Conscription: our bodies...or our money?

In recognising a right of conscientious objection specifically to military service, the international community of nation states has effectively conceded the morality of such a standpoint. An eventual extension of the interpretation of this right to embrace conscientious objections to payment towards military expenditure would be a further step in the building of a “culture of peace” even within our still bellicose societies
Derek Brett
14 May 2010

One of the panels of the Quaker Tapestry is labelled “Conscientious objection 1916 – 1919”.  On one side a conscientious objector is shown being interviewed by a tribunal and being taunted by ladies with white feathers, on the other side we see the prison cell which probably awaited him; beneath are illustrated some of the forms of alternative service which the conscientious objection movement eventually negotiated with the authorities.  This is how people in Britain generally see conscientious objection: a historical phenomenon, linked to conscription in the two World Wars.   Anyone who looks for instance at the book “Women conscientious objectors: an anthology” published last month by War Resisters' International will realise that conscientious objection is however alive and well as the focus of a global movement to counter the pervading violence and militarism of the current world order.

There are of course still countries where conscientious objection in the traditional form of refusing conscription into the armed forces is very much a live political issue. In Colombia and Eritrea, Turkey and Turkmenistan, Singapore and South Korea, governments still completely refuse to recognise conscientious objection, and objectors are still forced to perform military service.  Israel and Greece persist in issuing fresh call- ups to objectors after they have been imprisoned for refusing military service, and sentencing them again for what is in fact the same offence.    Armenia and Azerbaijan have used their unresolved conflict as an excuse for dragging their feet in meeting the standards set by the Council of Europe.

In most of the world, however, the era of mass conscription has passed.  All the  talk is of “professionalisation” of  the armed forces.  Today, in most of Europe, and a growing number of countries in other parts of the world, conscientious objection now arises principally in two respects which reflect this move from a labour-intensive to a capital-intensive military. One is when  professional members of the armed forces themselves develop conscientious objections.  The other is the objection to the payment of taxes which are destined for military expenditures.

Very few countries allow professional soldiers to leave because they become conscientious objectors; in Germany and the Netherlands this right is incorporated in legislation. In the UK and the USA there is provision buried deep in military regulationsthe relevant clauses in the UK are listed under the official secrets act, and release on such grounds is not easy to obtain.  Nevertheless, the issue arises more often than might be imagined.  On average, approximately 70 applications annually are received from members of the German armed forces for release on such grounds, even though this is not without penalty; they may be required to repay training costs.  In the relatively peaceful years before the 1991 Iraq War, between 100 and 150 members of the US armed forces were released each year as conscientious objectors, over three quarters of those who applied.  Subsequent figures are harder to obtain, but it seems that the number of applications has gone up, but the number of acceptances has gone down.

Although it might seem evident that first-hand experience of  the realities of military action is the catalyst most likely to turn a volunteer into a conscientious objector, those who have developed their objections during postings to Iraq or Afghanistan have a particularly hard task to convince the military authorities that they are genuinely motivated by conscience.  Those who believe, or come to believe, that the action they have been ordered to take part in is illegal may or may not come forward as conscientious objectors; in the UK, Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith did, Lance Corporal Joe Glenton  did not; either way military prison awaits them.  Although arguments of conscience and arguments of law are logically distinct (of course in theory a soldier who receives an order which would involve committing a war crime has a duty, not a right, to disobey) a very interesting verdict of the German administrative court in 2005 neatly links the two.  The court overturned on appeal the decision of a military court martial in the case of an army computer specialist who refused to work on software for use in the invasion of Iraq, its reasoning being that this had been a position of conscience based on the reasonable belief that German participation in such an action would be unconstitutional and  contrary to international law. 

It is however  the issue of  conscientious objection to taxes destined for military expenditure which is the raison d'etre of Conscience and Peace Tax International (CPTI) the organisation which I represent at the UN in Geneva.  We are sometimes challenged by those who  question whether the concept of conscientious objection is helpful in this context, and who prefer instead to speak instead of refusal to pay for war, but our answer is essentially pragmatic. 

Many of our associate movements in individual countries – Conscience in the UK, Conscience Canada, the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund in the United States, Netzwerk Friedenssteuer in Germany, VRAK in Belgium - have been involved in having Bills brought before their legislatures.  But no legislature is likely  to vote to permit citizens to refuse taxes, or to dictate how their individual payments are spent.  Public opinion in general would consider this contrary to how decisions should in theory be made in a democracy; by seemingly enfranchising citizens in proportion to their willingness to pay it looks like a step back from the modern state towards an earlier era of private philanthropy. The only way in which individual objections to military expenditure are likely to be reflected in legislation is as an exception made on very limited grounds of freedom of conscience. 

Likewise, CPTI itself, which was founded explicitly in order to bring the campaign on this issue to the United Nations, is constrained by political realities.  The UN is an inter-governmental organisation. Any position it adopts is as a result of a decision by the member states. To campaign in such an environment in favour of tax resistance is pointless.  Our target audience here are those who levy the taxes, not the taxpayers.  Whatever strategies may be adopted elsewhere, it is only through the freedom of conscience argument that we are likely to bring pressure from the international community to bear on state practice in this field. By considering tax objection as a facet or development of conscientious objection to military service, by pointing out that in this age of sophisticated high-technology warfare it is “our money not our bodies which are being conscripted”, we are able to build on the remarkable progress which has been made over the last century on this issue.

