Refusing Military Service and War is vital

Statement at International Ecumenical Peace Convocation

by Yohannes Kidane

General introduction

If we look at the commonly given definition for conscientious objection we find for example from War Resisters International: Conscientious objectors "are persons who for reasons of conscience or profound conviction arising from religious, ethical, moral, humanitarian, philosophical, political or similar motive refuses to perform armed services or any other direct or indirect participation in wars or armed conflicts."

From this we see that CO is seen as a question of human rights, but in reality it is more than that. It is a conscience-based deep decision which is fundamental during war and state of emergency.

There are different kinds of COs:

1. Refusing all wars (given definition)

2. Selective Objectors or Partial Objectors, who resist particular actions or wars

3. Refusing to pay for war (tax resistance)

4. Nuclear Pacifists

Global CO Activities

There exists objection and evasion of war and military in many countries of the world. It can occur at any time. A person may object before or after joining the military, before or after being recruited in case of conscription. Evaders and deserters are generally prosecuted, COs are rejected still in a lot of countries. If a CO right exists, they often have to face a complicated and degrading screening process. Furthermore a lot of countries do not give the opportunity to already recruited draftees and professional soldiers to legally declare their CO.

Globally, COs are facing prosecution, repression, or re-recruitment. For this reason some of them apply for asylum somewhere else. For more specific country information please refer to our handout.

I come from Eritrea; one of the world´s most militarized countries, and I had to face such a situation. I have experienced the military long enough. During my stay in the military for several years, I never knew about the idea of conscientious objection. Over the last years I have learned about CO and how the idea of CO could be transformed to peace building. Let me give you a short introduction to the situation in Eritrea first.

Eritrea: The Military State - Country Background

Eritrea a small east African state located in the horn of Africa on the western flanks of the Red Sea. It became independent on 24 May 1991 after 30 years of acrimonious, bloody and costly armed struggle against annexation by its neighbour, Ethiopia.

The people of Eritrea fought a bitter war for independence hoping that they would realize an economically strong and democratic country. Right after independence the solidarity and optimism was very high among the Eritrean people. But what followed independence and the reality was totally different. Our dearly acquired independence breeds one-party led tyrannical and militaristic government.

The government established the first military training camp in July 1994. Since then Sawa was established as headquarter for the national service. So far, it can be said that the government has achieved its militarisation target.

Forced recruitment of the young, underage children and adults less than 50 years is a routine. Recruits are treated brutally and there is evidence of sexual abuse of women. Nobody has a right to question neither the authorities nor the government policy. Nobody has a right to CO. It is taboo! Both by the people and the regime COs are branded as cowards and unpatriotic. There is no alternative civilian service for COs. The consequences of CO and desertion are severe torture, long-term incommunicado imprisonment and even death.

After the end of the border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, over the last ten years the number of COs within the military increased. Today there are thousands who objected to military service and the military. Despite the risks they have to face they are fleeing into exile. Considerable numbers of them are in Europe, Libya, Israel, Ethiopia and Sudan seeking political asylum.

In Germany, we founded the Eritrean Antimilitarist Initiative (EAI), which supports Eritrean COs and refugees. It advocates for the rights of COs both in and outside Eritrea.

Eritrean Antimilitarist Initiative

EAI is all-party, independent, and based on non-violence and grassroots principles. It is Eritrean Antiwar and Antimilitary Initiative conceived in 2004 and founded in January 2005.


1. to push for the adoption of the right of CO in the Eritrean constitution

2. to establish a national and international network among deserters and COs of Eritrea

3. to build confidence among the COs and to support them

4. to provide information periodically


1. Report human rights abuses in the military against women soldiers, COs and prisoners of conscience

2. Awareness raising and educating through seminars and public events.

3. Support and work together with regional and international COs organizations

4. National and regional collaboration and networking

5. Support the establishment of CO organizations in the countries of our region and work together towards a common end. E.g. Ethiopian war Resistors Initiative

As the most important achievement since our establishment I can say is that we were able to convince the Eritrea opposition to recognize the right to CO and the right to alternative service in their constitution. It is included in all their programmes.

CO as a Peace Building Medium

The people of the horn of Africa in general and the people of Eritrea in particular are in political, social and economic crisis. In the region, there is an urgent need to establish a healthy democratic atmosphere with a constitutionally elected leadership and the adoption of multiparty states and political systems. There is an urgent need to release all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners.

Refusing military service and war is vital

We believe that refusing military service and war is vital for the reasons:

1. The ideas and teachings of CO are based on peace, humanity and morality.

2. The ideas of CO are against propaganda of national unity and sovereignty, which are divisive, misleading and provocative.

3. The more people say “No” may force governments to rethink about their decisions. They will be forced to think about peaceful solutions, start to develop respect for human life and plan to build a just and secure society for coming generations.

4. CO is the check and balance against war. A CO is standing in contradiction of a warlord. We believe COs can confront and divert military objectives.

5. We see conscientious objection as a step for lasting peace. We believe that the following steps can help to achieve a lasting peace on the basis of human, civil and political rights.

Hence we are advocating for the refusal of military service in the above context.

Therefore we ask governments to:

1. Introduce and cultivate respect for the right of CO and offer them alternative civilian service

2. Recognize prosecution of COs as a reason to grant them asylum

3. Establish a culture of pluralism, civility, respect and tolerance

4. Develop their political leadership on principles of democracy and multiparty system

5. Listen to and respect nonviolent resistors

6. Solve conflicts peacefully through dialogue, mediation and negotiation.

7. Abide by and respect international law

Finally we envision

1. CO to military and war is one way to cultivate peace

2. CO’s rights have to be respected and they have rights to be listened to and court of justice.

3. COs are not cowards, rather they are persons who live by the conviction of their conscience

COs deserve protection, understanding and respect.


Yohannes Kidane deserted from the Eritrean army in 2003. Since then he is living in Germany. He is founder and acitivist of Eritrean Antimilitarst Initiative.

Yohannes Kidane: Refusing military service and war is vital. Statement at International Ecumenical Peace Convocation at the Reasoning Workshop "Conscientious Objection to Military Service and Asylum". May 24, 2011

Keywords:    ⇒ CO and Asylum   ⇒ Conscientious Objection   ⇒ Desertion   ⇒ Eritrea   ⇒ Human Rights   ⇒ International   ⇒ Yohannes Kidane