2: 2.1

Military Service and Recruitment: Types of Military Recruitment

Slightly fewer than half of the world's States currently enforce some form of obligatory military service. A similar number rely on voluntary recruitment. The remainder - generally micro-states - have effectively no armed forces.[1]

In the nineteenth century, reliance on a volunteer army was seen as characteristically British, while France epitomised the more common model of universal conscription.[2] Historical British influence may be seen in the fact that, of Commonwealth countries, only Cyprus, Singapore and Zimbabwe now have legislation imposing obligatory military service although several others, along with the UK itself, brought in conscription during the two World Wars.

Some Definitions:

Obligatory military service and compulsory military service seem to be used completely synonymously. However different nuances may be read into the focus on the one hand on the legal obligation and on the other on the compulsion. In general in this paper the adjective compulsory has been reserved for recruitment.

Recruitment is used in this paper as a general term for all means of finding military manpower. It can be voluntary or compulsory. Confusion is sometimes caused by the fact that the Spanish equivalent, reclutamiento, is apparently used exclusively for compulsory recruitment.

Compulsory recruitment may sometimes take the form of forced recruitment. Those forcibly recruited may be legally recruited, in the sense that the methods - whether or not legal in themselves - may be used as a means of enforcing the legal requirement to perform military service. Characteristically, however, forced recruitment takes place indiscriminately with no due process for establishing legal liability for military service.

Conscription can mean a system of obligatory military service or its enforcement in the individual case. It is generally used in this paper in the former sense.

Outside the Commonwealth, almost all States with any armed forces at all have, at least on paper, had some form of obligatory military service during the last sixty years. There are only eleven exceptions, five of them (Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) in one group on the Persian Gulf. Under Article 9 of its 1947 Constitution, Japan may not have any armed forces - the Self Defence Force which does exist is manned on an entirely voluntary basis. Conscription has never been imposed in Ireland (even when it was part of the UK during the First World War it was not covered by the 1916 Military Service Act).

Cameroon, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda and Timor Leste are other rare exceptions which have throughout their independent history had no legislation enabling conscription.

As Table 1 shows, however, the changes in recent years have been dramatic. Since 1960, the last peacetime conscripts have served in no fewer than thirty States, and according to current proposals these should be joined by three more (Latvia, Romania and Slovakia) from the beginning of 2007. Apart from those shown in the Table, a number of other States are at least debating the possibility of eventually suspending conscription and professionalising the armed forces. In Austria a date of 2010 is being discussed, while in Ukraine the target date is 2015. Early in 2003 the Minister of Defence of Tajikistan was reported as saying that this process would start there in five years time.[3] According to a newspaper article in July 2003,[4] the acting Ombudsman in Bolivia has observed that in recent years there had been a change in the attitude of the armed forces allowing discussions of possible abolition of obligatory military service. In fact the impetus for such changes often comes from the armed forces or the wider defence establishment. Thus in Moldova, it was the Ministry of Defence which in 2001 unsuccessfully promoted a Bill to abolish conscription altogether. In Bulgaria and Denmark, proposals including the abolition of conscription have also been aired but have been transformed in the first instance into less radical possibilities; for instance it is likely that compulsory military service in Denmark will be cut to a mere three months training, largely in civil defence.

The Swiss Minister of Defence, Samuel Schmid (subsequently President), provoked a lively debate by suggesting in a radio interview in August 2004 that the time might have come for Switzerland, too, to move to an all-volunteer, professional army. Although in many States the ideological basis of conscription lies in the concept of a citizen's militia which can be mobilised at a time of national peril, Switzerland is in fact the only State now to adhere to the model in a relatively pure form, which makes the concept of professionalisation of the armed forces rather more controversial on ideological grounds than it is elsewhere.[5]

Sometimes however such expressed intentions do not come to fruition. The Thai government reportedly curtailed debate on reform of the conscription system when in 1997 it announced the abolition of compulsory military service and the gradual reduction of the armed forces to less than 200,000 by 2003. A greater reliance on reserve/paramilitary units was seen as a way to enhance defence capabilities at a lower cost.[6] In practice, however, the number of conscripts and the overall strength of the armed forces have increased since 1997. Guatemala undertook to abolish conscription as part of the package of measures agreed to end the civil war in the mid-1990s, However in the event the existing legislation remained in place, but to it was added an apparently unique free choice for conscripts to choose social service projects rather than training for military purposes, so that military service can be presented as voluntary.[7]

The example of Guatemala illustrates how in practice the simple dichotomy between systems of voluntary and compulsory recruitment breaks down into a rather more confused mosaic.

