5.1 What is alternative service?

The Commission on Human Rights... reminds States with a system of compulsory military service, where such provision has not already been made, of its recommendation that they provide for conscientious objectors various forms of alternative service which are compatible with the reasons for conscientious objection, of a non-combatant or civilian character, in the public interest and not of a punitive nature .

(Resolution 1998/77 OP4)

5.1 What is alternative service?

Certain points about the recommendation of the Commission on Human Rights must be stressed. It has no bearing on the basic right to conscientious objection; this right exists and can and should be recognised whether or not alternative service arrangements exist or would be appropriate. Alternative service cannot be asked of conscientious objectors who would not otherwise be subject to obligatory military service, whether because they are exempted on other grounds, because they had engaged voluntarily upon military service, or because they have already fulfilled their military service obligations. There is no right to alternative service; where alternative service exists it is a requirement imposed by the State, not a right. Moreover, it is no part of the Commission's recommendation that alternative service should be available to anyone other than conscientious objectors, although it does not explicitly preclude this. Nor is it stipulated is that such service should be obligatory. 

Alternative service can exist only as an alternative to obligatory military service; States without obligatory military service cannot by definition have alternative service, and even in those which do it is not an alternative to anything other than the obligatory requirement. It should be noted that in the 1998 Refusing to Bear Arms report and the 2005 update of the European entries the synonym  substitute service  is used. This is a direct translation of the original German term  Ersatzdienst . Even in Germany, however, this wording is no longer used in legislation.

The alternative service available may frequently include or comprise unarmed military service. In order to indicate explicitly an obligatory service completely outside the armed forces, this report uses the term civilian service . Some sources refer to  civil service but this has a completely different, and therefore potentially confusing, meaning in the UK.

How to refer to those performing the service also causes problems.  Civil servants presents the same problem as civil service Servant and  server are less ambiguous but are ungainly, carrying the wrong connotations. Some sources use the word  soldier, which is even more unfortunate. However to use conscientious objectors in this context is also unsatisfactory; not all alternative service schemes are exclusive to conscientious objectors and some conscientious objections are to alternative service. For simplicity, the neutral word conscript is used here to cover all those performing obligatory service, whether military or civilian.

Conversely, the existence of an alternative of a non­combatant or civilian character to military service does not in itself constitute a recognition of conscientious objection, or even necessarily imply such a recognition. Obligatory national service which may be performed in non-military - or civilian - establishments is sometimes found without any linkage to conscientious objection. 

In Guatemala the 2003 Civic Service Law[1] effectively made military service voluntary on condition that those who do not opt for it instead perform community service; there is however in the law no mention of conscientious objection. 

The Republic of Korea and Singapore both have civilian as well as military national service, but expressly refuse to allow conscripts to opt for such service on the grounds of conscientious objection. In the case of Singapore, such civilian service may be performed in the Civil Defence Force or the Police Force. The Civil Defence Force is responsible for dealing with such emergencies as fires, floods, or earthquakes; some, but not all of the service in the Police Force is armed. Crucially, though, both are administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs rather than the Ministry of Defence. At the time when the Civil Defence Act was passed (in 1987) there were some hopes that this option might be used in practice as an alternative to criminal proceedings against conscientious objectors, and at an early stage some Jehovah's Witnesses were indeed transferred from military service to civil defence, but the authorities have remained adamant that induction into civilian service for the purposes of national service occurs only at the discretion of the authorities and not by application of the individuals. At the beginning of 2005 20 Jehovah's Witnesses who had indicated their willingness to perform civilian service were imprisoned for refusing military service.[2]

Sweden similarly includes civilian service as part of national service, not exclusively or even primarily for conscientious objectors, although objectors are under Articles 3.16 and 3.21 of the Total Defence Service Act exempted from armed service, including guard duty and the maintenance of public order.

