4.11

Selective Objection

Just as conscientious objection may derive from a variety of religious, moral and ethical standpoints, so too its precise manifestation may take different forms. It may require the objector simply to refrain from going prepared to take human life, or sometimes from handling weapons, from any participation in military activities, or from any activity linked in any way to the military function of the State, which is seen by some as including service which is alternative to or substitute for that in the armed forces, by others as including helping to fund military expenditures. The conscience may demand that the individual question him- or herself critically as to whether the action taken effectively addressed the cause of the objection, or it may demand a public testimony of the reason for the action. The objection may be to all violence, or may make an exception in the case of self-defence, or may relate solely to any violence which is seen as morally unjust. Thus it may apply to all military activity or just to some; to all wars or just to wars of aggression. A person may have no hesitations about military action in defence of the national territory, or may subscribe to the theory of the just war and yet still have a genuine conscientious objection in other circumstances.

There is some evidence that at an early stage in the official recognition of conscientious objection this variety was understood. The 1939 Conscription Act in the UK reportedly recognised all sincere COs, including selective objectors to particular wars.[1] Even as the recognition of conscientious objectors has subsequently widened, however, the accepted definition has tended to narrow towards conscientious objection as a particular creed. As has emerged in the foregoing pages, States tend to be happier with those who are instructed by their religious denomination that they may not have any dealings with firearms. As soon as they are asked to consider moral objections to specific wars or categories of military action, such as refusal to accept deployment outside the national territory (which is the logic of the most numerous single group of selective objectors, the refusniks in Israel), they are quick to label such objections as political and therefore not allowable (see page 54). Israel itself, like the USA, is overt in complete rejection of any conscientious objection which is not based on a simple and absolute pacifist stance.

A remarkable exception to the general rule is Norway, which in 1990, in an amendment[2] to the Law on Exemption of Military Service for Reasons of Conscientious Objection, ruled that a conscript who could show that by performing military service he would be compelled to compromise beliefs that are of fundamental importance to him and that are related to the use of weapons of mass destruction as they might be expected to be used in present day defence[3] would qualify for exemption as a conscientious objector. Gleditsch and Agoy,[4] without quoting the text, claim that this provision might exempt only those who are totally opposed to the existence of nuclear weapons and not to their possible use by NATO. Unless severe distortion has occurred in the course of translation, and given the Norwegian context, the precise wording seems to imply the complete opposite.

In fact, however, a selective objection on the grounds of conscience can be clearly distinguished from a political opposition to a certain course of action. It can also be distinguished from refusal to participate in a particular military action on the grounds that it is illegal, or from refusal to obey illegal orders, or participate in war crimes, all of which are protected, and sometimes required, under international law without reference to considerations of conscience.

The moral nature of the objection is more likely to be recognised when a selective objector flees his country, in which situation his case for international protection is often compounded by the obvious fear of political persecution as well as the other, frequently overlapping issues.


  • [1] Chambers, J.W., Conscientious Objectors and the Colonial State from American Times to the Present in Moskos and Chambers, editors. The New Conscientious Objection, from sacred to secular resistance. Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford 1993, pages 23-46, at page 36
  • [2] Law 42/1990.
  • [3] As quoted in Horeman, B. and Stolwijk, M. (1998), Refusing to Bear Arms, War Resisters International, London.
  • [4] Gleditsch, N.P. and Agoy, N.I., Norway: towards complete freedom of choice, Chapter 9 in Moskos, C.C. and Chambers, J. W, Editors The New Conscientious Objection, from sacred to secular resistance. Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford 1993, page 119.