The Right not to Kill: May 15th is Conscientious Objector Day

, by René Wadlow

The Right not to Kill: May 15th is Conscientious Objector Day

“Today in the face of what seems to be a global increase in violence and resort to war, conscientious objectors are increasingly regarded as proverbial ‘canaries in the coalmine’. Like the small birds that warn coalminers when poisonous gasses are threatening their lives, these brave people warn their fellow citizens of the toxic effect of violence in society and call for non-violent methods to resolve conflicts within and between nations.” Pax Christi statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights, 2003

There would be an interesting story to tell about how the right not to kill — the title of a brochure of the Geneva-based International Peace Bureau — which became the battle cry for the small band of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to convince the UN Commission on Human Rights of this right finally succeeded. Since only governments can vote in UN bodies, much of the effort was due to diplomats from Ireland, Austria, and Canada. All three countries have armies, and no diplomat can go against the policy of their governments. However, a diplomat can “walk that second mile” by conviction and take a personal interest in a policy as was the case here. That the torch was passed from one diplomat to the next — first Ireland, then Austria and finally Canada — indicates the length of time that it took and the amount of opposition “that dare not speak its name” that we met. There was a small band of the “usual suspects” — the representatives of the Quaker UN Office, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the International Peace Bureau, Pax Christi, War Resisters International and the World Citizens. There were also representatives from Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists motivated by their personal convictions rather than organizational priorities.

There had been efforts by the Quaker representatives in New York to raise the issue during the 28 years that the UN human rights secretariat and the Commission on Human Rights was in New York. Then in the late 1970s, the UN secretariat for human rights and the Commission moved to Geneva where relations between NGO representatives and government diplomats are more relaxed. The UN is a big part of Geneva life, and being a small city, one often meets diplomats in informal settings, at a dinner party or the theatre. In New York, the UN is a small part of a large city with many different occupations. Moreover, there has always been a fear of violent individuals in New York so that security at the UN is tighter and diplomat-NGO representative relations more formal. Thus, in Geneva, there was a whole new group of NGO representatives, and from the early 1980s on, there were discussions about conscientious objection and alternative forms of service.

Geneva, home to the International Labour Organization and its conventions dealing with the rights of individual workers and the International Committee of the Red Cross with its emphasis on humanitarian law protecting individuals, has been the center for the development of world law. World Citizens have always made a distinction between international law and world law which deals with individuals as individuals regardless of nationality. The two types of law are not totally separate. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the chief example of world law, setting out the right of all individuals in all States. However, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rightsis international treaty law even it its provisions come from the Universal Declaration.

The first efforts of the NGOs were to try to have conscientious objection to military service recognized as a specific right. There was a slow and usually painful process of making oral and written statements, of getting the human rights Sub-Commission to produce a far- reaching study and raising awareness of the issue with delegations through seminars, lunches, and publications. Finally, when it became obvious that a specific right to conscientious objection could not be voted, the “fall back” position was to have conscientious objection recognized as an element of an all-ready agreed-upon right.

The agreed-upon right chosen was Article 18 of the Universal Declaration which also became Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 18 is a strong statement on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” The UN Commission had created a Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief (which can be another story). NGOs were able to raise with the first Special Rapporteur the theme that conscientious objection came under his mandate of Freedom of Religion, a position to which he agreed. Thus his reports were the first official UN recognition of cases of persons put into prison for their refusal to do military service due to religious convictions.

For the NGO representatives working on the issue, there was always a certain ambiguity arising from the convictions of the real conscientious objectors in most prisons. The very great majority of objectors are Jehovah’s Witnesses. They are not objectors to killing as are some Quakers, as the Witnesses would serve in an army if led by Jesus. However they will not serve in the military of secular governments are no longer valid after 1914 when Christ’s kingdom was created invisibly. As a specialist on tropical Africa, I knew of the difficulties of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with colonial government, especially in the Belgium Congo where it was widely understood by the Witnesses that not only should they not serve in the army, but they should not pay taxes to the no-longer valid governments. Armies and taxes are what governments consider as the first marks of loyalty so the Witnesses had problems.

Armies and taxes are what governments consider as the first marks of loyalty...

The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not think much of the United Nations, made up as it is of no-longer valid governments. Thus no Witnesses were involved at the UN in the effort. I served as a link to keep their headquarters informed, although I do not share their belief system. Finally after nearly 10 years of efforts, in 1989, the right to conscientious objection to military service was recognized as arising from the right of freedom of religion and belief in resolution 1989/59. Subsequent resolutions have been brought into a comprehensive resolution 1998/77, which is the one to quote to governments.

Today, most conscientious objectors in prison are still Jehovah’s Witnesses, especially in countries where military service is a key requirement of loyalty to the State: The Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Turkey. The former Soviet Republics of Central Asia have a very mixed record on all human rights, and respect for conscientious objection is not high on their list of priorities. Turkmenistan has been cited at the UN on this issue. Colombia is a country where neither the government nor the armed militias care very much for issues of conscience. In Israel, conscientious objection is mostly related to a refusal to serve in the occupied territories or to carry out attacks in Gaza.

With the abolition of military service or conscription in many European countries and North America, the issue is now less central. On the part of those who had been conscientious objectors in the past — with the exception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses — the emphasis today is less on individual refusal than on collective non-violent action in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Increasingly, there are non-violent peace teams active in conflict areas. The “ Pledge of Nonviolence ” of Olek Netzer, a trainer in non-violent action, is one to which many conscientious objectors would agree: "I realize and accept the fact that my adversary is a worthy human being as myself, endowed with a soul, free will, conscience and reason, potentially capable of responding to moral and reasonable demands. In setting on a non-violent action, I agree not to harm my adversaries psychologically or physically. I consciously renounce vengeance or punishment of my opponents. My goal is to make opponents change some of their specific behaviour that is unjustified and harmful, not to destroy them. In a non-violent action, I agree to avoid any aggression in confronting my adversaries physically or verbally. I agree to refrain from any form of aggressive, abusive or derisive language in my contact with the adversaries but rather use language that will help them reform their unjust behaviour by affirming their dignity, moral standing, commitment to justice and humanity. To that end I agree to refrain from judgmental language with regard to my adversaries, limiting my moral condemnation to their wrongdoing, never applying it to what they are."

Image: Turkish Army during a NATO exercise.Source: Wikipedia Commons

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