Switzerland abolished examination of conscience

Substitute service still 1.5 times longer than military service

On 1 April 2009, Switzerland finally abolished the examination of the conscience of applicants for conscientious objection. Before 1 April 2009, a personal interview took place with a commission. Its members were civilians who had been selected and appointed by the Ministry. If the application is rejected, there is a right of appeal to the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Those who applied before 1 April 2009, but have not been recognised by 31 March 2009, will be recognised without personal interview.

Decision-making by the commission could be rather strict, which was exemplified by the case of Marino Keckeis in 2001. His application was rejected because he failed to convince the commission of his conscientious beliefs. He continued to refuse military service and was sentenced by military court to five months’ imprisonment, although he repeatedly stressed that he was willing to perform substitute service. During his imprisonment he went on hunger strike and after three months in prison, he was released early. His case attracted considerable international attention. In fact, Amnesty International considered the rejection of his application to be “due to a very limited interpretation of conscientious objection”.

Switzerland was one of the last Western European countries to recognize the right to conscientious objection and provide for a substitute service outside the armed forces. Before 1996, the treatment of COs was harsh. During the 80s and 90s, approx. 360 COs were imprisoned each year.

The Law on Substitute Service that was adopted in 1996 is the result of years of campaigning by Swiss peace groups. The decision to pass a CO law was in fact made by a referendum (In Switzerland, anyone may call for a referendum to be held, providing that a sufficient number of signatures is collected). In a referendum that was held in 1991, an 82.5 per cent majority voted in favour of amending the constitution, which allowed for a substitute service outside the armed forces. This amendment allowed for the drafting of the law on substitute service, which was eventually passed by the Swiss Parliament in 1995.

According to article 8 of the Law on Civilian Service, substitute service is 1.5 times longer than military service. For conscientious objectors who were non-commissioned officers or officers during their time as conscripts, substitute service lasts 1.1 times longer than the remaining military service. This length of substitute service still has to be considered punitive, and is not in compliance with international standards.

Sources: Beratungsstelle für Militärdienstverweigerung und Zivildienst: Zulassung, accessed 26 June 2009; War Resisters' International: Marino Keckeis, accessed 26 June 2009; Quaker Council for European Affairs: The Right to Conscientious Objection in Europe, Switzerland, 2005