International Day of Conscientious Objection 2002 in Brussels. Photo: War Resisters' International

International Day of Conscientious Objection 2002 in Brussels. Photo: War Resisters' International

In spite of a global trend to better recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service – which is marked with an International Day on 15 May – those who exercise that right are often discriminated, persecuted, repeatedly punished or sent to prison in many countries, first results of a study currently conducted by the World Council of Churches (WCC) show. 

Aimed at providing input to the upcoming meeting of its Central Committee in late August, the WCC study looks at the serious problems faced by conscientious objectors around the world, as well as to actions taken by churches and church-related organizations to support them. Korea, Israel and the United States are examples of countries where conscientious objection may put people through a tough time. 

The Republic of South Korea has the largest number of imprisoned conscientious objectors in the world – about 700 each year, according to War Resisters' International, a global network for the promotion of nonviolent action against the causes of war. Most of them are Jehovah's Witnesses who do not get any support from most local churches, for whom relating to Jehovah's Witnesses is a challenge. 

In 2007 the new government stopped the plans for an alternative civilian service. But political discussions have helped raise public awareness for conscientious objection and the number of objectors other than Jehova's Witnesses increased. 

A few church related organizations, such as the Korea Anabaptist Center, visit conscientious objectors in prison and introduce their case to churches and the public. 

In Israel the army not only recruits young men, but also women at the age of 17. It takes much courage to refuse, and those who do often face a first prison term when they are still teenagers. 

In recent years the "refusenik" movement of conscientious objectors has been growing. Many of those who refuse are not against the army in general, but against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. They also condemn the recent war in Gaza. 

Israeli conscientious objectors are supported by Pax Christi International, a Catholic peace organization and networking partner of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) as well as by the Quakers

In Canada, churches provide a sanctuary for war resisters from the United States. Most of these are soldiers who joined the army as volunteers, but now refuse to serve the armed forces as a consequence to their experiences in Iraq, which have made them feel that this war was morally wrong. 

Since selective objection to a certain war is not legally recognized in the United States, the war resisters flee to Canada with their families and ask for refugee status. They are nevertheless often faced with the threat of deportation and subsequent imprisonment in the US. Their children risk being sent to a children's home in that case. 

The International Day of Conscientious Objection to military service is observed on 15 May each year. Since 2001 War Resisters' International coordinates activities around this day, as "an opportunity for conscientious objection activists to share their experience, and learn from each other's struggles and campaigns". 

More about the International Day of Conscientious Objection  

UN report on "Civil and political rights, Including the question of conscientious objection to military service" (Analytical report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on best practices in relation to conscientious objection to military service), February 2006