Country profiles of conscientious objection

The right to claim conscientious objector to war status varies greatly among different country contexts. These profiles from the Republic of Korea, Colombia and Israel illustrate the very real struggles and risks currently faced by young people, reminding us that saying no to war still remains a costly choice.

Republic of Korea (by Jae-Young Lee)

In the Republic of Korea (commonly referred to as South Korea), military service is mandatory for all young men. There are no legal provisions for conscientious objection. According to the United Nations, of 723 COs imprisoned worldwide, 669 (or 92.5 percent) are incarcerated in South Korea.

Sang-Min Lee, a member of Grace and Peace Mennonite Church in Seoul, is the first South Korean Mennonite to refuse military service because of his commitment to Christ. He came to this decision over a period of seven years through study, reflection and the encouragement of people around him. Initially he was actively involved in a non-Christian NGO called World Without War. One of the reasons he came to Grace and Peace Church was because he had learned that the Mennonite church would support his decision to become a CO. Sang-Min was sentenced to 18 months in prison on April 30, 2014 and is currently incarcerated. He could be released after 15 to 16 months’ imprisonment. He will have a criminal record upon his release.

Being a Christian pacifist in South Korea is a very difficult thing, because opposition to military service in South Korea is seen as a betrayal of one’s country and as sympathy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the DPRK, or North Korea). Conscientious objectors and their families experience ostracism and isolation.

There can also be division within families. For Sang-Min, a major dilemma in identifying as a conscientious objector for peace has been becoming a “peace-breaker” within his family. Sang-Min’s father is a pilot and former major in the country’s air force who does not agree with his son’s views. He believes that the serious political tension between North and South Korea makes conscientious objection inappropriate.

However, in past months the father has visited Sang-Min in prison several times and demonstrated patient listening and respect for his son’s beliefs. Members of Grace and Peace Church have met Sang-Min’s parents, talked with them about “what is a Mennonite,” and explained that some Christians who try to follow Jesus’ teaching on peace and justice will do so to the point of becoming prisoners. The father has slowly accepted Sang Min’s decision.

Even though this journey will not be short, there is hope that this “unexpected incident” called conscientious objection may reveal God’s plan of peace and reconciliation for Sang-Min and his family.

Currently, Grace and Peace Church has no members who are of military age; consequently conscientious objection is not a burning issue. However, Sang-Min’s personal journey has influenced church members to think about what it means to be Christian pacifists in Korea. Sang-Min definitely has challenged all church members to shape their faith identity as Korean Mennonites.

Colombia (Anna Vogt)

Jhonatan David Vargas did not know that what he was doing was called conscientious objection until he had been in the army battalion for three months. Jhonatan, a member of a local Foursquare church, however, was sure that he did not want to learn how to kill or belong to an armed group.

His case exemplifies the challenges that Justapaz, a Colombian Mennonite agency, faces when working with COs in Colombia, where there is no practical way to access the right of conscientious objection. Justapaz played a pivotal role by advocating for inclusion of this right in the Colombian Constitution of 1991. In the nearly 25 years since, Justapaz has been demanding that the right to conscientious objection be regulated.

Each eighteen-year-old man must serve one year in the army unless he receives a deferral. The majority of youth have no idea that it is possible to say no, meaning that education and political advocacy are both important parts of Justapaz’s work. As there are no regulating bodies, laws or norms set in place, each case becomes a unique navigation through the complex Colombian legal system.

As a student, Jhonatan believed that he would be granted a deferral. However, the army told him that his seminary studies were not eligible and he was illegally incorporated into the army. While there, he refused to fire a weapon or swear allegiance to the flag, an important ceremonial part of basic training. When Justapaz learned of the situation they worked to rally international support for a letter writing campaign to pressure national authorities and used their national networks to work on legal strategies, including with the Constitutional Court.

