Author: Emily Graham
Conscientious objection to military service is recognised by the United Nations as part of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief. However, conscientious objectors face a number of serious and negative implications for their refusal to perform military service when States do not recognise or adequately implement this right.
The right of conscientious objection to military service has been recognised by the United Nations (UN) as being part of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, as enshrined in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[i] Most recently, in September 2013, the Human Rights Council recognised the right of conscientious objection to military service as derived from freedom of thought, conscience and religion of belief, in a resolution that was adopted without a vote.[ii]
Not all States, however, that retain a system of obligatory military service recognise this right; and even where it is recognised in principle, the provisions or the way they are applied may exclude some conscientious objectors. In either situation, unrecognised conscientious objectors may be classified as draft evaders or deserters, and treated as such.
Unrecognised conscientious objectors may face, therefore, a wide range of serious implications for their refusal to perform military service.[iii]
Prosecution, Imprisonment & Fines
In a number of States, conscientious objectors face prosecution and imprisonment for their refusal of military service, and those who continue to refuse may face multiple convictions and repeated imprisonment.[iv] The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention states that the imprisonment of a conscientious objector to military service amounted to arbitrary detention.[v] In addition, fines may be levied as penalties under national laws regulating military service, as administrative fines, following conviction or as a part of a suspended sentence. Fines have become established in some places, so it is possible in practice to make a payment in lieu of serving in the military, but this does not constitute recognition of the right to conscientious objection.
Criminal prosecution and conviction of conscientious objectors can result in criminal records and lead to life-long societal and economic disadvantage, particularly in terms of employment opportunities. For instance, conscientious objectors may become ineligible for work in public office, and the civil service; disbarred from certain professions, such as accountancy; and face societal discrimination and stigma from private employers, especially with larger corporations. The Human Rights Committee has expressed concern that “convicted conscientious objectors bear the stigma of a criminal record”.[vi]
Lack of necessary documentation
In some regions, governments use a system of military documentation, such as the libreta militar in Latin America, which acts as proof that an individual has complied with military service requirements. Military documentation is often also an essential document necessary to enjoy basic rights – either in itself or as integrated into the national system of identity documentation. Alternatively, military documentation can be required in order to be issued with identity documents, such as passports. If conscientious objectors have not complied with military service requirements, they may be unable to obtain military and/or identity documentation.
Without such documentation, conscientious objectors may be unable to:
- Own property
- Open a bank account
- Register residency
- Vote or be eligible for election
- Obtain employment, especially in the public sector
- Matriculate, graduate or obtain a degree from university
- Move freely within their own country or leave the country
Restrictions on leaving the country not only deprive conscientious objectors of their right to freedom of movement, but also make it more difficult to flee and seek asylum as refugees.
Conscientious objectors may also experience limitations on civil registration, including when registering their marriage and legally recognising their child. In addition, some ethnic or religious groups have had their citizenship revoked or withheld, on the grounds that they have refused or avoided military service.
Other forms of discrimination
Unrecognised conscientious objectors face other forms of discrimination. They may have to pay higher taxes and could lose their eligibility to state subsidies and social security. In addition, conscientious objectors may face problems securing employment, beyond the question of having a criminal record or lack of documentation. They may be deprived of licences and official business permits, or may not be eligible to work in public organisations, the civil service or police.
Conclusions & Recommendations
International standards prohibit discrimination against conscientious objectors because they have refused military service, in relation to any civil, cultural, economic, political or social rights.[vii] States, therefore, have a duty to make provision for conscientious objectors to military service, including in relation to their enjoyment of the right to non-discrimination and civil, cultural, economic, political or social rights.
To learn more about these issues, please see International Standards on Conscientious Objection to Military Service and Conscientious objectors: punishment & discriminatory treatment.
For further practical information on relevant international standards and human rights mechanisms, please visit this online, interactive guide, Conscientious Objector’s Guide to the International Human Rights System.
If you would like to support conscientious objectors and promote the right of conscientious objection to military service yourself, please sign up for and act upon War Resisters’ International’s “CO-Alerts”
 Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) calls for States to fully implement the right of conscientious objection to military service in law and practice, and has worked for decades to this end. To learn more about this work, please visit our website.
[i] Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 22 (CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4 of 30 July 1993), ‘The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief (Art. 18)’Human Rights Council resolution 24/17 (A/HRC/24/17) of 27 September 2013
[iv] The Human Rights Council stated that “repeated punishment of conscientious objectors for refusing a renewed order to serve in the military may amount to punishment in breach of the legal principle ne bis in idem”. Human Rights Council resolution 24/17 (A/HRC/24/17) of 27 September 2013, para. 10.
Similarly, the Human Rights Committee has stated that “repeated punishment of conscientious objectors for not having obeyed a renewed order to serve in the military may amount to punishment for the same crime if such subsequent refusal is based on the same constant resolve grounded in reasons of conscience.” Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 32, CCPR/C/GC/32, 23 August 2007, IX Ne Bis In Idem, paras. 54-55.
[v] UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention:Recommendation 2: detention of conscientious objectors (E/CN.4/2001/14), paras. 91-94; Opinion No. 36/1999 (Turkey): (E/CN.4/2001/14/Add.1); and Opinion No. 24/2003 (Israel) (E/CN.4/2005/6/Add. 1).
[vii] The Human Rights Council stated that “States, in their law and practice, must not discriminate against conscientious objectors in relation to their terms or conditions of service, or any economic, social, cultural, civil or political rights”. Human Rights Council resolution 24/17 (A/HRC/24/17) of 27 September 2013. Furthermore, the Human Rights Committee stated that “there shall be no discrimination against conscientious objectors because they have failed to perform military service.” Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 22 (CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4 of 30 July 1993)