Abolish conscription. Military training makes everyday violence more accessible.
A report on the International Conference on Conscientious Objection in Seoul, 18th-20th November 2023.
(06.02.2024) Around the activities of its 20th anniversary, the organization World Without War held a three-day international conference in Seoul. Activists and conscientious objectors from various countries, including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Nepal, Israel, Russia, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK, gathered in the South Korean capital to discuss the status and challenges of conscientious objection in Asia. In addition to the difficult situation of conscientious objection in South Korea, the participants addressed the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza as well as antimilitarist struggles against them. The conference offered a space to exchange experiences and build interpersonal relationships, solidarity, and cooperation between different grassroots movements. It was organized by World Without War in cooperation with Connection e.V. and War Resisters’ International and financially supported by the Evangelical Mission in Solidarity (Germany), the Protestant Church in Hessen and Nassau (Germany), and the Daum Foundation (South Korea).
Life “between prisoners and prison guards”: the alternative service system in South Korea
The first day of the conference was dedicated to the situation of conscientious objection in South Korea. It has been more than 20 years since conscientious objection was practiced as part of the civil disobedience movement because “just as war is the result of everyday discrimination and exploitation, peace is the result of everyday hard work.” After years of antimilitarist struggles by civil organizations, including World Without War, the South Korean parliament eventually introduced alternative service in 2020.
To be eligible for alternative service, COs must undergo an exhausting screening process by the Civilian Service Commission, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Defence. According to two COs who shared their experience with us, life as "alternative service personnel” feels like “the life of a better prisoner”:
With three years, alternative service is twice as long as regular military service. It must be served in a correctional facility and has a sanctioning effect. Even though alternative service personnel are not prisoners, they must adhere to the strict rules of life in jail. They are limited in their freedom to leave the prison premises and cannot contact the “outside world” on their terms as they live on the grounds of the prison throughout the entire time and do similar work to the prisoners themselves. These are some of the reasons why the number of “political” COs has not increased since the introduction of alternative service, but levels at around 1,000 people per year (which amounts to 1% of all COs).
Jang Gil-Wan, an activist and conscientious objector currently serving alternative service explained why it is not easy for individuals to choose the alternative service system. South Korea is a highly militarized society, Jang Gil-Wan explained, where national security is still a powerful ideology. At the same time, choosing alternative service is a nerve-wracking process that requires courage and perseverance because the Alternative Service Commission asks very personal questions and screens your past for political or moral activities that justify – according to their beliefs – the refusal to military service. Although the service itself is not comparable to a prison sentence, it is connected to the military through the Military Administration and the Ministry of Defence. It requires COs to work and live in a militarized environment for three long years. Those who refuse on religious grounds – such as approx. 26,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses who have refused since the introduction of conscription in South Korea in 1957 – have an easier path to the screening process than those with political or pacifist motivations. The latter must go through several hearings and examinations before they are admitted or rejected for alternative service. Antimilitarism and pacifism are defined extremely narrowly, the screening procedures are non-transparent and there is no option to appeal against the commission’s final decision. According to Jang Gil-Wan, these precautions put COs in an ambiguous position between prisoners and soldiers. With the first generation of alternative service personnel (who were conscripted in October 2020) now being discharged, they hope to gather their “thoughts and wisdom on how the punitive and discriminatory practice of alternative service can be transformed into a better system from a human rights and democratic perspective (...). If alternative service is supposed to be a way for those who have rejected the military and war to contribute to society in a ’different way,’ there is no reason for it to be punitive and discriminatory. For the system to be transformed into an alternative form that guarantees universal rights, it is necessary to examine whether it is operating in accordance with human rights values and democratic principles. With the completion of one cycle, I hope that the system can change soon, and that the voices of civil society and alternative service personnel who have been involved in the conscientious objection movement can be heard in the process.”
The following two days of the conference focussed on conscientious objection in other Asian countries: In addition to the first Thai conscientious objector Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and the Turkish activist Merve Arkun, we paid particular attention to activists and conscientious objectors from Israel and Russia. A CO and activist from the Israeli feminist movement New Profile and two activists of the Russian Movement for Conscientious Objection (MCO) reported on the current challenges of their work and the urgent need to stand up against war and oppression in their home countries.
