Conscientious Objection in Europe

Annual Report of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection

by Friedhelm Schneider

(08.12.2016) In January 2016 two dates illustrate the contradictory developments which continue to mark the situation of conscientious objectors in Europe:

On 27 January 2016 the centenary of the British Military Service Act 1916 brings to mind the first legal provision implementing explicitly the right of conscientious objection to military service. The consequences of this first conscience clause in military legislation were determined by ambiguity and arbitrariness: 6.500 objectors were given conditional exemption and told to perform alternative service by finding work of national importance. Another 6.000 war resisters were incarcerated, over 100 of them died as a result of the conditions of their imprisonment. The example of the first CO legislation in Great Britain reveals that legal provisions for conscientious objectors are insufficient as long as they do not clearly implement liberal human right standards.

The date of 24 January 2016 reminds a less historical, however significant anniversary. Ten years earlier the European Court of Human Rights had proclaimed its judgement in the case of the Turkish conscientious objector Ülke against Turkey. The court found that the applicants’ repeated convictions and imprisonment amounted to “civil death” and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Turkish government was summoned to amend its legislation and to provide an appropriate means of dealing with situations arising from the refusal to perform military service on account of one’s beliefs. A decade later the pioneering judgement in favor of Osman Murat Ülke and other Turkish conscientious objectors is still disobeyed by Turkey.

The non-execution of the Ülke judgement can be seen as symptomatic for the stagnation that has been prevailing in 2016 wherever the situation of conscientious objectors should have been improved. This is in particular the case of Greece where in less than one year three different international human rights institutions have pointed out serious violations of human rights of conscientious objectors. Even though the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Human Rights Committee and the European Court of Human Rights (in the case of Papavasilakis v. Greece) expressed their serious concern about the on-going discrimination of Greek conscientious objectors, the Greek government did not react nor undertake the necessary legislative steps in order to comply with international human right standards.

That things are stagnating or even going backwards can furthermore be observed in other contexts related to the issue of conscientious objection to military service: The situation of conscientious objectors applying for refugee status is – depending on the state where the application is filed – subject to many imponderables. There seems to be imminent a reversal of the trend to abolish or suspend conscription, the system of which generates the majority of problems conscientious objectors are exposed to. Finally the escalating conflict at the borders of the Council of Europe creates situations that hamper the implementation of human rights.

Fortunately after all there have been some gleams of light in the darkness: In January 2016 an amnesty was pronounced for all Greek objectors who had declared their objection before 1998 when the current law on conscientious objection entered into force. No compensation, however, was granted for all fines and prison sentences imposed to this group of early objectors.

Supported by an international network of solidarity and lobby work the Ukrainian journalist and conscientious objector Ruslan Kotsaba was acquitted in July 2016. He had been arrested in February 2015 because of his appeal to refuse a mobilization that would lead to fratricide. In Rojava, Kurdish region where a many years long struggle is being waged against ISIS, the right of conscientious objection has been recognized by the government of the Cizre canton in April 2016.

After its General Assemblies held in London (14 May 2016) and in Athens (19 November 2016) the European Bureau of Conscientious Objection expresses once more its concern that the credibility of international Human rights institutions on the European and United Nations level will strongly be damaged if the implementation of their resolutions and judgements cannot be achieved. It will consequently stay an important task for human rights NGOs to remind national governments of their responsibility to publicize and to execute the binding requests of international Human rights institutions.

Friedhelm Schneider, EBCO President: Foreword to the Annual Report of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO): Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Europe 2016, December 8, 2016. Download at

Keywords:    ⇒ Conscientious Objection   ⇒ Europe   ⇒ Human Rights