Many African States, especially those formerly under French rule have national service schemes which include work in development, but it is not reported that this is linked to any system for recognising conscientious objectors. The 1998 Refusing to Bear Arms study mentions such arrangements in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Madagascar, Mali and Morocco (where civilian service is open only to graduates, and lasts two years, as against 18 months in the army). According to the Child Soldiers Global Report 2004, national service in Niger, too, may take the form of civilian service. The original conscription legislation in Eritrea, dating back to a 1991, ( i.e. pre-independence) ordinance of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front envisaged six months of military training being followed by twelve months working on development projects. In fact, during the three years after 1991 nothing was done to enforce the National Service obligation; indeed the major concentration was upon reducing the numbers in the armed forces by demobilising a large proportion of the 95,000 troops with which the EPLF had ended the war for independence. Those who did come forward to undertake National Service at this time were not put through military training but all spent the entire eighteen months in the civilian part of the programme. In view of this, even some Jehovah's Witnesses willingly participated; one of the three Jehovah's Witnesses who have been imprisoned since 1994 for refusing military service (see p 86) had already undertaken this non-military national service and held a certificate of its satisfactory completion. When tensions grew over the border dispute with Ethiopia, the development service aspect was in practice abandoned.[3]

In Turkmenistan there has been widespread redeployment of conscripts into all parts of the economy, where they have allegedly provided a cheap replacement for thousands of civilian employees; in theory, instead of being paid from the defence budget they receive one third of the normal pay from the employer to which they are allocated; in practice they often go unpaid.[4] Ironically, while according to such reports some former conscripts have complained that throughout their military service they never touched a weapon, imprisonments continue of those who refuse on grounds of conscience to undertake military service.[5]

In Malaysia, the 2003 National Service Training Act instituted three months of compulsory national service at the age of 18, apparently administered by the Ministry of Defence, but it was claimed that this did not involve military training or service in the armed forces.[6]

Furthermore, although in some states the stipulations closest to recognition of a right to conscientious objection occur in a Law on Alternative Service, the systems brought into existence by such laws have not necessarily been exclusively for conscientious objectors. For instance in Kyrgystan the provisions apply to conscripts who oppose military service on religious grounds or whose their family status or health condition are not conducive to military service.[7] Sometimes the relevant legislation in fact makes no reference to conscientious objection, sometimes it may not in practice even be available to conscientious objectors. Therefore when, for example, it is reported that in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan draft laws to establish an alternative non-military service had not yet been put before the legislatures, it should not be taken for granted that conscientious objection would be one of the qualifications for benefiting from these laws. The local precedent of Uzbekistan is not a good one. There, under the 1992 Law on Universal Military Service, those exempted from military service were required to perform alternative service, but as discussed above (page 75) there is no evidence that any religious group was accepted as fitting the criteria which would enable its members to be recognised as conscientious objectors. Moreover, it would appear that under the 1992 Law on Alternative Service, this alternative service started with two months' basic military training - including weapons training. The reforms of 2002/2003, while still inadequate, have brought some rationalisation: those performing Alternative Service will henceforth be required to train in a military skill that does not involve the bearing of arms.[8] 

In Italy, by complete contrast to all the previous examples, the registration of conscientious objectors and their assignment to alternative civilian service is continuing, even though obligatory military service has been suspended.[9]

It should be noted also that in some instances (Paraguay, Ecuador, Estonia, Belarus) a reference in the Constitution to alternative service has not been followed up by the anticipated detailed legislation. In Bulgaria from 1991 until the end of 1998, and in the Russian Federation from 1993 until the end of 2003 constitutional provisions that conscientious objectors might perform alternative service were not backed up by detailed implementing legislation. During the hiatus, objectors adopted differing strategies to claim their constitutional rights. In the Russian Federation a substantial number of schemes were developed by co-operation between non governmental organisations and local government to make it possible for young men to perform alternative service without waiting for the state scheme.[10] In the case of Bulgaria the issue was pursued through the European Court of Human Rights; the friendly settlement in the case of Stefanov v Bulgaria [11] entailed the dismissal of all criminal proceedings under Article 361 of the Criminal Code (failing to respond to call-up for military service) which had been undertaken against conscientious objectors during the period between the 1991 Constitution and the coming into force of the Law on Alternative Service on the 1st January 1999, and the overturning of the resulting sentences.

...of a non-combatant or civilian character...

(Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1988/77, OP4)

The simplest form of alternative which may be offered to conscientious objectors is unarmed military service. Historically, such provision, for instance the opportunity of serving as medical personnel, has often been the first step in making more thoroughgoing arrangements to accommodate conscientious objection. However although not being required personally to carry weapons or undertake weapons training is acceptable to some, the majority of conscientious objectors do not feel able to accept any sort of military employment.

