The right to refuse to kill

Conscientious Objection in Europe

, by Giorgos Kosmopoulos

The right to refuse to kill

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 18) and the United Nations Human Rights Committee (General Comment 22, Para. 11) a Conscientious Objector (CO) is an “individual [who has] claimed the right to refuse to perform military service" on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion. The UN Human Rights Committee, in 1995, has broadened the application of the concept in order to include people who already serve in the armed forces, an interpretation reaffirmed later in various occasions like the UN Commission on Human Rights resolution 1995/83 or the U.N Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77. The very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “All human beings are endowed with reason and consciousness”.

At European level, the right to Conscientious Objection is based on art. 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, while the Charter for Fundamental Rights of the European Union (art.10 para.2) reads: “The right to conscientious objection is recognised, in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of this right”.

Conscientious Objection can be based on humanitarian, religious, political grounds or on a combination of these reasons and covers an individual’s decision not to take part in war and preparation for war, including the military service. This right is applicable to citizens and active members of the armed forces and covers both peace and war periods. In practice, COs usually perform their duty during an alternative civil service. Again here, the international standards provide that this service is of civilian nature and compatible to the reasons of the objection, is serving the public interest and has no punitive nature. The term ‘punitive’ is covering not only the length of the alternative service but also the type and the conditions under which it is served.

Worldwide the movement of CO is widespread and recently there have been several cases of Conscientious Objection among the soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. For those who might think that armies in Europe belong to the past, it’s interesting to notice that EU Member States troops combined amount to more than 1.5 million people - a figure that rises to 4.5 million if we add the reserve troops - (and to a number significantly higher if we added Turkey), while these troops drain more than 240 billion per year (2007 estimates). In order to understand how vast this force is for countries in peace since longtime, note that the US, a country involved in constant wars, has slightly less troops (1, 473, 000) while China, with many times the size of the EU, only keeps 2,355,000 troops in service. Additionally, for some EU countries (Greece, Finland, etc.) the obligatory conscription is still a reality.

<quote<COs still face persecution and imprisonment and in some countries there is no possibility of conscientious objection for conscripts or professional soldiers during their military service.

The figures above illustrate clearly how many people the issue of Conscientious Objection touches and even though this right is well established in Europe, various problems persist for both conscript soldiers and professionals. According to the European’s Bureau for Conscientious Objection (report of 2008), COs still face persecution and imprisonment and in some countries there is no possibility of conscientious objection for conscripts or professional soldiers during their military service. Cases of imprisonment persist in Finland, Germany and Turkey while in Greece CO L. Petromelidis was already processed before a military court 15 times for the same offence. At least 10 countries accepted 17 years old children for ‘voluntary’ recruitment into the armed forces. Turkey, an EU candidate country, is still refusing to recognise Conscientious Objection to military service, mistreating and repeatedly imprisoning COs, while the public reporting on and the discussion of this issue is stifled by prosecutions. Art. 318 of the Turkish Criminal Code provides that “alienating people from the military duty” shall be sentenced to imprisonment for a term of six months to two years, and if the act is committed through the medium of the press and media, the penalty shall be increased by half.

Therefore, even in Europe, the portrayed champion of Human Rights, there is still a lot of work to be done. While action at the national level is essential, a new resolution of the European Parliament could push the issue forward and incorporate most recent developments as the latest one dates back to 2004.

The Right to Conscientious Objection is well founded in the International Human Rights regime, and remains indispensible to guarantee the right to perform our highest duty towards our fellow human beings: refuse to kill.

For more information:
- European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (
- War Resisters International (
- Ozgur H, Cinar and Coskun Usterci , Conscientious Objection: Resisting a militarized Society, Zed Books, New York, 2009

- Military service, source: google images


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