International Conscientious Objectors day takes place annually on 15 May. A conscientious objector is an “individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service” on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. In some countries, conscientious objectors are assigned to an alternative civilian service as a substitute for conscription or military service. Some conscientious objectors consider themselves pacifist, non-interventionist, non-resistant, non-aggressionist, or antimilitarist. On March 8, 1995 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 1995/83 stated that “persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service.”This was re-affirmed in 1998, when resolution 1998/77 recognized that “persons performing military service may develop conscientious objections.”A number of organizations around the world celebrate the principle on May 15 as International Conscientious Objectors Day. The term has also been extended to objecting to working for the military–industrial complex due to a crisis of conscience. 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.
The first recorded conscientious objector, Maximilianus, was conscripted into the Roman army in the year 295, but “told the Proconsul in Numidia that because of his religious convictions he could not serve in the military.” He was executed for this, and was later canonized as Saint Maximilian. An early recognition of conscientious objection was granted by William the Silent to the Dutch Mennonites in 1575. They could refuse military service in exchange for a monetary payment. Formal legislation to exempt objectors from fighting was first granted in mid-18th century Great Britain following problems with attempting to force Quakers into military service. In 1757, when the first attempt was made to establish a British Militia as a professional national military reserve, a clause in the Militia Ballot Act allowed Quakers exemption from military service. In the United States, conscientious objection was permitted from the country’s founding, although regulation was left to individual states prior to the introduction of conscription. In 1948, the issue of the right to “conscience” was dealt with by the United Nations General Assembly in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It reads:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The proclamation was ratified during the General Assembly on 10 December 1948 by a vote of 48 in favour, 0 against, with 8 abstentions. In 1974, the Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, Sean MacBride said, in his Nobel Lecture, “To the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights one more might, with relevance, be added. It is ‘ The Right to Refuse to Kill.'”In 1976, the United Nations treaty the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights entered into force. It was based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was originally created in 1966. Nations that have signed this treaty are bound by it. Its Article 18 begins: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
However, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights left the issue of conscientious objection inexplicit, as we see in this quote from War Resisters International: “Article 18 of the Covenant does put some limits on the right [to freedom of thought, conscience and religion], stating that its manifestations must not infringe on public safety, order, health or morals. Some states argue that such limitations on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion would derivatively permit them to make conscientious objection during time of war a threat to public safety, or mass conscientious objection a disruption to public order, Some states even argue that it is a ‘moral’ duty to serve the state in its military.”
On July 30, 1993, explicit clarification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 18 was made in the United Nations Human Rights Committee general comment 22, Paragraph 11: “The Covenant does not explicitly refer to a right to conscientious objection, but the Committee believes that such a right can be derived from article 18, inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force may seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one’s religion or belief. In 2006, the Committee has found for the first time a right to conscientious objection under article 18, although not unanimously. In 1997, an announcement of Amnesty International’s forthcoming campaign and briefing for the UN Commission on Human Rights included this quote: “The right to conscientious objection to military service is not a marginal concern outside the mainstream of international human rights protection and promotion In 1998, the Human Rights Commission reiterated previous statements and added:
“states should . . . refrain from subjecting conscientious objectors . . . to repeated punishment for failure to perform military service.” It also encouraged states “to consider granting asylum to those conscientious objectors compelled to leave their country of origin because they fear persecution owing to their refusal to perform military service . . . .”
Cases of behavior which could be considered as religiously motivated conscientious objection are historically attested long before the modern term appeared. For example, the Medieval Orkneyinga Saga mentions that Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney – the future Saint Magnus – had a reputation for piety and gentleness, and because of his religious convictions refused to fight in a Viking raid on Anglesey, Wales, instead staying on board his ship singing psalms.
The reasons for refusing to perform military service are varied. Many conscientious objectors cite religious reasons. Unitarian Universalists object to war in their sixth principle “The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all”. Members of the Historic Peace Churches such as Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, Old Order Mennonite, Conservative Mennonites and Church of the Brethren object to war from the conviction that Christian life is incompatible with military action, because Jesus enjoins his followers to love their enemies and to refuse violence. Since the American Civil War, Seventh-day Adventists have been known as non-combatants, and have done work in hospitals or to give medical care rather than combat roles, and the church has upheld the non-combative position.
The following is said of the Seventh-day Adventists (SDA) by a neutral, non-SDA organization: “Many Seventh-day Adventists refuse to enter the army as combatants, but participate as medics, ambulance drivers, etc. During World War II in Germany, many SDA conscientious objectors were sent to concentration camps or mental institutions; some were executed. Some Seventh-day Adventists volunteered for the US Army’s Operation Whitecoat, participating in research to help others. The Church preferred to call them “conscientious participants”, because they were willing to risk their lives as test subjects in potentially life-threatening research. Over 2,200 Seventh-day Adventists volunteered in experiments involving various infectious agents during the 1950s through the 1970s in Fort Detrick, MD. “ A schism arose during and after World War I between Seventh-day Adventists in Germany who agreed to serve in the military if conscripted and those who rejected all participation in warfare — the latter group eventually forming a separate church (the Seventh Day Adventist Reform Movement).Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians, refuse to participate in the armed services on the grounds that they believe they should be neutral in worldly conflicts. 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.
After the Roman Empire officially embraced Christianity, the Just War theology was developed in order to reconcile warfare with Christian belief. After Theodosius I made Christianity an official religion of the Empire, this position slowly developed into the official position of the Western Church. In the 11th century, there was a further shift of opinion in the Latin-Christian tradition with the crusades, strengthening the idea and acceptability of Holy War. Objectors became a minority. Some theologians see the Constantinian shift and the loss of Christian pacifism as a great failing of the Church. Ben Salmon was a Catholic conscientious objector during World War I and outspoken critic of Just War theology. The Catholic Church denounced him and The New York Times described him as a “spy suspect.” The US military (in which he was never inducted) charged him with desertion and spreading propaganda, then sentenced him to death (this was later revised to 25 years hard labour.
Some conscientious objectors are unwilling to serve the military in any capacity, while others accept noncombatant roles. While conscientious objection is usually the refusal to collaborate with military organizations, as a combatant in war or in any supportive role, some advocate compromising forms of conscientious objection. One compromising form is to accept non-combatant roles during conscription or military service. 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.
Conservative Mennonites do not object to serving their country in peaceful alternatives (alternative service) such as hospital work, farming, forestry, road construction and similar occupations. Their objection is in being part in any military capacity whether noncombatant or regular service. During World War II and the Korean, Vietnam war eras they served in many such capacities in alternative I-W service programs initially through the Mennonite Central Committee and now through their own alternatives.
Despite the fact that international institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and 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 (e.g. Democratic Republic of the Congo), conscientious objection is punished severely and conscientious objectors used to be seen as deserters, traitors, cowards, slackers or simply un-patriotic,, however 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. In 1991, The Peace Abbey established the National Registry for Conscientious Objection where people can publicly state their refusal to participate in armed conflict.