When given routine home leave, Jhonatan refused to return to the army in the hope of being declared a CO and, with the help of Justapaz, his family started a complex legal process. The military, however, declared him absent without leave (AWOL) and, on September 4, 2014 during a routine ID check, Jhonatan was arrested. Justapaz again put its advocacy machine in action.

Justapaz’s work involves not only advocacy, but all of the challenges associated with living in Latin America’s most militarized society. Objecting and accompaniment are risky as they are actions that expose and threaten military control: both individual COs and Justapaz often deal with threats and the very real possibility of retaliation.

Context analysis and self-protection strategies are fundamental parts of Justapaz’s work. Anything can happen: during the writing of this article, Jhonatan was arrested and the Constitutional Court ruled in his favor, ensuring his release. He is now officially recognized as a conscientious objector to war and military service. Each new event requires new strategies. Yet the end goal remains the same: that the rights of every young man to object are respected, that appropriate legislation is implemented and that obligatory military service is abolished.

Israel (Ruth Hiller)

Refusal to do military service in Israel is a complex issue. Many assume that all Israelis are required to serve in the army, and many do. However, a growing number of Israeli citizens choose not to enlist.

It is important to note that military service is required only of Jews and secular Palestinian Arab Druze men. It is not required of Christians or Muslims, who make up 20% of the population. While the government attempts to maintain the myth that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is an army of all the people, there are huge efforts to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, a sector which has been exempt from military service since Israel’s establishment. The haredim maintain that their contribution to society is through their study of Torah, which they consider greater than military service. They consider compulsory military service a form of religious persecution.

There are also attempts to conscript Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Participation in the Israeli army is regarded by many Palestinians as equivalent to treason, since Israel still occupies Palestine. Nevertheless, some Muslim and Christian Palestinians (including Bedouins) with Israeli citizenship do volunteer for army service. It has yet to be proven that participation in the military by non-Jews provides connections that will further careers or other opportunities such as integration into mainstream Israeli society. Druze villages, where residents do conscript, are subject to overcrowding, poor infrastructure and house demolitions. Presently many Bedouin villages in the Negev are also subject to repeated destruction—the homes of former Bedouin soldiers are not spared.

While conscientious objection is at present a marginal phenomenon in Israeli society, there are signs of its growth. For example, some young Jewish COs, aged 16-20, calling themselves the Shministim (high school seniors) have declared their refusal to serve in an occupying army. In 2014 a group of 140 Shministim signed a public letter and sent it to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, clearly stating their intent to refuse to do military service. They wrote:

We, the undersigned, intend to refuse to serve in the army and the main reason for this refusal is our opposition to the military occupation of Palestinian territories. . . . The problem with the army does not begin or end with the damage it inflicts on Palestinian society. It infiltrates everyday life in Israeli society too: it shapes the educational system, our workforce opportunities, while fostering racism, violence and ethnic, national and gender-based discrimination. We refuse to aid the military system in promoting and perpetuating male dominance. . . . We refuse to forsake our principles as a condition to being accepted in our society. We have thought about our refusal deeply and we stand by our decisions.

Such a declaration means that these teenagers, upon their induction dates, are possible candidates for immediate incarceration that could last for many months. But in addition to the possible threat of going to jail, these young people are also subject to continued harassment by their teachers, peers, communities and the military. Their families may tell them how disappointed they are in the choices they have made, and some leave home due to the high tensions created.

Through acts of civil disobedience and their desire to apply democratic values and to change society, the Shministim are a growing group of young people  who bravely oppose Israel’s occupation of Palestine at all costs and believe in a better and more peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians.

Jae-Young Lee is currently Executive Director of the Northeast Asia Regional Peacebuilding Institute and a director of the Korea Peacebuilding Institute. He is also a leader in the Grace and Peace Mennonite Church. Anna Vogt works with MCC Colombia partner Justapaz in Bogota. She is from Dawson, Yukon, Canada. Ruth L. Hiller is a co-founder of New Profile, the movement to demilitarize Israeli society established in 1998 to support and counsel anyone considering not doing army service.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

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