World-wide, systems of obligatory military service are in decline. Progressive shortenings of the length of service, often until it is barely long enough for the most basic of military training, have in many cases been followed by the complete suspension of call-up. Even where this has not yet happened, the military itself frequently sees conscripts as irrelevant to modern operational needs, and leads the discussion about the future
professionalisation of the armed forces. As a result many of the issues, predicated on an environment of conscription, which have hitherto dominated discussions about conscientious objection to military service - notably the suitability of arrangements for providing alternatives to obligatory military service - are relevant in fewer and fewer societies. Conscientious objection itself, however, has neither gone away, nor become irrelevant. Instead the focus shifts to three aspects which have in the past been comparatively ignored.
- First, the freedom of conscience of all members of the armed forces. In particular their right to be recognised as conscientious objectors should they develop such convictions during the course of their military service, even in an exclusively volunteer force, which stems from the principle that the freedom of thought, conscience and religion includes the freedom to change one's beliefs.
- Second, the importance of ensuring that the rights of conscientious objectors are safeguarded with at least as much force in time of war as in time of peace. As the core of conscientious objection is the refusal to set out willingly to take other lives it is likely that any objections will be stronger, not weaker, in time of war. It is also not unreasonable to suppose that the experience of actual combat might crystallise a conscientious objection in a serving member of the military; the fact that an application is made during a time of conflict is by no means an indication that it is spurious. It is therefore disturbing that there are so many instances where legislation affecting the right to conscientious objection is applicable only in time of peace. Similar concerns relate to other aspects of military recruitment arrangements such as age limits. It is important that such legislation is replaced, or at least supplemented by wartime provisions at least as favourable. Moreover, where there is no conscription, or the provisions have been suspended, firm legislative guarantees are needed that, if it is reinstated in the context of general mobilisation, the right of conscientious objection will be fully recognised and that the measures adopted for the treatment of those who claim such a right are completely in accordance with the best practices which have been identified. This of course includes ensuring the recognition of conscientious objections developed by reservists, who will usually be the first to be mobilised when peace gives way to war.
- Third, the conscientious implications of military service by indirect means, particularly financial, assume a greater significance. Given the finding that whether the applicable system is of conscription or volunteer recruitment there is a universal tendency for those recruited to be from among the poorer and less-well educated classes of society, it is particularly disturbing to note the frequency of formal provisions whereby exemption from military service, even on grounds of conscience, is either sold or is penalised by a tax. And with the phasing out of physical conscription, the only military service which will be required of most citizens will be in the nature of a financial contribution to military expenditure through the tax system. Some describe this as tantamount to recruitment through taxes; and it is often only by refusing to make such a contribution that those with a profound conscientious objection to military activity may manifest this. The protection of the rights of such persons, and the search for legislative means to recognise and accommodate such
conscientious objection to military taxation, although not the focus of this report, remain the central concerns of Conscience and Peace Tax International and of national campaigns in more than twenty countries.
Having said this, it is appropriate to summarise a number of findings of this study which are particularly relevant to situations where conscription still applies:
- If the right to conscientious objection is not recognised or is fiercely denied within a system it should not be assumed either that in the individual case that the avoidance of military service was not based on conscientious grounds just because no attempt was made to prove these; nor that lack of publicised cases be taken as an indication that there is no latent conscientious objection.
- The provision of information is crucial. Potential recruits should be clearly informed of their rights and the procedures to follow. Where there are mechanisms whereby serving members of the military can obtain release as conscientious objectors, information about these too should be readily available to those who might be affected. Similarly, information should be available to reservists whether originally conscripts or volunteers.
- Particular attention needs to be paid to the freedom to change one's religion or belief. Not only can this be crucial in the case of serving members of the military; it also means that evidence of a person's past behaviour should not in itself be used to invalidate a claim of conscientious objector status.
- Conversely, no one should be forced to change his or her views or beliefs. This means that even when an application for conscientious objector status has been turned down the applicant should not be forced unwillingly into the armed forces, and should not be subject to repeated calls.
Special care has to be taken in the case of those while they are minors are presented with circumstances where they may or may not decide to apply for conscientious objector status. In particular, no decision which they make at this stage should be treated as binding them for the whole of life.