Duration of Service

How does the duration of alternative service compare with that of military service?

Table 17 shows the evolution of ratios between the duration of military service and alternative service since about 1990. In five of the countries listed in the table the lengths are now equal; elsewhere (including Italy, where the Constitutional Court ruled in 1989 that a longer alternative service was unconstitutional)[1] the lengths had been equalised before compulsory military service was suspended. At the other extreme, an equal number of countries, however, still require a period of alternative service exactly twice as long as that of obligatory military service, and in Finland the discrepancy, 13 months to 6, is even greater. Meanwhile, although less than twice the length of military service, the 42 months of alternative service required by Cyprus, represent 16 months longer than the equivalent military service in Cyprus and no less than 18 months longer in Armenia and the Russian Federation.

As was shown in Table 4, variable lengths of obligatory military service are common. Sometimes these are in recognition of different characteristics of recruits; educational status, for instance, or family responsibilities. Logically, such differences are often reflected by variations in the equivalent lengths of alternative service. Other variations however reflect service in different branches of the armed forces, or at different ranks, and Finland has quoted some of these in mitigation of the extreme disparity.[2] This would be appropriate only if it could be shown that conscientious objectors would not otherwise have the option of choosing the shortest duration of military service.

... the Committee recognizes that the law and practice may establish differences between military and national alternative service, and that such differences may, in a particular case, justify a longer period of service, provided that the differentiation is based on reasonable and objective criteria, such as the nature of the specific service concerned or the need for a special training in order to accomplish that service. In the present case, however, the reasons forwarded by the State... are rather based on the argument that doubling the length of service was the only way to test the sincerity of an individual's convictions. In the Committee's view, such argument does not satisfy the requirement that the difference in treatment... was based on reasonable and objective criteria. In the circumstances, the Committee finds that... the author was discriminated against on the basis of his conviction of conscience.

Human Rights Committee View on Foin v France (Communication 666/1995)[3]

Despite the growing body of jurisprudence, particularly from the Human Rights Committee, that any differential in length which cannot be justified on firm objective grounds must be considered punitive and thus unacceptable, the trend has not always been positive. In general this is not because alternative service has been lengthened, but simply because it has not always kept pace with the progressive shortening of military service which has been a feature of the period. Sometimes a reduction in the obligatory term of military service has not been accompanied by any immediate change in the alternative service legislation; sometimes the problem has been that the relevant legislation has stipulated in absolute terms the difference between the two.

Thus in Greece the 18 months difference stipulated in the Act (Number 2510/1997) which established alternative service made that service exactly double the length of the normal obligatory military service. Shorter periods of military service (of 12 months, 6 months, or 3 months) at the time applied on the basis of family circumstances, children of one parent households, the older sons in large families and the fathers of families all benefiting roughly proportionally to the size of the family. The equivalent periods of alternative service were set at 28 months, 20 months and 15 months respectively. When in 2003 compulsory military service in the army was shortened to 12 months (a few months longer in the other services), this meant that under Act 2510/1997 the normal period of alternative service became 30 months, although this was now two-and-a-half times the length of military service. Law 3257/04 rationalised the system and marginally improved the differential by making the length of alternative service for each category of conscript exactly one month less than twice the military service.[4]

The slight increase in the proportional discrepancy in Norway has a similar cause. Here the length of alternative service has been set as one month more than the basic - which in this case means the maximum rather than the normal - length of military service.

The relevant legislation elsewhere, for instance in the Czech Republic (Law 18/1992), and in France, stated that alternative service would last (in these instances) one-and-a-half times, or twice, as long as military service. Thus when the length of military service was changed that of alternative service was adjusted automatically, maintaining the same differential.

The differential itself is often justified in terms of the different nature of the two forms of service. Thus in 2003 the German government explained that those performing alternative service did not wear uniform, were not subject to an immediate command relationship, had fixed working hours, and were not required to live in barracks.[5] The Russian Federation reported that those performing alternative service had to work an 8 hour day, 5 day week, whereas the obligations of the military were permanent. Furthermore, they were permitted to follow courses of study in their free time, which conscripts in the military were not.[6] However in the case of Germany such arguments were cited to justify a differential of one month, since abandoned, but in the Russian Federation those performing alternative service are enrolled for three quarters as long again as those who perform military service, an extra eighteen months.

Another argument often cited, e.g. by Slovakia,[7] refers to the reserve obligations of conscripts who performed military service. This is of course not valid everywhere; in not all countries are those performing alternative service exempt from all reserve duties; nor does being on the military reserve in time of peace always actually entail any duties. As an explanation for differences in duration this would be most convincing if it could be shown to reflect an exact equivalence to the amount of time a military conscript would actually spend in reserve mobilisation, an equation which was claimed by Hungary before the abolition of compulsory military service.[8]

Furthermore, as will be shown in the Section on conditions of service, the implication that the restrictions on the personal freedom suffered by those performing military service have no parallels in the arrangements for alternative service is certainly not true everywhere, or in every case. An instance was quoted at the 2004 Sarajevo conference[9] of a conscript in Macedonia who was employed in a residential care establishment where he had 24-hour seven-day-a-week responsibilities, but was still required to serve for the longer period justified by the less onerous duties attached to alternative service.

No instances have hitherto been recorded where the length of alternative service is actually less than that of military service. Recent proposals in Israel[10] would however create such an anomaly. It is clear that, although the proposed service would be required of recognised conscientious objectors, the proposals are mainly targetted at those religious and ethnic groups which are exempted from military service. Nevertheless, these developments deserve to be followed with interest.

  • [1] Horeman, B. and Stolwijk, M. (1998), Refusing to Bear Arms, War Resisters International, London.
  • [2] Summary Record of the 82nd Session of the Human Rights Committee, 19th October 2004 (UN Document CCPR.SR.2227, paragraph 24)
  • [3] ICCPR, A/55/40 Volume II (3rd November 1999) 30 at paragraph 10.3.
  • [4] General Counsel of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Evidence submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee regarding the State Report of Greece, 1st March 2005
  • [5] Response by German Government to questionnaire from OHCHR, 2003.
  • [6] Response by Government of the Russian Federation to questionnaire from OHCHR, 2003
  • [7] Summary Record of the 82nd Session of the Human Rights Committee, 18th July 2003 (UN Document CCPR.SR.2108, paragraph 29)
  • [8] General Counsel of Jehovah's Witnesses, response to OHCHR questionnaire 2003
  • [9] Regional Conference To Europe through conscientious objection and civilian service, Sarajevo 20-22 September 2004
  • [10] Ettinger, Y. and Alom, G. Government approves civilian national service for all non-conscripts, Haaretz (www.haaretz.com), 18th December 2005.