Paraguay: Law on conscientious objection as backlash

The first Paraguayan law on conscientious objection limits the right to conscientious objection

On 17 June Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo signed Law 4013 "which regulates the exercise of the right to conscientious objection to military service and establishes a substitute service to it to the benefit to the civil population" (official title of the law). With his signature, the first Paraguayan law on conscientious objection enters into force. But far from strengthening the position of conscientious objectors in Paraguay, this law has been fought by Paraguayan conscientious objectors and antimilitarists, as it limits the right to conscientious objection, and - after more than 15 years of conscientious objection without substitute service - for the first time obliges conscientious objection to perform as substitute service. In fact, strange as it may sound, the first law on conscientious objection signifies a victory of the military and the right over the conscientious objection movement and the left.
Conscientious objection in Paraguay has been recognised with the post-Stroessner constitution of 1992. Articles 37 and 129 of the 1992 constitution recognise the right of conscientious objection. According to art. 37: "conscientious objection for ethical and religious reasons is recognised (...)." Para. 5 of art. 129 states: "Those who declare their conscientious objection are to perform service beneficial to the civilian population in aid centres designated by law and operated under civilian jurisdiction. The laws implementing the right to conscientious objection shall neither be punitive nor impose burdens heavier than those imposed by military service."

However, a law on conscientious objection had until now never been implemented. In it's second periodic report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee from 2004, Paraguay stated that "in view of the lack of regulatory legislation, the Human Rights Committee of the Chamber of Deputies agreed in 1994 to receive declarations from conscientious objectors and to approve their registration on a provisional basis, thereby exempting the objectors from military service until such time as the law established a public body to take responsibility for organizing alternative service." And: "In 2003 a bill regulating conscientious objection and establishing alternative civilian service was sent by the Chamber of Deputies to the Chamber of Senators for consideration and adoption. The Chamber of Senators rejected the bill on the ground that some articles were at variance with constitutional principles, and consideration of the possibility of introducing regulations governing the fundamental right of conscientious objection was definitively shelved." This was under a then conservative government, and it had not been the first time that a law on conscientious objection failed. Earlier, in 1996, an attempt to pass a law failed because of a presidential veto. The same happened with a second draft in 1997.

The "definitely shelved" did not last longer than seven years, and in June 2010 a law on conscientious objection was finally passed, and signed by President Fernando Lugo, against the strong opposition of conscientious objection organisations. Several of the specific regulations of the law are problematic:

1. An application for conscientious objection has to be submitted not later than 20 days after receipt of a call up for military service (Article 4). Thus, the new law on conscientious objection does not allow for an application to be made at any time, before, during, and after military service.

2. An application for conscientious objection needs to include the reasons for the conscientious objection. However, this violates the constitution, which in article 24 para 4 states that "No one may be disturbed, questioned, or forced to give testimony about the reasons of his beliefs or ideology."

3. The law creates a new "National Council of Conscientious Objection", which decides on conscientious objection applications. This Council includes a representative of the Ministry of Defence (Article 7), which raises doubts about the impartiality of decision making.

4. Article 21 of the law requires from conscientious objectors who declared their conscientious objection before the law came into force, and had been exempted from military service, to perform a substitute service, or to pay the equivalent of five minimum salaries. This applies - in theory - to 140,000 conscientious objectors since 1994, objectors, who might even be in their 40s. It also imposes a new duty on them retrospectively, which is a violation of Paraguayan and international legal standards.
In addition, the law only recognises declarations made in front of the human rights commission of the Chamber of Deputies or of the Senate, but not those made in front of departmental human rights commissions - in total about 30,000 declarations of conscientious objection will suddenly no longer be recognised.

5. According to article 20, conscientious objectors who fail to perform substitute service "continue to be affected by the obligations of article 129 of the national constitution" - which is on obligatory military service. It is not clear what this means in terms of punishment for non-fulfilment of substitute service obligations.

6. Article 23 allows for a substitute service in civil protection and defence in a state of national defence or international armed conflict, therefore requiring conscientious objectors to play a role in a mainly military based defence concept.

While in international comparison the Paraguayan law on conscientious objection might not be the worst example, in the Paraguayan context it signifies a serious worsening of the situation. For the first time, conscientious objectors are subjected to a substitute service, and to an application process, while since 1994 and until recently a simple conscientious objection declaration was sufficient to be exempted from military service. In this sense, the new law on conscientious objection is a huge step backwards.

Sources: UltimaHora.com: Lugo promulga ley que obliga al servicio civil a los objetores, 24 June 2010; Ley No 4013 que reglamenta el ejercicio del derecho a la objecion de conciencia al servicio militar obligatorio y establece el servicio sustitutivo al mismo en beneficio de la poblacion civil, 17 June 2010; President Fernando Lugo: El Ejecutivo promulgó ley 4013 “De objeción de conciencia”, 17 June 2010; SERPAJ/MOC Paraguay: Comunicado ante proyecto de ley de Objeción de conciencia, 3 December 2009; Consideration of report by States Parties under Article 40 of the Covenant: Second periodic Report - Paraguay, CCPR/C/PRY/2004/2, 9 July 2004; War Resisters' International: Country report and updates: Paraguay, 13 May 1998; Hugo Valiente: Objeción de conciencia al servicio militar. 1996; Paraguay - Constitution, 20 June 1992