wars, conscientious objection to military service in all its form - legal, semi-legal, illegal - is one important step towards demilitarisation and towards a more peaceful society. When War Resisters' International was founded back in 1921, only two countries - Denmark and Sweden - recognised conscientious objection, soon to be followed by the Netherlands and Norway. Today, out of 177 countries which were included in the WRI 1998 world survey[5], 96 countries have conscription. Out of these, 31 recognise the right to conscientious objection - although often in a very unsatisfactory way. Although this is a huge step forward compared to 1921, it also shows that there is still a lot to do, as 65 countries with conscription still do not recognise the right to conscientious objection.

But the existence of the right to conscientious objection does not make a more peaceful society. We have seen countries with the right to CO wage wars - such as the USA against Vietnam in the 1970s, and against Iraq last year, and still going on now. It is important that this right is used and promoted, and from a clear pacifist-antimilitarist perspective. In the early 1970s, then WRI Council member Pietro Pinna wrote: "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."[6]

The impact of conscientious objection is also much broader than one would think if just looking at the number of COs, as Sergeiy Sandler from Israel points out: "As for the declared conscientious objectors - in terms of numbers they may be a marginal group in Israeli society, but they lead the way for many others. Every act of conscientious objection is a living and publicly visible antithesis to that would-be consensus surrounding the army as an institution and to the criminal policies implemented by the Israeli army in Palestine." "Every person who refuses to serve in the army, by his or her very refusal to automatically back the decisions of the generals in the army and in government, joins the political struggle against militarism in Israeli society.[7]" Both Sergeiy Sandler and Pietro Pinna emphasize conscientious objection as - in Pietro Pinna's words - "the assumption of responsibility, of autonomy and personal initiative". It was exactly the widespread lack of the "assumption of responsibility" which made the Third Reich and the Shoah - the genocide of Jews by Germany - possible, as was stressed by the Nuremberg Tribunal. And similarly, the lack of an assumption of responsibility lead to the breakup of Yugoslavia by violent means.

I want to give two examples how conscientious objection can contribute to demilitarisation and the struggle against war, both of them are linked to the experience and history of War Resisters' International.

1. Conscientious objection and the war in Vietnam

During the Vietnam war, the numbers of conscientious objectors in the USA went up considerably.

From 1964 to 1971 there were more than 150,000 conscientious objectors recognised by the CO boards.[8] In addition, tens of thousands of deserters went through prison, almost 100,000 went underground in the US, and roughly 100,000 deserters went into exile in other countries, mostly Britain, Canada, and Sweden. Comparable to the increase in the number of COs, the desertion rate went up from about 1% in 1966 and peaked at 7.3% in 1971.[9]

However, if we put these numbers together, we still remain on a level of less than 10%. But conscientious objection and desertion were part of a much broader anti-war movement, and so had a much wider impact. In conclusion, the high levels of non-compliance with the draft, mass opposition to the war, and declining military morale ultimately forced the US government to end its involvement in Vietnam.[10]

2. Conscientious objection and the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa

In South Africa the End Conscription Campaign played an important role in mobilising white youthagainst apartheid. Formed in July 1983, it quickly spread and lead to an increase in draft evasion and conscientious objection.

In apartheid South Africa, conscription was an important factor in maintaining the apartheid system. At any time there were about 64,000 conscripts serving in the SADF - serving for two years of military service, plus a total of two years of reserve duty, spread over 12 years. According to official figures, more than 7,500 conscripts and reservists did not respond to call-ups in 1985 - and the ECC estimated that those numbers rose in 1986, as the South African Ministry of Defence refused to give data for this year, claiming that the ECC had "misused" the figures for 1985.[11] Following the success of the ECC, the South African apartheid government banned the ECC on 22 August 1988. At that time ECC estimated that the army was actively tracing 2,400 "missing" soldiers each month, and that 35,000 South African white men had emigrated to escape conscription.[12]

The South African example is also important because it had a big impact on the development of conscientious objection as a human right. In 1978 - before the ECC - the UN General Assembly passed resolution 33/165 on the "Status of persons refusing service in military or police forces used to enforce apartheid", in which it recognised "the right of all persons to refuse service in military or police forces which are used to enforce apartheid", and called on states and UN agencies to provide assistance and asylum.[13]

Neither the South African campaign, nor the anti-Vietnam war protest and conscientious objection were strictly pacifist, but then there are many reasons for conscientious objection, and they are not limited to pacifists. Similarly to those two examples, we can today see that conscientious objection plays an important role in Israel, as a way for Israeli citizens to "assume their responsibility" and to resist the occupation of the Occupied Territories, therefore playing an important role in demilitarising the Israeli society, which will be a very important task should finally the different sides be able to agree on a negotiated settlement.