For a start, the period of obligatory service in a conscription system is often no longer than is necessary for basic training; in many cases its original purpose was to provide a pool of trained reserves who could be mobilised in the event of actual or impending hostilities. In order to retain an effective army, even States which rely on conscription for the bulk of their manpower need some core of longer-term military personnel. In particular the command structure, the officers, are rarely persons performing the minimum obligatory service, although they may have initially entered as such; the option of pursuing a military career may be available after completing all or part of the obligatory service,[8] or the first year of training for a military career may be counted as the obligatory military service, as in Tunisia.[9] Therefore even in countries which have some form of conscription or national service, this never supplies the entire military manpower, and often represents a relatively small proportion, as is illustrated in Table 2. In such cases, there is usually a gulf in status between conscripts and regular or permanent members of the armed forces; often there are differences in the regulations applying to the two groups.

In several States a constitutional reference to the duty of all citizens to participate if required in the defence of the country is not backed up by specific implementing legislation, and in practice recruitment to the armed forces may take place in a purely voluntary fashion. This does not necessarily mean that the requirement is redundant; but rather dormant or latent, available for use in an emergency. Such a constitutional provision may exist even where there are at present no armed forces ( e.g. Costa Rica), facilitating their introduction should the government deem it necessary.

Similarly while some States - Canada in 1946; the UK in 1957; New Zealand in 1973 - have repealed the legislation enforcing conscription, many others have simply suspended it. The USA is an obvious example. Section 10(h) of the Selective Service Act of 1971, amending legislation originally dating back to the 1940 Selective Training and Service Act, allowed the provisions to go into standby mode rather than having to be repealed whenever the periodic renewal of the President's authority to induct personnel into the military should cease. Two years later, that authority was indeed allowed to expire. Nevertheless, throughout this report, reference will be made to the very detailed procedural provisions of the legislation in the USA, because although not currently implemented this remains on the statute book ready for reactivation whenever required.

 Moreover, although the constitutional provision may make the military service requirement universal, the numbers eligible are often far in excess of the needs or capacity of the armed forces themselves. In such cases it is normal for recruitment to involve some form of selection process - usually, at least in principle, random, but sometimes deliberate; in Sweden, for instance, the legislation implies that it is those who are adjudged most suitable for military service who will be selected.[10]

Where there is a process of selection for obligatory military service, it is often the case that priority is given to those who - for any one of a number of reasons - volunteer to perform this military service before being called up to do so. During the period of obligatory military service the status of such volunteers remains that of conscripts, rather than of regular members of the armed forces.

This has enabled some countries to move towards completely professional armed forces without any change in legislation, and hence without abandoning the principle of obligatory military service. Chile, for instance, has indicated... that it is undertaking a reform of the military service system, which in principle would be mostly voluntary, recurring to a lottery only if they are unable to cover the minimum number of persons needed with the voluntary system.[11] Likewise El Salvador[12] has stated that military service was effectively voluntary though a full conscription system, with registration, remains in place. Morocco, too, has had an over-supply of volunteers for its armed forces for many years and has not needed to enforce the conscription provisions which nonetheless remain on the statute book. On the other hand, a State's insistence that its military manpower needs are completely met by voluntary recruitment should not always be taken at face value. In a January 2004 letter to the UN Security Council, reiterating its evidence to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Myanmar stated The Myanmar Armed Forces is an all-volunteer force and those entering military service do so of their own free will, and furthermore that War Office Council Instruction 13/73 of January 1974 stipulates that a person cannot enlist with the armed forces until the age of 18.[13] Not only is no information provided to confirm the implied repeal of the National Service Law and People's Militia Act of 1959; these assertions are belied by the abundant evidence of forcible conscription of juveniles.[14]

Cutting across the distinction between compulsory and voluntary recruitment is also the distinction between the situation where the recruit is required or expected to come to the recruitment office and that in which a recruiter (accurately or not the term recruiting sergeant seems to be very widely used) goes out in search of potential recruits; whether those who have evaded obligatory military service, or in order to find volunteers. In both circumstances this can occur legally and with safeguards, but it is always liable to abuse. The pressure on recruiters to achieve targets in the former case can lead to random forced recruitment; in the latter to harrassment and fraud by recruiters. Exposure of a growing number of abuses by recruiters[15] in the USA caused such embarrassment to the armed forces that it was publicly announced that all military recruiters would be recalled for one day on Friday 20th May 2005 for a compulsory retraining session aimed at eliminating improper practices.

Although recruitment of citizens into the central Government's armed forces is by far the most common form, mention should be made of some other types of military recruitment. It may occur at the sub-national scale; until the beginning of 2006 there were separate conscription schemes into the armed forces of the two constituent entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bermuda, a crown colony of the UK, has its own conscription system.[16]

In many countries conscripts as well as volunteers are employed in various paramilitary forces and sometimes in large numbers (Paraguay, Colombia) in the police. Meanwhile, world wide, the number of members of various government-sponsored and armed, but usually locally recruited and controlled, militias with a wide variety of different titles (village guards, self-defence-groups, etc. ) almost certainly runs into the millions rather than hundreds of thousands, but it is in the nature of such groups that coherent overall information is very hard to come by. Sometimes, however, recruitment into these groups may include a localised form of conscription; as has for example been reported with regard to the Local Defence Forces in Rwanda.[17]

