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Online events held around the world for Conscientious Objectors' Day

Colombian poster promoting International Conscientious Objectors' Day

Online events held around the world for Conscientious Objectors' Day

People in six continents took part in events to support and celebrate conscientious objectors on Friday (15th May).

International Conscientious Objectors' Day is observed on 15th May every year, but with many people living under some form of lockdown due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, many of this year's events were held online.

In the UK, hundreds of people took part in online ceremonies to mark the Day, remembering British conscientious objectors of the past and offering solidarity and thanks to conscientious objectors around the world today.

Military conscription remains in force in many countries in varied parts of the world, including Israel, Turkey, Finland, Colombia and South Korea.

Donald Saunders, 95, who was a British conscientious objector in World War 2, joined a UK-based online ceremony at 12.00 noon on Friday from his home in North Wales, where he is self-isolating due to the pandemic.

He was joined by hundreds of other people of varied ages and backgrounds. The ceremony was organised by a collection of twelve charities and campaigning groups, including the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and Conscience.

Niat Chefena Hailemariam, an Eritrean conscientious objector, told the ceremony, “Today and on many other days we remember conscientious objectors all over the world. We remember them and fight for their freedom.”

Speaking on behalf of the Network of Eritrean Women, she explained that everyone in Eritrea is obliged to join the armed forces at the age of 16.

There are many Eritreans who for moral or religious reasons have refused to join the military,” she explained. “Their objection has caused them to flee, and some of them have been imprisoned indefinitely for years and years... Many have died and some have developed respiratory and skin disorders... They have friends and family who miss them dearly.”

During the event, the actor Michael Mears performed the words of various conscientious objectors during World War 2, including British objector Dennis Waters and Austrian objector Franz Jagerstatter.

The event also featured several songs and a minute's silence. Names were read out of around 100 conscientious objectors from different times and places around the world. The names, assembled by PPU archivist Bill Hetherington, were just a small sample of the thousands that could have been chosen.

The pandemic and lockdown prevented the usual gathering at the Conscientious Objectors' stone in Tavistock Square, London. But a PPU member who lives nearby visited the square on Friday morning to place white flowers on the stone.

Other British events to mark the day included an online vigil in Edinburgh, addressed by relatives of conscientious objectors and including a performance by pacifist singer-songwriter Penny Stone. Around 100 people attended a Zoom event organised by peace campaigners in Leicester, featuring stories of conscientious objectors from many parts of the world, including India and the USA as well as Britain.

The Peace Pledge Union published suggestions for marking International Conscientious Objectors' Day during the lockdown, which led to people displaying posters in their windows and promoting war resistance on social media.

War Resisters' International (WRI), which unites pacifists and anti-militarists around the world, drew attention to the realities of conscientious objectors seeking asylum as they flee conscription in their own countries.

They broadcast a short video message from Daniel Rezene, an Eritrean human rights activist living in Switzerland. “There are many people around the world fleeing their countries because of their objection to military conscription,” he said. “I emphasise on the need to recognise conscientious objection as a valid ground for asylum protection!”

Other videos broadcast by War Resisters' International included messages from conscientious objectors in Turkey, Colombia and Angola.

The Colombian wing of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom declared, “We remain in legitimate disobedience for the protection of life and we will continue contributing in the construction of a feminist, anti-militarist and pacifist world.”

Meanwhile in South Korea, the pacifist group World Without War held an online “talk show” with refugee groups and transgender rights groups.

There were hundreds of conscientious objectors in prison in South Korea until very recently, when the authorities responded to years of campaigning by recognising the right to conscientious objection. World Without War are now keeping a close eye on developments to see what this will mean in practice.

The whole of the UK-based ceremony organised by the PPU and other groups can still be viewed here free of charge.