the men who said no


no more war
conscientious objection around the world



Despite a decline since 1989 in the number of countries that have compulsory military service many still fail to recognise people’s right to refuse, because of moral political or religious convictions, to work in armed forces.

Background to Military Conscription

From the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, conscription of all men for a period of military service became the norm, regardless of whether any war was actually being fought, in the states across Europe and in colonial and ex-colonial territories such as Latin America. Britain stood out as an exception to this practice, as did the British dominions and the USA.

The widespread norm of conscription did not involve a norm of allowance for conscientious objection, which made it the more notable that when Britain introduced conscription in 1916, eighteen months into the First World War, the same legislation recognised conscientious objection, albeit inefficiently, as also happened in the USA in 1917.

Elsewhere, isolated conscientious objectors had been dealt with harshly, some executed, but between the two world wars, partly with increased international communication, and with the support of the War Resisters' International, founded in 1921, conscientious objectors became known in a number of European countries, sentenced either to lengthy imprisonment or repeated shorter terms. An exception to the ignoring of conscientious objection was Denmark (not involved in WW1), which first allowed it in 1917, followed by Norway in 1921 and Sweden in 1922.

It was not until well after the Second World War (in which Britain again introduced conscription, but with better provision for conscientious objection than in WW1) that, largely resulting from persistent stands by individual COs, conscientious objection was grudgingly recognised state by state in Western Europe, and even in East Germany. The collapse of the East European bloc enabled recognition of conscientious objection to spread eastwards.

A further effect of the end of the Cold War, and military technology overtaking previous reliance on large standing armies or cadres of trained reserves, has been a gradual movement away from conscription as the norm in Europe, though it persists in Austria, Scandinavia, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Russia and a number of other former constituent states of the USSR. It also persists in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Below are listed states in which conscription continues. In a few cases, conscription is confined to calling up some men in a year in which there are insufficient volunteers to complete the desired quota of recruits, and in some cases conscripts are selected by ballot each year among men reaching military age. In seven states, Cuba, Eritrea, Israel, North Korea, Norway, Sudan and Tunisia, conscription includes women. Not listed are a few states, e.g. Burma, where conscription legislation exists but as a matter of policy is not activated, and other states, e.g. China, where conscription legislation also exists, but the number of volunteers is regularly sufficient for the army’s requirements.

States recognising conscientious objection are listed in italics (with date of first recognition noted), but the degree and efficacy of recognition vary widely. No state has followed the UK example of allowing some COs unconditional exemption. The major areas of difficulty about CO recognition are (1) whether judgement of a CO’s sincerity is made by a tribunal or committee entirely separate from the military, or by the military administration itself; (2) whether any alternative service required is entirely separate from the military or organised or supervised by the military; (3) whether alternative service is the same period as military service or significantly longer.

Some examples of difficulties can be seen here.

Two organisations taking a particular interest in conscientious objection worldwide.
War Resisters' International
Amnesty International

Stories from countries where conscription is enforced.

Conscientious objection in the UK today

Britain no longer has compulsory conscription instead recruitment for personal takes place in schools in the guise of education.

A 2011 MOD report, in a section titled Overview of Current Defence Youth Activity, states that “servicemen and women engage young people in schools through presentations, discussions, problem solving and personal development activity … This engagement is primarily focused on recruitment, and each service also runs short military familiarisation courses to introduce selected young people to service life.” | more