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Refusing to Kill: Why we should listen to the voices of conscientious objectors

Semih Sapmaz speaking on CO Day 2024

Refusing to Kill: Why we should listen to the voices of conscientious objectors

Earlier this year, when the head of the British army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, called for a “citizen army” to prepare for a ground war with Russia, military conscription was suddenly in the headlines, pushed by right-wing commentators and hawkish politicians.

This provoked many people to wonder, perhaps for the first time, how would I feel if I were conscripted? What would I do?

Conscientious objection to conscription in Britain is mainly associated with the world wars. Around 20,000 British men became conscientious objectors (COs for short) during the first world war.

Many were imprisoned, mostly in solitary confinement. Their experience fed into the anti-war struggles that continued in the inter-war period and contributed to even higher levels of conscientious objection during the second world war, when some 60,000 people refused to fight.

Conscientious objection is an act of refusal, the refusal to kill, the refusal to play a part in the machinery of war. British COs had a variety of motivations — religion, socialism, absolute pacifism or a mixture.

Whatever their views, they all faced a choice, a fork in the road forced on them by the state and the law. With no choice but to act, they followed their conscience.

While the memory and distinctive politics of conscientious objection in Britain has retreated over time, it is important to remember that the same stark choice is still faced by millions of people around the world.

From Russia to Ukraine, South Korea to Colombia, Thailand to Israel, conscription is still in force. For young people in particular, that choice — to fight or to refuse — is very real, and either option holds very real consequences.

Take the example of Tal Mitnick, the first Israeli conscript to declare a conscientious objection since the current war in Israel and Gaza began. In December Mitnick appeared before the army’s conscience committee, which subjected him to aggressive questioning and, having decided his motivation was “political,” denied his request. Mitnick has now served multiple sentences in military prison, amounting to 150 days behind bars.

Several Israelis have since followed Mitnick’s example and declared a conscientious objection. Moreover, according to the Refuser Solidarity Network, hundreds more have refused to participate in the war, both conscripts and reservists. Many, knowing the consequences of conscientious objection, seek exemption on mental health grounds — one of the ways in which COs are silenced and depoliticised.

In many countries, the penalties are even worse. Russian COs, for instance, face up to 10 years in prison. There are reports of large numbers of COs detained without trial in Russian-controlled Ukraine, where they face appalling conditions and threats of torture and execution. One human rights group described a Russian officer tying his troops to a tree overnight for refusing to fight on the front line.

In Ukraine meanwhile, men aged 18-60 have been banned from leaving the country, while martial law eliminates the right to alternatives to military service. One Ukrainian CO has served a prison sentence while nine have been given suspended sentences.

Conscientious objection is a human right, recognised as an integral part of “the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the severity of the treatment of COs varies, the failure of states to uphold their rights is a near-universal feature of militarism worldwide.

In Turkey COs receive lifelong persecution, with continuous arrest warrants and prosecutions excluding them from social and economic life. In Singapore, COs face three years in jail. In Eritrea, they are often imprisoned indefinitely without trial. Even in Britain, the ill-treatment of COs continues. As recently as 2011, a British sailor was refused discharge from the Royal Navy after objecting to the war in Afghanistan and given seven months in prison.

COs are vital witnesses. While bombs rain down on cities and hospitals, COs come up against the sharp domestic edge of militarism. In each country, under each regime, they bear witness to the legal, social and coercive mechanisms that war depends on. They refuse to be cog or a spring — however small — in that machine. They know the truth of Bertolt Brecht’s lines:

General, your tank is a powerful vehicle
It smashes down forests and crushes a hundred men.
But it has one defect:
It needs a driver.

COs refuse conscription, not necessarily for some wider strategic or collective purpose, but because they will not participate in war. They will not drive that tank. This can be a lonely decision. It is in the interests of militarism to keep COs isolated and intimidated. COs regularly face stigmatisation and ostracism from their communities and wider society.

The threat of persecution keeps many COs silent and cut off from sources of political support. In the case of Russia, for example, while several COs are known by name, the vast majority are likely to be unrecognised, their numbers among the more than 180,000 Russians who have fled to Kazakhstan, Georgia and Turkey since the start of mobilisation for the war in Ukraine.

The risk of isolation makes solidarity for and between COs especially crucial. Groups offering practical and political support allow COs to gain strength from one another, transforming atomised individuals into communities and movements. As Ben Arad, another recent Israeli CO, explained, “I don’t think I would be here if it wasn’t for Tal Mitnik who refused before me… It shows people that there are other options in life, that you can talk freely.”

This network of solidarity extends worldwide. War Resisters’ International (WRI) is an anti-militarist network linking up organisations supporting COs around the globe and offering country-by-country information on the treatment of COs.

Though the memory of conscription in Britain has faded, it is vital that we build links of solidarity to support COs around the world.

May 15 is International Conscientious Objectors’ Day (CO Day), when peace campaigners in Britain and many other countries celebrate the courage of COs past and present.

This year the National Ceremony for CO Day in London heard speeches by Or, an Israeli CO, and Semih Sapmaz from WRI, on the contemporary struggles of COs worldwide.

The right to refuse to kill may exist on paper, but there remains a long way to go. Many of those acting in conscience cannot speak out against the regimes that deny them this right.

It is, therefore, critical that those of us who can, do. It is critical that we come together in solidarity with COs, who defy governments in the face of significant personal consequences, and that we learn from their courage and foresight. We must refuse to stay silent so others can refuse to fight.

Image above - Semih Sapmaz from War Resisters' International, speaking about the struggles of conscientious objectors around the world, at the National Ceremony for International Conscientious Objectors' Day, 2024