Armenia: progress? Only for religious COs

On 18 March, the Armenian parliament approved alternative service amendments in their first reading which would that mean that COs motivated by their religious beliefs – in practice in Armenia mainly Jehovah's Witnesses – will undertake alternative service of a reduced length.

The right to conscientious objection was legally recognized with the Armenian Law on Alternative Service, which entered into force on 1 July 2004. However, in practice this law has not been applied. Conscientious objectors have often been imprisoned since they refuse to perform alternative service under the supervision of military personnel.

Under the amendments that have passed, military personnel would no longer supervise work done as an alternative to military service. As the law now stands, alternative military service is allowed for 36 months and 42 for alternative work. The government bill has cut the terms to 30 and 36 months respectively.

The Human Rights Committee has made clear that no discrimination is permitted between the religion or belief on which the objection is based (Human Rights Committee General Comment 22, para 11), but this bill only covers those whose religious beliefs or convictions are opposed to the bearing of arms.

Armenia has been repeatedly encouraged to respect the rights of conscientious objectors by the international community: In November 2012, Armenia was fined by the European Court of Human Rights for violating the right to liberty and security of seventeen conscientious objectors who had been detained for absconding from substitute service in July 2011, the right to conscientious objection was affirmed by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Bayatyan v Armenia. Last August, two new conscientious objectors were imprisoned in Armenia - both Jehovah's Witnesses - after a break of a year. Over the past decade, 274 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for failing to fulfil alternative service obligations.

Sources: Eurasia.net, Armenia: Will Alternative Service Reform Keep Jehovah’s Witnesses Out of Jail? March 19, 2013; CO-Update, Armenia fined by European Court of Human Rights, September 2012; Forum 18, ARMENIA: Two new imprisonments as Strasbourg again fines government 3 December 2012; CO-Update, Armenia: Changes to conscription likely as imprisonment of conscientious objectors resumes, October 2012; Hetq online, Armenia's Parliament Debates Alternative Military Service Bill , 28 February 2013.