5.2 Administration of alternative service

Information as to exactly how civilian alternative service schemes are operated in practice is relatively sparse. It would however appear to be a general model that, as well as the conscript, two parties are involved; the body responsible for the administration of the scheme and the employing organisation. Even when both are within the State sector the two remain distinct. Unarmed service in the military apart, no instance has been found where the body which assigns the conscript to alternative service is itself the subsequent employer.

The usual practice is that one and the same administering body finds, or assesses the suitability of, potential employers, allocates conscripts to placements, monitors the performance of these arrangements and handles any disputes which arise. Sometimes this is also the body which is responsible for adjudicating on claims of conscientious objector status. The allocation of responsibilities in those countries which have either a functioning alternative service system or the necessary legislative provisions to institute one is indicated in Table 14.

Although the employing organisations may be civilian, the administration of the alternative service system is often firmly within the control of the Ministry of Defence or other military bodies. Elsewhere the influence is indirect; the supervising body may be itself a civilian agency, but appointed by the Ministry of Defence. This is for instance true of the Selective Service Agency in the USA, which continues with a skeleton staff while obligatory military service is suspended.

The close involvement of the military in the administration of alternative service arrangements can help to blur the distinction between unarmed military service and civilian service, breeding suspicion that civilian placements are not truly civilian. Many placements in the Russian Federation have been complained of in this regard; the list issued by the Ministry of Labour of some 700 organisations offering a total of over 23,500 placements includes the Ministry of Defence, the Federal Service of Specialised Construction, the Russian Agency for Conventional Weapons and the Russian Organisation for Ammunition. 

This has also been an issue in Armenia, where a number of Jehovah's Witnesses refused to accept alternative service because a lack of information about the details of the possible placements made it impossible to be certain that they would truly civilian. Early in 2005, 22 Jehovah's Witnesses did however come forward as the first Armenians to perform alternative service, and at first were satisfied that the psychiatric hospitals, sanatoriums and nursing homes to which they had been allocated were civilian establishments and that stipulations that military-style uniforms were to be worn and a military oath of allegiance taken were not at first insisted upon in practice.[1] By the end of the year, however, all twenty-two had left their placements, complaining that it had become increasingly clear that they were indeed in military establishments, and had been treated as members of the military.[2] 

  • [1] General Counsel of Jehovah's Witnesses, evidence submitted to the OHCHR, February 2005
  • [2] Corley, F. Armenia: We are breaking our Council of Europe commitments, official admits, Forum 18 News Service, Oslo (www.forum18.org), 7th November 2005.