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The History of International Conscientious Objectors' Day

International Conscientious Objectors' Day was first observed in 1982 by West European objectors to compulsory military service, as a focus both of campaigning for the right of objection to be established where it was lacking, and of support for objectors everywhere. The date 15th May was chosen simply because it happened to be mutually convenient in 1982 but was retained for renewed activity in 1983 and 1984. Then in 1985 it was formally adopted by the European Bureau of Conscientious Objectors and soon received worldwide recognition – being adopted by War Resisters' International – and changed from being European Conscientious Objectors' Day to International Conscientious Objectors' Day.

Ever since, it has been marked by vigils outside prisons or barracks where COs are held, by demonstrations at embassies of states where COs are not recognised and/or unfairly treated, by street theatre, and by ceremonies where names of conscientious objectors past or present are read out and publicly honoured.

The ambiguous word “hero” is not normally associated with conscientious objection, but it should be recalled that conscientious objectors have been executed for maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Maximilian in 295 AD resolved as a Christian not to serve in the Roman army, and was summarily beheaded with the sword his father had intended to give him on taking the oath as a soldier. More than two hundred conscientious objectors were shot by firing squad or beheaded by guillotine in Nazi Germany in the Second World War. As late as 1949 two conscientious objectors were shot by firing squad in Greece; the international scandal led to a reprieve for a third.

Between the World Wars a French objector was held for twenty years on the notorious penal colony Devil's Island, off French Guiana. Three conscientious objectors have been held continuously since 1994 in Eritrea, In 1916, thirty five British conscientious objectors were formally sentenced to death by firing squad, though immediately reprieved; on the other hand more than a hundred British WW1 objectors are known to have died prematurely as a result of their treatment in prison or the army.

Reproduced by permission from Housmans Peace Diary, 2020