Turkish conscientious objectors face "civilian death"
During the 1990s, the first Turkish conscientious objectors publicly declared their objection to war, the military, and compulsory military service for all male citizens between the ages of 20 and 41. "In a society where every man is identified as both, a Turk and a soldier from birth, the first (public) objectors began to write a new, different story," explained Merve Arkun from the initiative Conscientious Objection Watch (COW). According to official data from the Turkish organization Vicdani Ret İzleme, almost 600 conscientious objectors declared their objections between 1989 and 2022. The actual number of COs is difficult to estimate, but it is certainly many times higher. Turkey is still the only member state of the Council of Europe that has not recognized the right to conscientious objection; there is neither an alternative service system nor a legal tool that conscientious objectors can make use of. They are forced to lead a life in which they are deprived of social, political, and economic participation. They face numerous rights violations, including administrative fines and repeated court proceedings for the same charge, violations of the right to education, the right to vote, and the right to formal employment (with social security), confiscation of bank accounts, and restrictions on freedom of movement. This arbitrary criminalization was classified as "civil death" by the European Court of Human Rights because regular participation in social life is no longer possible once a person objects to military service.
Thailand: The monk and the military
With the newspaper article "The Monk and the Military", activist and publisher Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal gained international attention as the first Thai conscientious objector. At the age of 18, he publicly declared his conscientious objection to military service through War Resisters’ International. Afterward, he began to live as a monk for one year. Since then, Netiwit has repeatedly refused to be called up for military service. “A century ago, with the influence of Western ideas and colonization, Rama V abolished slavery, seemingly promising freedom for plebeians. Yet, he replaced the previous mandatory service with universal conscription for males. Although he introduced military cadet training, few Thais wanted their children to learn to kill.”
He told us about Thai initiatives campaigning for the right to conscientious objection, which are closely linked to himself and his history. Although Thailand is not involved in wars, violence permeates everyday life, Netiwit explained. The country has witnessed 13 coups d’état, and the military has always been dominating public discourse. Military service, too, is characterized by violence and oppression: Salaries are low, corruption is rampant, and violence endangers the lives of conscripts. “This system deprives individuals of opportunities to serve society and humanity, molding them into a culture of violence" he continues and refers to a 2016 report by Amnesty International that sheds light on the many conscripts who died of abuse in military training camps. With his last call-up in April 2024, Netiwit faces imprisonment. Still, he is determined to visit the military center that day, “not as a recruit but to demonstrate my commitment to the cause and inspire others to stand up and refuse. Our world is in need of conscientious objectors now more than ever; we represent the spirit of nonviolence and demilitarization, offering new ways of living together in a more connected world.”
On resistance to governments waging war: Contributions from Russia and Israel
During the conference, activists from Russia and Israel stressed how difficult it is for them to resist militarism and repression during war. Both countries have highly militarized societies where state repression and persecution of political opponents have rapidly increased when war was declared. Repression is exerted through verbal, psychological, and physical violence, hacker attacks on social media accounts and private devices of activists, arrests, and prison sentences. The Movement of Conscientious Objectors Russia even received foreign agent status this year in June – although we are not registered in Russia. For the participants from Russia and Israel, most of whom live in exile, traveling to Seoul involved personal risks. Their testimonies and personal stories of grief and loss as well as their demands for an end to the war in Ukraine and the continuous bombing of the Gaza Strip, however, were utterly important contributions to the conference, given the urgency and reverberations of these wars on the international community. They also emphasized that informal, personal dialogue with other people affected by war is an important emotional pillar when political work is accompanied by personal losses and existential fears.
Israeli feminist network New Profile opposes militarism and an end to the occupation of Palestine
It is quiet in the conference hall when the Israeli activist talks about the work of the feminist antimilitarist network New Profile: They told us about countless counseling sessions with conscripts, soldiers, and conscientious objectors; about the conscription of Ukrainian and Russian refugees who applied for permanent residency in Israel when fleeing the war in Ukraine and are now being recruited for the war against Palestinians; about the political struggles and educational programs against militarism. At the same time, they drew attention to structural discrimination in Israeli society and positioned themselves against the occupation of Palestine, the war in Gaza, and the militarism of Israeli society: “Gaza continues to be the biggest jail in the world (…). Even if we call for a ceasefire, it will not end this cycle of violence. It has to be [followed] by a long peace process where people understand that violence is not the solution but only brings more violence. A process for the people to understand what happens to Palestinians. This process [between Israelis and Palestinians] is going to take a long time but needs to happen for us to live in peace. And we need to stop the militarization of society because if you know you’re going to be a soldier, you become a more violent person. And when you are (…) able to shoot people, it’s much easier for you to use violence (…). If violence is more accessible to you, you’ll use it more often. So, we have to get through this very long, very important process of justice in our society.
