Conscientious objection and desertion in Belarus, Russian Federation, and Ukraine
In Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, there are different regulations for conscription, the right to conscientious objection as well as military service and desertion.
In none of the three countries is the human right to conscientious objection implemented in the way required by various international bodies and the European Court of Human Rights.
For example, the application procedure should be available indefinitely (that is, also during or after military service); the decision on an application should be independent and impartial; and the application must be open to all persons affected by military service. In addition, the alternative service may not have a punitive character due to a significantly longer period of service. Find out more at Laurel Townhead: International Standards on Conscientious Objection to Military Service.
Belarus – Conscription and conscientious objection
All young men must complete 18 months of military service between the ages of 18 and 27 (twelve months for men with higher education). After that, men can be called up for an annual reservist exercise.
The Lithuanian-based Belarusian organization Nash Dom said in early March that in Belarus, all men between the ages of 18 and 58 were required to report to the relevant authorities. President Lukashenko was said to be planning to call up 35,000 to 40,000 men. This could be the prelude to entering the war.
For many years, the regime punished young men who refused military service with prison sentences or fines. Among those persecuted were, for example, Jehovah’s Witness Dmitry Mozol, messianic Jew Ivan Mikhailov, non-religious pacifist Yevhen Yakovenko, and non-religious pacifist Andrei Chernousov.
On 1 July 2016, a law on Alternative Service came into force. It provides that only young men with a religious pacifist objection can apply for civilian alternative service, not men who justify their conscientious objection with a non-religious pacifist conviction.
In addition, alternative service is twice as long as military service (36 months in general or 24 months for people with higher education). And those performing civilian service receive a lower remuneration than those performing military service. In addition, soldiers and conscripts who have already completed military service are not entitled to recognition as conscientious objectors.
Draft, or military service, evasion and desertion are punished in Belarus under Articles 435, 437, 445, 446, and 447 of the Criminal Code. Evading conscription is punishable by a fine or up to three months in prison. Evading conscription is punishable by a fine or imprisonment of up to two years if it is committed after the imposition of an administrative penalty. Desertion and evasion of military service by mutilation or other means is punishable by imprisonment of up to seven years.
In mid-March 2022, Nash Dom wrote to Connection e.V. that, according to her estimates, at least 3,000 conscripts from Belarus have fled to Lithuania.
Russian Federation – Conscription and conscientious objection
Conscription is enshrined in Article 59 of the 1993 Constitution. The duration of military service is twelve months. All men between the ages of 18 and 27 are conscripted. The obligation to perform reserve service is valid until the age of 50.
Article 59 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation recognizes the right of every citizen to refuse military service. In 2002, the federal law "On Civil Alternative Service" was passed, which concretizes this right. The duration of the alternative service is 18 months.
Persons serving in the military, whether as conscripts or professional soldiers, cannot apply for conscientious objection, although the Russian constitution does not impose restrictions in this regard.
The law provides for a proceeding by which an application for alternative service must be submitted to a military commissariat six months before the conscription campaign in which the applicant is expected to be drafted into the army. Most applications are rejected because this deadline has been missed. In addition, the applications are examined by committees of the military commissariats.
Draft, or military service, evasion and desertion are criminally prosecuted. Evasion of military service is punishable by a fine, three to six months in prison or up to two years in prison (Article 328). Desertion is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years, and up to ten years in the event of armed conflict or in the case of collective desertion (Article 336). Escape from a unit is punishable by imprisonment for up to six years or imprisonment in disciplinary battalions with a prison sentence of up to two years (Article 337).
Ukraine – Conscription and conscientious objection
Conscription was reintroduced in Ukraine in 2015. The duration of military service is 18 months. In February 2022, the government of President Zelensky announced the general mobilization of all men between the ages of 18 and 60. In addition, this group of people was prohibited from leaving the country. Since the right to conscientious objection in Ukraine is limited and cannot be exercised by everyone, the exit ban and therewith the compulsion to follow the mobilization violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as was determined, for instance, by Amy Maguire, Associate Professor in Human Rights and International Law, in early March 2022. It also contradicts the 4th Additional Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, according to which every person is "free to leave any country, including one’s own."
According to Article 35(3) of the Ukrainian Constitution of 1996, there is a right to conscientious objection: "If the performance of military service is contrary to the religious beliefs of a citizen, the duty shall be fulfilled by an alternative service." This is further defined in Article 2 of the Alternative Services Act. According to this, in Ukraine, only religious objectors belonging to ten specific denominations listed in a government decree can apply for conscientious objector status: Reformed Adventists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Evangelical Christians, Evangelical Baptists, Pokutnyky, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charismatic Christian Churches, Christians of the Evangelical Faith, Christians of the Evangelical Faith, and the Krishna Consciousness Society. This means that Orthodox Christians, who form the largest religious community, must not refuse military service.
The right is further restricted by a regulation requiring that an application be made within six months of when troops are called up. In addition, soldiers and reservists have no right to apply.
In July 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviewed Ukraine’s Seventh Regular Report on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In the conclusions, the Committee expresses its concern that no measures have been taken to extend the right to conscientious objection of conscripts to persons who have made a decision of conscience without a religious background or who belong to other religions. The Committee emphasizes that the regulatory framework for alternative service must be open to all conscientious objectors, regardless of their convictions and whether those convictions are or are not religiously motivated.
From January to November 2020, 3,361 criminal proceedings against conscientious objectors were registered under Articles 335-337 and 407-409 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, including 18 cases of self-mutilation. In 2019, 190 conscientious objectors and deserters were detained for similar offences, 117 arrested, 24 placed in disciplinary battalions, and 380 sentenced to fines by courts, as reported by the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection.
Desertion and draft, or military service, evasion may be punishable by imprisonment for up to three years under Articles 335 and 336 of the Criminal Code.
On February 5, 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law specifying particularly stiff ways in which the army can respond to disobedience, disregard or disobedience of a commander, use of force, and leaving a combat position. The law states: "In a combat situation, the commander may make use of a weapon or give orders to subordinates to use a weapon if there is no other way to end the violation." According to Newsweek magazine, commanders are allowed to "shoot at deserters or those who are disobedient."
International orders and decisions
The issue of conscientious objection has repeatedly been dealt with at the level of the United Nations level in the bodies concerned with human rights. Resolutions and decisions of the human rights committees are thereby important both in individual cases and in the examination of country reports within the framework of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in General Remarks Nos. 22 and No. 32. Find out more at Laurel Townhead: International Standards on Conscientious Objection to Military Service.
Furthermore, in 2011, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the case of Bayatyan v. Armenia that the conviction of a conscientious objector violates Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)--that is, the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. At the same time, the Court recognised the human right to conscientious objection (European Court of Human Rights, decision of 7 July 2011, Application No 23459/03).
As stated above, therefore, in none of the three countries is the human right to conscientious objection implemented in the manner required by various international bodies and the European Court of Human Rights.
Rudi Friedrich, Connection e.V.: Conscientious objection and desertion in Belarus, Russian Federation, and Ukraine. March 24, 2022.