The need for the abolition of conscription

As we can also see from the examples given above, conscription is an important factor in keeping unjust and inhuman system alive. The US were able to fight in Vietnam, because it could rely on conscription to fill the ranks. Conscription was even more important for apartheid South Africa, and now Israel relies on conscription to maintain the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Conscription came into being with the French revolution and the first taste of democracy. It was introduced in 1793, and ever since the myth of conscription as a democratic institution has been used. But "how democratic was it in fact?", asked WRI Council member Tony Smythe in an important article in 1967. He goes on: "With his vast armies, Napoleon was able to embark upon a series of imperialist adventures. Frenchmen who did not respond to the call were soon taught a lesson. In 1807 a man who used a false document to save his son from service was given 8 years' labour in irons, branding with a hot iron, 6 hours' exposure and a fine. Refractory conscripts were punished by death or the 'peine de boulet'-- 10 hours hard labour a day for 10 years chained to an iron ball, and solitary confinement. In 1910 a French prime minister used conscripts to break a national rail strike and his example has been repeated many times since, notably by the 1945-50 British Labour Government against the port workers".[14]

But conscription should not only be abolished because it is undemocratic and can be used for wars of aggression or to maintain oppressive situation. It should also be abolished because it contributes to the militarisation of society. The German peace researcher Hanne-Margret Birckenbach says: "The 'vehicle' conscription promotes an approach which is right from the beginning militarised and not at all lead by priorities based on peace. The experiences conscripts make during the military service don't lead to problem oriented, critical positions on military violence, but to uncritical acceptance. ... This process of socialisation does not create a position critical of military, and does not create an interest in the problems of defence, in issues of security policy, but only sympathy for military solutions".[15]

Hanne-Marget Birckenback's research was done in a country - in Germany - which recognises the right to conscientious objection. Even in such a country, conscription - so her research - leads to militarisation. While the recognition of the right to conscientious objection is an important step, a very important step towards a more peaceful and just society, it is still insufficient.

War Resisters' International always condemned conscription, and in fact one of its first international campaigns was back in 1925 an international campaign against conscription. Here, on the Balkans, the abolishment of conscription alongside with the recognition of the right to conscientious objection for voluntary soldiers at any time of their service would be an important lesson to be learned from the horrible wars that tore apart this region. But the then "lack" of conscription as a recruitment tool should be seen as a "plus", and should not be replaced by more and more modern weapons and a more and more professionalised military forces, which will then again stand against each other in a hostile fashion. Conscientious objection and abolishing conscription should be seen as first step in the direction to total disarmament and demilitarisation of the entire region, which would set free huge amounts of resources to deal with the real problems this regions faces today: social problems, economical problems, problems of social justice and of healing the wounds of the past. None of these problems can be solved by military means, and it requires all our energy, all our creativity, and a peace that is more than the absence of war to work towards these goals.

Thank you.


[1] More on this famous sticker at It seems the sentence goes back to a US-American poet. Carl Sandburg wrote in 1936 "Sometime they'll give a war and nobody will come".
[2] The War Resister No 36, September 1934. A summary of Bart de Ligt's plan is included on pages 18-27. The full plan is published in Bart de Ligt, The Conquest of Violence - An Essay on War and Revolution, Introduced by Aldous Huxley (New Introduction by Peter van den Dungen), Pluto Press, London, England, 1989 (First published in 1937)
[3] War Resisters' International: "Say No - A Call For Conscientious Objection to War and War Preparations", 29 September 2001,
[4] See Footnote 3
[5] Bart Horeman/Mark Stolwijk: Refusing to bear arms. A world survey of conscription and conscientious objection to military service. War Resisters' International, London, 1998. Some country information was updated.
[6] Pietro Pinna: Functions and policy of WRI. War Resistance Vol 3, 1st & 2nd quarters 1973
[7] Sergeiy Sandler: Delivering the message, loud and clear. The Broken Rifle No 53, November 2001,
[8] Lansbury House Trust Fund: Compulsory Military Service and the Objector, no 8, fourth quarter 1971, page 2-3
[9] Jim Walch: Aid to military refugees: the case of Sweden. In: War Resistance, volume 3, 3rd & 4th quarters 1974, p 27-28
[10] Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo: Conscientious objection. In: The Reader's Companion to American History,
[11] WRI Newsletter no 210, April/May 1986
[12] WRI Newsletter no 221, August/September 1988
[13] UNGA resolution 33/165, 90th plenary meeting, 20 December 1978
[14] Tony Smythe: Conscientious Objection and War Resistance, War Resistance Vol 2, No 21, 2nd quarter 1967,
[15] Hanne-Margret Birckenbach: "...besser vorbereitet auf den Krieg." Schüler - Frieden - Bundeswehr. Frankfurt, 1982. Translation by Andreas Speck