On the same day, the first – officially approved – public demonstration calling for a ceasefire in Gaza took place in Tel Aviv. “Israel has tried the military solution time and time again and just thought that if we have a strong enough military and enough technology (...), we’ll be able to repress (the conflict between Israel and Palestine). But it doesn’t. It explodes. That’s what happened on October 7th. (Israeli) People paid with their lives for it and Gazans are still paying with their lives for it”, explains conscientious objector and anti-occupation activist Sahar Vardi in an interview with the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO) who joined the event. "We are protesting for an end to this murderous war against the Gazan civilians. We want a long-term solution that will bring safety and security to civilians in Gaza, the West Bank, and inside Israel," adds Tal Mitnick, a recent conscientious objector, and activist with the Israeli conscientious objectors network Mesarvot.
“They were the most crucial months for us”. The Movement for Conscientious Objection Russia on raising awareness during the war
In recent months, the Russian movement for conscientious objection (MCO) has been confronted with an unprecedented challenge: With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s political landscape was put upside down. Initiatives and individuals who spoke out against the war were criminalized and conscripts were forcibly recruited to the army – especially people in the separatist areas – with invasive measures such as raids and false contracts. Many people lost relatives and friends “on the frontlines” and spaces for civil society continued to shrink. “Many men, especially male activists, left the country out of fear of mobilization. Therefore, peace activism and political activism as well as social work have more and more a female face”, one of the activists explained. At the same time, significant progress has been made in raising awareness about the right to conscientious objection on the national and international levels, so the MOC activists. This positive development emphasizes the importance of conscientious objection as a human right during war. Taras, who lives in exile in Northern Europe, is convinced that personal stories of COs and war resisters boost the determination and support in the pursuit of conscientious objection. "If we look back at the past few months, it is clear that conscientious objection is not just about the people who object to the military, but also about the communities, movements, and organizations around them. Our commitment to transparency, education, and support makes the Movement for Conscientious Objection Russia an important advocate for conscientious objection.”
A few days later, political repression in Russia reached a new peak when “Russia’s supreme court outlawed what it called an ‘international LGBT public movement’ as extremist, in a landmark ruling” that is not directed against a specific organization, but an – imaginary – group whose connection is loose at best. It will massively restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ people and Russian society itself, because “all opposition movements can now be classified as LGBTQ+ and therefore, extremist. Criminalization will further silence the opposition and fuel hatred towards minorities”, a Russian CO and activist with Connection e.V. explains.
Empathy, solidarity, and resistance
What do we need from each other? What can we offer? What do we have in common?
On the last day of the conference, we collected our resources and needs to improve our work and strengthen our cooperation. While activists from countries with conscription, some even at war, shared their valuable experiences and knowledge on a variety of issues from creative campaigning to protection against repression, transnational organizations offered channels to support resistance and multiply the voices of those who publicly speak out against militarization, war, and occupation.
The Conference on Conscientious Objection in Seoul was an opportunity to build solidarity networks based on trust, warmth, and openness toward each other. It emphasized the remarkable value of personal, informal relationships between activists from grassroots movements in different regions and opened a way to translate our takeaways into different languages and contexts.
What we have in common as antimilitarists, is to reject a binary way of looking at conflicts. We do not see others as enemies who must be oppressed or killed to eliminate the differences between us but believe in antimilitarist approaches to resolving conflicts. We support those who oppose armies and refuse to kill, even when under immense pressure, and bolster resistance to oppressive regimes. We believe in trust and cooperation as the foundation of justice and community.
A booklet on the conference is expected to be published in spring 2024. It will provide an in-depth insight into the conference and will be supplemented with further information on conscientious objection in Asia and beyond.
Marah Frech works on the executive board of Connection e.V. and attended the conference as part of the German delegation.
The conference was financially supported by the Evangelical Mission in Solidarity (EMS) and the Evangelical Church of Hesse-Nassau.
Marah Frech, "Abolish conscription. Military training makes everyday violence more accessible". 2 January 2024. The article was first published in the German anarcho-pacifist magazine Graswurzelrevolution, issue 485, and revised for the English translation.