2.3: 2.3.1

Military Service in Practice: Duration and Conditions

As can be seen from Table 3, the standard length of obligatory military service in 2004 varied from four months in Portugal (since abolished) to three years in Israel and Egypt. In fact, the gradual phasing out of compulsory military service in Western Europe was preceded during the 1990s by a steady shortening of the length of service required.[1] A similar progression has also been visible in many other parts of the world.

This is however only part of the story. As illustrated in Table 4, differential terms of service apply in many States. It is very common that graduates of higher education have a shorter length of service; sometimes this is extended also to those who have completed secondary education. Some conscripts are enrolled as officers; this is particularly the case where there are ongoing reserve obligations; in this case a longer full-time period of service is required. Sometimes there is reference to different lengths of service in different regions, although the details are often sketchy. It is frequently the case that those who join the air force or, particularly, the navy are required to serve for longer; it is rarely clear whether such a decision is the choice of the conscript.

In the Nordic countries the lengths of service form a singularly complicated pattern. Military service in Denmark is said to last between three days and fourteen months, depending on the particular branch of service entered. In Finland the duration is, depending on service and rank, 180, 260 or 362 days. In Sweden it appears that, basically according to ability, the conscript may be allocated to any particular service training programme up to the maximum of 615 days (approximately 20 months). Swedish armed forces sources indicate that most conscripts undergo between seven-and-a-half and seventeen-and-a-half months' training. [2]

It should also be noted that the contracts entered in to by those who join the military voluntarily frequently commit them to an extended period of service and with less opportunity of giving notice to terminate early than is usually the case with contracts of employment. As will be seen in Section 4.3.4,this feature is of particular relevance to the situation of those who become conscientious objectors having voluntarily joined as regular members of the armed forces.

Sometimes of course, particularly at times of mobilisation, the lengths of service stipulated may be subject to extension. The legislative provisions governing the length of military service in Eritrea have not been changed, but as tensions on the border with Ethiopia grew during the 1990s, it became clear that the duration was notional only. In practice, Amnesty International reports, national service has been extended indefinitely by administrative decision since the war with Ethiopia, when conscription was accelerated, military training was shortened, and development service was converted to active military service.[3] Once in the Eritrean armed forces, therefore, it became very hard to get out - except by fleeing the country altogether, which many did. The five conscripts who had escaped to Germany and whose testimonies were collected by Connect eV[4] were all well into the third year of service or beyond by the time they escaped. (A sixth testimony came from a conscientious objector who had fled to avoid initial recruitment.)

Extensions can also occur in less extreme circumstances. For example, in Tajikistan in response to the shortfall in meeting recruiting targets in Autumn 1996, those conscripts who were completing their term of service were retained for an extra six months.

It would be appropriate to mention briefly here certain aspects of the conditions encountered within military service. The restrictions on personal freedom may seem obvious; in general members of the military, particularly conscripts, are required to live in barracks and all are subject to a disciplinary regime which insists on unquestioning obedience to all legitimate orders. Civic rights may however be curtailed in further ways. The restrictions in Paraguay are particularly sweeping. Under various articles of the Electoral Code, soldiers lose all political rights; the right to exercise their vote, to stand for public office, to be a member of an electoral authority, or to have membership in any political party or movement. The Human Rights Committee has stated that the extension of this prohibition to students of military schools seems to be an unreasonable restriction on article 25 of the Covenant on the right to participate in public life.[5] Under Article 134 of the Military Personnel Statutes (Estatuto del Personal Militar) conscripts lose the right to marry. Less surprisingly, while on active service they are prohibited from exercising any other remunerative employment,[6] and lose the right to form trade unions or to withdraw their labour. Finally, under Article 10 of Law 569/75, a soldier being a minor in age under civil law (the age of majority under civil law is not reached until the age of 20) acquires legal majority and is hence subject to military penal law... It is also understood that even if below the relevant military age soldiers are subject to military penal law and punishments appropriate to those aged 18 and above.[7]

In many armed forces, both conscripts and volunteers are liable to suffer extreme abusive treatment whether from their officers in the form of punishments or from fellow recruits in the form of practices notorious by their local names - hazing in the UK;[8] dedovschina in Russian. In both the UK and the Russian Federation there has been great concern about the level of alleged suicides and other unexplained deaths of recruits, but in the much smaller army of Paraguay 30 inadequately-explained deaths of conscripts were documented over a period of just six years. In Kazakhstan - where young men have been known to buy themselves in to the army to escape poverty - 128 investigations into dedovschina were opened in the first nine months of 2003, and almost 100 suicides amongst conscripts were registered in the same year, leading to the introduction of an official training programme to try to eliminate these practices.[9]

There is, however, a suspicion that all of these features may be an inescapable side-effect of the brutalisation inherent in military training; a brutalisation, moreover, which becomes more rather than less thorough with the move towards professionalisation of the armed forces. It has been observed that one of the most important aspects of making a soldier effective in combat is to overcome the instinctive reluctance to take human life.[10]


  • [1] Ajangiz, R. (2002), The European farewell to conscription? in Mjoset and Van Holde (Editors), The comparative study of conscription in the armed forces (Comparative Social Research, Volume 20), Elsevier Science, Oxford, pages 307-333.
  • [2] Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London)
  • [3] Amnesty International (2004), Eritrea: You have no right to ask, London
  • [4] Connection eV Germany, War Resisters International and Eritrean Anti-Militarist Initiative Eritrea: Conscientious Objection and Desertion London (WRI) April 2005
  • [5] In paragraph 214 of its Final Observations on the Initial Report of Paraguay, UN Document CCPR/C/PRY/1995.
  • [6] Article 8 of Law 569/75
  • [7] SERPAJ (Servicio Paz y Justicia) - Paraguay (1995), Los niños-soldados de Paraguay: Investigación sobre los soldados menores de edad (Unpublished case study for the United Nations' study on the impact of armed conflict on children (the Machel Report)
  • [8] The Duty of Care Report produced in 2005 by the United Kingdom's Parliamentary Select Committee on Defence
  • [9] Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London)
  • [10] For an excellent review of these issues see