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WORLD: What is Happening to Conscientious Objectors in Europe?

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On May 15, the International Conscientious Objection Day, the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO) published its Annual Report “Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Europe 2023/24” covering all the member states of the Council of Europe.

Every year, EBCO produces its Annual Report on conscientious objection to military service in Europe, gathering input from member states’ governments, national human rights institutions, as well as international and national non-governmental organisations and solidarity groups. The culmination of this work comes with its presentation to the European Parliament, to the Parliamentary Assembly and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, and to various State authorities. In each case EBCO accompanies its report with a set of targeted recommendations.

Executive summary (slightly shortened by HRWF)

EBCO-BEOC (15.05.2024) – For the second year, this report is necessarily dominated by the war in Ukraine, with a large part of the space being taken up with reports of developments in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and the situation of refugees from these countries.

EBCO continues working on the #ObjectWarCampaign, which was jointly launched by Connection e.V., War Resisters’ International (WRI), International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), and European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO).


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Within Europe, the clouds of war are gathering. It is not just in the belligerent countries, and Belarus which seems poised to join directly in support of Russia; elsewhere there is talk of preparedness for war, of increasing military spending, recruitment (e.g. Denmark), of bringing back conscription (e.g. Latvia) or extending it to women. The very right of conscientious objection to military service is coming under threat.

Last year EBCO reported on the case of Tetlianikov v Lithuania in which the European Court of Human Rights found that the alternative service which had been made available since the reinstatement of conscription in 2014 was in effect unarmed military service.

In other countries, too, notably Latvia and Sweden, and under proposals which keep being revived in Switzerland, there is talk of integrating alternative service for conscientious objectors more closely with civil defence, and thus into the system of national preparedness for war.

Programmes of military training within the secondary school system are being introduced and expanded, usually with no provision for conscientious objection. So are voluntary − or in the case of France, potentially compulsory programmes for youth which prepare for and encourage military recruitment (Service National Universel).

The whole justification for conscientious objection in time of peace is that the raison d’être of armed forces is to prepare for war. It is therefore paradoxical that as war looms, the right of conscientious objection should come under threat. With a view to the actual and potential risks in this regard, we introduce in this year’s report an important new section on “Conscientious objection in time of war or other national emergency“.

To an extent far greater than ever before, we have to report the harassment of EBCO members and contributors to this report for their work associated with EBCO.

In UkraineYurii Sheliazhenko, Executive Secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement and EBCO Board member, has been placed under continually extended house arrest and suffered the seizure of his computer and smartphone while investigated by the state security service, seemingly on ridiculous charges of “justifying Russian aggression”, and the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine initiated prohibition of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement.

In Russia, the Movement of Conscientious Objectors to military service in Russia and its Director and EBCO Board member Saša Belik, have been declared a “foreign agent”, severely hampering their ability to raise funds and to operate in support of conscientious objectors.

And Olga Karatch, Director of the Belarusian organisation “Our House” and EBCO Board member, who already faces long imprisonment should she return to Belarus on charges springing from her overt anti-regime activism, is finding her sanctuary in Lithuania threatened by the authorities’ refusal to grant her asylum, seemingly because of her tireless advocacy for Belarusians fleeing the possibility of military mobilisation.

Amid these new and growing threats, we must also not forget the continuing denial of the right of conscientious objection to military service in Azerbaijan and Türkiye, where those who have not performed military service continue to live in an indefinite state of civil death.

However, let us end on a positive note with our report of yet another European Court of Human Rights judgement in a conscientious objection case against Türkiye, this time for the activities of the self-styled “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus“, which also denies the right of conscientious objection in a case concerning Murat Kanatlı, EBCO Board member and Co-coordinator of the Initiative for Conscientious Objection in Cyprus. This is a case which broke new grounds in international jurisprudence, firmly confirming that the right of conscientious objection to military service applies equally to reserve mobilisation as to first-time call-up.

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