Conscientious Objection to Military Service— Another Step Forward

Derek Brett, CPTI UN Representative
Geneva, Switzerland, 17 October 2010

Just over three years after its first ground-breaking decision, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, at its session in New York in March 2010, took another major step forward in consolidating its jurisprudence on the right of conscientious objection to military service (a right which we in CPTI would like to see expanded to include the payment of taxes destined for military expenditure).

In Yoon and Choi v. Republic of Korea, decided in November 2006, the Committee had ruled that these two Jehovah's Witnesses, who had each been imprisoned for 18 months for refusing military service, as there was no provision in national legislation for them to register as conscientious objectors, were victims of a violation of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion).

Jehovah's Witnesses are well known for their pacifism. However in the latest decision Eu-min Jung et al v. Republic of Korea) the Committee was ruling on "communications" from eleven conscientious objectors who were not Jehovah's Witnesses. One was a Buddhist, one a Catholic, and the other nine had no religious adherence. All had suffered the statutory 18 months' imprisonment for refusing military service.

Despite the variety of individual standpoints represented, the Committee was happy to "link" the cases and to rule that they were covered by its decision in 2006. This time, however, they were careful to add to the wording about "religious convictions," a reference to "freedom of conscience." (The small print of these decisions is often as important as the headline.) Moreover, this decision was unanimous; sixteen of the seventeen members available participated, including one who had dissented from the previous decision.

As in the previous case, the Committee found that the State party had an obligation, not only to provide compensation to the "authors" of the complaint, but also to ensure that similar violations did not occur in the future. As South Korea has recently imprisoned several hundred declared conscientious objectors to military service each year, this would require a truly dramatic change in the situation on the ground.

The Human Rights Committee has no means of enforcing its decisions. But that does not make them irrelevant. South Korea can no longer claim that it is legitimate to lock up any conscientious objector. Nor can any of the 165 other states which have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights claim that, because they have no law on the subject, the right of conscientious objection to military service does not apply to them.