Some States make both unarmed military service and alternative civilian service available, with sometimes different conditions, e.g. of duration, applying. For instance in the Russian Federation unarmed military service is one-and-a-half times the length of military service for which the conscript would be liable, whereas civilian service is one-and-three-quarter times as long.[12] Unarmed military service may involve medical or clerical duties within the armed forces. In the Republika Srpska, before the abolition of conscription, one of the options for unarmed military service was work in military post offices. (By contrast, in the other Bosnian entity one of the forms of civilian service available was work in the Ministry of Defence.)

Often civilian service is not clearly distinguished from unarmed military service. Article 6.1 of the Bulgarian Law on Alternative Service of 16th May 2003 states: Alternative service is executed in: the military forces, organisations and departments financed by the government, in municipality and state factories in positions, which do not require carrying or using weapons. It is reported that in Mongolia, on grounds of religious faith or moral/ethic belief, a citizen... may join an alternate form of military service in professional or specialised civil defence units and sub-units or paramilitary unit for Border troops assistance and other humanitarian organisations.[13] The revealing phrase alternative military service also appears elsewhere; it was for instance used when the issue was first covered in the 1995 Constitution of Azerbaijan; the word military was deleted in a 2002 amendment, implying that there was a real contradiction to be cleared up, not simply a matter of translation. In the same vein, Article 21.3 of Law 2510/97 in Greece states that those performing alternative service are considered as quasi-enlisted in the armed forces.

In Brazil, the alternative service, defined in Article 3 of the relevant Law, Number 8.239/93 as the exercise of administrative, aid, philanthropic or even productive activities(3.2), is usually undertaken within the military and is in fact always in one essential respect unarmed military service: it is allocated by the authority of the Chief of the Armed Forces after enlistment. Even if it is ever performed in subordinate agencies to the Civil Ministries, by means of conventions between these and the Military Ministries, as long as there exist reciprocal interests(3.3), the conscript thus remains a soldier on secondment, not a civilian. The concomitant, that conscientious objectors who have performed such alternative service suffer no subsequent discrimination by comparison with those whose service was what the constitution terms essentially military, is therefore unsurprising, even though welcome.

  • [1] Law Number 20/2003 of 12th May 2003.
  • [2] General Counsel of Jehovah's Witnesses, response to OHCHR questionnaire 2003 and further evidence submitted, 2005. 
  • [3] Connection eV Germany, War Resisters International and Eritrean Anti-Militarist Initiative Eritrea: Conscientious Objection and Desertion London (WRI) April 2005, and General Counsel of Jehovah's Witnesses, response to OHCHR questionnaire, 2003.
  • [4] Institute of War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net), Turkmen Troops Double Up as Nurses and BakersReporting Central Asia Number 268, 25th February 2004 and Turkmenistan: half-starved soldiers prop up economyReporting Central Asia Number 428, 24th December 2005.
  • [5] General Counsel of Jehovah's Witnesses, evidence submitted to the OHCHR, February 2005.
  • [6] Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 (Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London).
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Radio Free Europe - Radio Liberty Uzbekistan introduces alternative military service, 2nd June, 2003 (www.rferl.org/newsline/2003/06/2-TCA/tca-020603.asp)
  • [9] See Italy's Fifth Periodic Report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, UN Document CCPR/C/ITA/2004/5, paragraphs 67 and 68.
  • [10] Evidence submitted in 2003 by the NGO Coalition for Democratic Alternative Civilian Service to the OHCHR for its report on best practices in the field of conscientious objection to military service.
  • [11] Application Number 32438/96; Judgment of 3rd May 2001.
  • [12] General Counsel of Jehovah's Witnesses, evidence submitted to the OHCHR, 1st February 2005.
  • [13] Myagmarjav, G. and Nergui, B. (2003), Formation of the Legal Environment of Mongolian Civil-Military Relations in Palamdorj, Sh. and Fluri, P., Democratic Oversight and Reform of Civil-Military Relations in Mongolia: A Self-Assessment Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), Geneva, Chapter 3