The Right of Conscientious Objection to Military Service

A study prepared for the World Council of Churches Central Committee (Geneva, 2009) by the office of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence.

The pioneers of a world without war are the youth who refuse military service.
                                                                        (Albert Einstein)

Download the full text of the study (.pdf)

Executive Summary

This documents responds to a request from Central Committee for a study on conscientious objection to military service, in light of the 2006 analytical report of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. The study which is now presented to Central Committee by the WCC’s DOV Office is divided in four parts:

The first part traces the discussion of and action on conscientious objection in the WCC and the ecumenical movement. The WCC submitted a Statement on the Question of Conscientious Objection to Military Service to the UN in 1973. several churches and related organizations, primarily in Europe and North America have spoken to the issue or have taken action in favor of conscientious objectors.

The second part examines approaches to conscientious objection according to the UN analytical report, and to recent news. While the issue is complex, a few observations are pertinent: First, conscientious objection is recognized by the UN as a human right. However, the practice in many countries is not in compliance with international standard. Furthermore, no conscription does not mean there is no need for the right to conscientious objection in particular situations of armed conflict. There may be selective objection to specific duties or it may be that a soldier becomes a conscientious objector.

In the third part, some specific examples are given of how churches deal with the question of the right of conscientious objection. In several countries, especially in Europe and North America, churches or church related associations take particular action in favor of conscientious objection or to provide moral, spiritual and legal assistance to conscientious objectors in their struggle.

Finally, some observations, perspectives and recommendations are shared. While this study is open for further work as the discussion evolves and the issues persist, the conclusion is that it is appropriate and necessary for the WCC to call on churches to support conscientious objection to military service: Churches have a role in advocating compliance with universal human rights and international law. Moreover, in a context where conscription may have declined, but wars or armed conflicts take mostly civilian lives and do not comply with UN resolutions or international law, conscientious objection may increasingly be seen as a moral obligation, both by religious communities and by civil society. Furthermore, would it not be inconsistent of churches to call war immoral or illegal and not encourage their members to object enrollment in active duty and help them work through the issues and consequences, in Christ’s footsteps?

These are some of the reasons why the WCC has a role to play in promoting advocacy for conscientious objection as human rights and as a moral, ethical and Christian position of principle, as well as in encouraging churches to assist conscientious objectors where they face prosecution or discrimination.

Geneva, June 2009

Download the full text of the study (.pdf)

Read more: WCC Central Committee minute on the right of conscientious objection to military service (1 September 2009)