The first concessions which were made to conscientious objection, in and around the First World War, were a matter of political calculation.  The attempt to impose conscription in states which did not share the Napoleonic tradition of universal (male) military service as an essential component of citizenship and national identity had met with strong opposition from an unlikely coalition of religious pacifists and internationalist socialists.  The cause of military efficiency was obviously best met by keeping these disruptive influences out of the ranks; only gradually did the alternatives become less punitive.  Provision for conscientious objection was indeed subsequently made in some countries which retained obligatory military service in peacetime, but by 1948 it was recognised only in a few English-speaking and Nordic countries, plus  the Netherlands and Uruguay. It is not therefore surprising that conscientious objection to military service was not mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drawn up in that year. Over the subsequent sixty years, however, there has developed a  general (but still not quite universal) acceptance, not just that there are persons who object to bearing arms, but that conscientious objection to military service is a right, ultimately derived from the freedom of thought, conscience and religion  guaranteed by article 18 of the Universal Declaration.  A prominent role in establishing this right in international law has been played by the Human Rights Committee set up under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; this was the first authoritative linkage to the freedom of religion of a right of conscientious objection to military service and  “the obligation to use lethal force”. It was however only in 2006, in its decision on “communications” from two Jehovah's Witnesses in South Korea, did the Committee produce case law jurisprudence that a state cannot simply opt out of the obligation to accommodate conscientious objections to military service.  This was reinforced by a decision published on 14th April this year concerning eleven more conscientious objectors from South Korea, a catholic, a Buddhist and nine whose objection was not based on denomination.  (The European Court on Human Rights, by contrast, has yet to acknowledge that conscientious objection to military service is a protected manifestation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion).   Meanwhile, over the years, state after state has moved through the process of at first permitting members of specific religious denominations to perform unarmed military service, then instituting an “alternative service” with punitive conditions and to which objectors could be admitted only as the result of a gruelling interrogation regarding the development and justification of their moral stance, towards what is today internationally acknowledged as best practice, namely that any person liable to  conscription should be accepted at any time as a conscientious objector on the basis of a declaration alone, and that any service required of such a person should be strictly under civilian control and of no greater duration than military service would have been. 

In other words, what was unthinkable a century ago, namely that a citizen might be permitted to refuse when called upon to fight for his/her country has now become accepted even by the nation state, the core of the militarist system, as a human right.  In recognising a right of conscientious objection specifically to military service, the nation state and the international community of nation states has effectively conceded the morality of such a standpoint. The ideological basis of militarism has been  significantly undermined.  An eventual extension of the interpretation of this right to embrace conscientious objections to payment towards military expenditure would be a further step in the building of a “culture of peace” even within our still belligerent societies.

Within CPTI, there are some who would distinguish between “conscientious objection to military service” and “conscientious objection to military taxation”.   This false dichotomy is not only unhelpful, but may indeed be counter-productive.  Anything which encourages opening up a list of conscientious objections may help to undermine the progress which has been made in this specific field. Linguistically, there is nothing to limit the range of moral stances which may be labelled “conscientious objection”. Before it was co-opted by the anti-conscription movement, the phrase first came into common use in the late nineteenth century to describe opposition to compulsory vaccination. Agree with them or not, most objections to abortion or family planning are clearly of conscience, and indeed they are sometimes called “conscientious objection”. Fears that the Catholic church in some countries is using the “conscientious objection” of individual medical practitioners or pharmacists to block access to these, contrary to political decisions at the national level (an interference with the rights and freedoms of others which, incidentally, has no parallel in the history of conscientious objection in the military context), have caused a reaction.  In recent months I have heard persons from two different countries who described themselves as “humanists”, questioning whether a “right” of  conscientious objection exists, even with regard to military service.

Should we however be approaching militarism and military expenditure from the tax angle at all, given that it is impossible realistically to conceive a situation where  individual taxpayers' decisions might  affect the overall size of the military budget?   But that argument holds good also for the classic conscientious objection to military service. The number of conscientious objectors recognised has never directly affected any army's assessment of its personnel needs, simply sending it elsewhere to look to fill them.  Which is why some dismiss the very concept of conscientious objection as merely a self-indulgent “not in my name-ism”. Should “we” not be working on a more fundamental critique of and campaign against global militarisation? 

The answer is of course that individual conscientious objection does not preclude wider engagement in the struggle against militarism. Few conscientious objectors have in practice not aspired, if only by their example, to create more fundamental changes in society.   But there will in any case always be more people who will walk holding a placard saying “not in my name” than are prepared to break into an air-base and demobilise a fighter plane.  Their action may not be immediately effective, but even so their very numbers may be politically significant.  

Of course the ability to tick a box on one's tax form saying “I object to war” cannot be the ultimate aspiration. In any case it would be very wrong to underestimate the moral force of individual conscientious objection; the power and persuasiveness of those who are unable, regardless of the consequences for themselves, to do the bidding of the state, whether this be to carry a gun or to help fund a cruise missile,and  the subversive potential of obliging the state to concede the morality of their position. 



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