Minute on the right of conscientious objection to military service
01 September 2009
- The World Council of Churches (WCC) and other civil society organizations urged the United Nations in 1973 to recognize conscientious objection to military service as “a valid expression of the right of freedom of conscience” and make alternative means of service available to conscientious objectors. The Statement on the Question of Conscientious Objection to Military Service from 1973 says that the WCC and its partner organizations “believe that the time has come for the Commission (on Human Rights) to take a decisive step towards the international recognition of the right of conscientious objection to military service”. Four considerations were cited as a basis for that belief: growing concern among religious communities, respect for the right to freedom of thought and for the integrity of the individual, the role of youth in promoting peace, and the fact that the lack of alternatives to armed service leads to a waste of human resources and prison terms of young people with deeply held convictions.
- Succeeding years have seen recognition granted in international forums and a UN covenant on civil and political rights. The ecumenical movement, through the Conciliar Process for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation, leading up to the 1990, Seoul, Korea Convocation on JPIC, reaffirmed the right to conscientious objection. As a result, conscientious objection to military service in principle has reached new levels of protection under the freedoms of thought and religion, as well as freedom of conscience.
- A report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2006, however, revealed serious shortfalls in many countries in recognizing and exercising the right to conscientious objection to military service and found that conscientious objectors are often subject to penalization, discrimination and imprisonment. The WCC central committee then called for a study in the light of that report.
- The WCC study shows that in many places churches face challenges of conscientious objection. Their responses include initiatives to support conscientious objectors in some countries. Three observations provide an overview of church positions on the issue: Historic Peace Churches strongly encourage their members to refuse participation in any military actions. Meanwhile, they respect the freedom of the individual decision. Other churches consider that both civilian service and military service may be Christian options. Finally, while many, and perhaps most churches, do not have an official position on the issue, the study found no evidence of these churches speaking against conscientious objection.
- The study suggests that a consensus position among churches is to affirm the right of conscientious objection so that individuals who feel they cannot bear weapons for religious or other reasons of conscience should have the possibility to object without being submitted to discrimination or punishment.
- It is also noted that in some countries where there is a right to conscientious objection to military service, some Christians have become sensitive to the use of their tax money for supporting war, and in some cases have faced government action against them because of their conscientious objection to paying for war. This development of conscientious objection deserves further study and consideration.
- As the Decade to Overcome Violence affirms the biblical foundations, especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount: The merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted are blessed in the Beatitudes; and Jesus teaches love even for one’s enemies (Matthew 5: 6-9).
Therefore, the central committee of the WCC, meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, 26 August - 2 September 2009:
A. Reiterates existing WCC policy and reaffirms its support for the human right of conscientious objection for religious, moral or ethical reasons in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and other international laws, as churches have an obligation to support those who refuse to take part in violence.
B. Calls upon WCC member churches, wherever they are in a position to do so, to uphold the right of refusal to bear and use arms and to encourage church members to uphold that right as well.
C. Deplores the situation that men, women and children in many parts of the world are forced into armed service under governments and also under non-governmental forces or paramilitary organizations.
D. Encourages member churches to address their respective governments and military organizations to recognize and honour conscientious objection to military service as a human right under international law.
E. Calls upon churches to encourage their members to object to military service in situations when the church considers armed action illegal or immoral.
F. Encourages churches to study and address the issue of military or war taxes and of alternatives to military service.
G. Calls upon all Christians to pray for peace, abandon violence and seek peace through nonviolent means.
Full text of the 2009 study "The Right of Conscientious Objection to Military Service", prepared for the WCC Central Committee by the office of the WCC Decade to Overcome Violence.
The following prayer is offered as a resource to enable the churches’ engagement with the issue articulated above:
God of peace and justice,
who creates us with a conscience and ability to make decisions
and declares, “Blessed are the peacemakers”.
Uphold those people and their families who, in using these gifts have committed their lives to peace and justice by refusing to engage in military service.
Help us to find ways of supporting their witness in prayer and action
and commit ourselves again to work for a world where violence has no place.