External recruitment by governments is often overlooked. The French Foreign legion and the Gurkha units of the British Army have long and distinguished histories. More recently wealthier countries which rely on voluntary recruitment have made up shortfalls in the recruitment of their own citizens by turning to those of poorer States with which they have connections. The UK has accepted an increasing number of recruits from various Pacific states, notably Fiji[18]; recent reports indicate that as many as 8% of new recruits in the British Army are from overseas.[19] Quite apart from territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam, which come under the domestic military recruitment legislation of the USA, the American army accepts volunteers from a number of the Pacific micro-states under its protection which do not have armies of their own, such as Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. In the United Arab Emirates 30% of the troops are thought to be foreign nationals. Saudi Arabia, too, has certainly in the past relied heavily on foreigners for its armed forces. After their basic military training it is possible for Swiss conscripts to enrol as professional soldiers in the elite Swiss Guard of the Vatican.

There are even instances where conscripts are employed as such in foreign armed forces. The largest number of conscripts in Tajikistan in fact serve in the Russian Border Guards, under Russian officers and command. Tajik conscripts make up the bulk of the 12,000 Russian border guards stationed in Tajikistan, whereas the national army has a strength of only 7,600.[20]

A lot of military recruitment is also carried out by entities which are not internationally recognised as sovereign States. These range from Taiwan - a de facto State of over twenty million inhabitants, which not only has conscription but which has now legislated for the recognition of conscientious objection, to the myriad armed opposition groups,[21] not forgetting the increasing number of private security firms and military contractors employed even by governments. Between the two extremes lie a number of secessionist statelets, among which Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Taiwan, Transdniestria, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus currently impose a form of conscription, as until very recently did South Ossetia. It should, however, be noted that political entities which are not legal in themselves have no legal right to conscript and indeed those whom they do recruit may be legally subject to conscription in the State which is recognised as having title to the territory concerned. This applies even more strongly to the claimed conscription systems of armed opposition groups which do not administer territory. Not only are these groups not in a position of even theoretically being able to identify those allegedly liable; the persons concerned may actually be subject to enforceable conscription into the armed forces of the State. The escalationary effect of competitive recruitment in such circumstances is a topic too vast for the present survey.


  • [1] See Barbey, C. (2001), La non-militarisation et les pays sans armée: une réalité, APRED, Flendruz, Switzerland. Precise definitions are however difficult, and some of the instances Barbey cites are rather idiosyncratic.
  • [2] See the articles by Forrest, Kestenbaum and the editors themselves in Mjoset and Van Holde(Editors), (2002) The comparative study of conscription in the armed forces (Comparative Social Research, Volume 20), Elsevier Science, Oxford
  • [3] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 22 February 2003 National armies of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan changing with the times, available at www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/pp022203.shtml.
  • [4] Defensora del Pueblo propone que servicio militar sea voluntario, (El Deber Online), Bolivia Hoy, 8 July 2003,
  • [5] Schwezerischer Friedensrat (Swiss Peace Council) (2004), Wehrpflicht zur Debatte, Zurich.
  • [6] Horeman, B. and Stolwijk, M. (1998), Refusing to Bear Arms, War Resisters International, London.
  • [7] Child Soldiers Global Report 2004  (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London)
  • [8] For instance, under Article 34 of the Russian Federation's Law on Military Duty and Military Service, conscripts may transfer to the regular army after six months. In Uzbekistan enrolment into the regular army is only possible after completion of obligatory military service.
  • [9] Child Soldiers Global Report 2004
  • [10] From each assignment group those persons should be enrolled who are best suited for the service in question. Article 3.2, Act on Liability for Total Defence Service, 1809/1994.
  • [11] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report Number 43/05, Case 12.219, Cristian Daniel Sahli Vera et al. v Chile, March 10, 2005, Paragraph 22.
  • [12] In its second periodic report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child: UN Document CRC/C/65/Add.25, 22 October 2003.
  • [13] Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London)
  • [14] See particularly Human Rights Watch, My gun was as tall as me: Child Soldiers in Burma, New York, October 2002, pages 26 - 39.
  • [15] E.g. an article in the New York Times, 3rd May 2005, by D: Cave, Army Recruiters Say They Feel Pressure to Bend Rules
  • [16] Horeman, B. and Stolwijk, M. (1998), Refusing to Bear Arms, War Resisters International, London.
  • [17] Child Soldiers Global Report 2004  (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London)
  • [18] Ibid. Fiji entry
  • [19] Tommy foreigner: Commonwealth soldiers, The Economist, 12th August 2004
  • [20] International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2004/2005 (Taylor and Francis).
  • [21] For a comprehensive documentation, see Balancie, J-M. and La Grange, A. Mondes rebelles: Guérillas, milices, groupes terroristes, Editions Michalon, Paris (third edition 2001)