The right to conscientious objection for employees of military contractors

Challenges for employment and CO legislation

With the increasing professionalisation of Armed Forces in Europe and a continuing trend towards the abolishment of conscription in Europe, Europe's military forces increasingly outsource services which in the past had been provided "in-house" (by conscripts) to private contractors. Services so outsourced range from catering for military personnel and laundry services over building and vehicle maintenance to maintenance of fighter aircraft, helicopters and/or tanks, not to speak of guard duties and "private military contractors" - mercenaries.

This text is mainly concerned with the former categories - duties which are considered "non-combatant", but which are essential for the functioning of any military and which - if conscientious objectors in a country with conscription would be required to provide these services - would clearly not be considered as "genuinely civilian and compatible with the nature of their objection". However,  here we are not talking about conscription, and we deal with civilian employees of civilian employers fulfilling military contracts. So how does this relate to conscientious objection?

Conscientious objection of "in-service" personnel

Similar to the situation of serving soldiers, we can think of the situation of a person who develops a conscientious objection during his or her employment. He or she has different options:

1.         if the employer also has contracts of a civilian nature, it might be possible to request being transferred to a different department, which deals with civilian contracts. However, this depends entirely on the goodwill of the employer - there is no guaranteed right of transfer.

2.         If a transfer is not possible or not being granted, the only option is to quit. While this in itself is not a problem  - unlike for soldiers - the consequences might amount to discrimination. In many countries the rules specifying entitlement to unemployment benefit bar persons quitting their employment without good reasons temporarily from receiving unemployment benefit. Thus, a conscientious objector would not only find him/herself unemployed, but also - at least temporarily - without benefits.

Conscientious objection to being transferred to a military contract

Another potential problem can occur in case of in-company transfer from a civilian contract to a military contract - say from catering in the European Parliament to catering in the NATO headquarters. In such a case, there are again - if a "friendly settlement" cannot be reached - two options:

1.            Refusing the transfer. This might lead to disciplinary action and ultimately to being fired.

2.         Quitting the job.

In both cases the consequences in terms of receiving unemployment benefit might be similar, as in the first case the "being fired" might be considered as being caused by irresponsible behaviour.

Conscientious objection to taking up employment

Often, receiving unemployment benefit is linked to being prepared to take up any employment that is being offered and considered appropriate, and/or to apply for any employment that is considered appropriate. Thus, someone receiving unemployment benefit can be asked to apply for a job i.e. in vehicle maintenance at a civilian employer which maintains vehicles in military barracks. In case of refusal to apply or take up this employment for reasons of conscience, unemployment benefit, unemployment benefit might be temporarily or permanently stopped or cut.


All three model scenarios highlight a potential for discrimination of conscientious objectors in an employment situation in which more and more military services are being outsourced to civilian companies. This poses challenges for employment law, benefit regulations, and the implementation of the right to conscientious objection.

Two main issues need addressing:

1.         In employment law the right to refuse a transfer from  a civilian post to a post dealing with military contracts, or even - which  would be better - a right to be transferred to a civilian post (if it exists within the same company).

2.            Regarding regulations concerning unemployment benefits a clear right to refuse to take up employment for a civilian employer on a military contracts, and a right to quit such a post for reasons of conscience, without negative consequences for unemployment benefits.

It is clear that a discussion of these issues has not even started yet - neither within organisations dealing with conscientious objection, nor within trade unions. The lack of a threat of criminal punishment might make the issue seem  trivial. However, economic hardship also can amount to discrimination and can make it difficult or impossible to exercise one's right to conscientious objection. With an increasing trend to professionalisation of military forces and "outsourcing", and thorough investigation of these issues is therefore urgently needed.

Andreas Speck, Madrid, 2 December 2007