International law and conscientious objection

Laws providing for conscientious objection to military service vary from country to country. Both the U.S. and Canada have traditions of allowing recognized COs to perform an alternate service in lieu of military service. In many countries, however, individuals who identify as COs may face persecution, prosecution and imprisonment. For this reason, some have sought refugee status in other countries.

Over the decades, however, advocacy at the United Nations (UN) has resulted in growing recognition of conscientious objection as a right under international law. In 1998, for example, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution urging states to consider granting refugee status to COs who leave their country of origin out of fear of persecution due to their refusal to perform compulsory military service when no appropriate alternatives are available. The decision acknowledged that individuals may develop conscientious objections while performing military service.

In 2013, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution affirming that conscientious objection to military service is recognized in international law as derived from the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. According to this resolution, states are under the obligation to make laws and implement procedures to provide for conscientious objection to military service. They are to make information about conscientious objector status and how to apply for it readily available to conscripts, volunteers and those already in the armed forces. Moreover, they are to allow for selective objection—a situation in which a CO objects to participation in a specific war but not all wars. Also in 2013 the UNHRC released guidelines related to the protection of individuals seeking refugee status in countries other than their own because of fear of persecution. As these developments indicate, the status of conscientious objection within international law and practice continues to evolve.

Esther Epp-Tiessen is public engagement coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office.

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