International Conscientious Objectors Day

15 May is International Conscientious Objectors' Day. Background information is available on WRI's website, and for discussion on this Wiki.

History of International Conscientious Objectors' Day

Rudi Friedrich

International Conscientious Objectors' Day is closely linked to the International Conscientious Objectors' Meeting (ICOM). Between 1981 and 1997, ICOM was organised every year by groups affiliated to War Resisters' International. It was held in the Netherlands, Spain, France, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Colombia, and Chad, among others. While in the first years the focus was on the exchange of ideas and international networking among active conscientious objectors, later an additional objective was added. In countries where the situation of conscientious objectors was particulary difficult (and in some cases still is), the international presence of activists lead to a strengthening of the COs living in the country and their initiatives. Not only the strategy of conscientious objection was developed, but on a very practical level the importance of the group in the country itself was increased. Unfortunately there was no such meeting for years now.

ICOM, in which regularly 100 activists from more than 20 countries participated, forms the background of the International Conscientious Objectors' Day. For the first time ICOM 1985 decided to use 15 May, and to develop a focus for action on conscientious objection. This was meant to raise awareness for the difficult situation of conscientious objectors in specific countries or for thematical links on the international level. Focus countries were Greece (1986), Yugoslavia (1987), Poland (1988), South Africa (1989), Spain (1990), Turkey (1992), former Yugoslavia (1993), Colombia (1995). There were thematic focusses too: forced service for women (1991), and asylum for women and men who refused military service or deserted from the army (1993). In 2001, the War Resisters' International Council Meeting decided to focus on the situation of conscientious objectors and deserters in Angola. The focus for 2002 will be the Balkans region.

Although ICOM didn't meet for years, 15 May is establised as a joint day of action. In many places groups refer to 15 May in their work on conscientious objection. At the same time public meetings, vigils, demonstrations, actions, seminars, campaigns and may other activities are taking place in many parts of the world. Although nowadays many groups use the day for their own specific issue on conscientious objection, and there is only a limited joint focus, it is still a day which highlights that the issue of conscientious objection is not a national, but an international issue, and that international networking provides the special strength of the conscientious objectors' movement.

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Addition/Correction from Bill Hetherington

Email, 10 March 2005

Dear Rudi Friedrich

My attention has just been drawn, via a circular e-mail from WRI, to your article in the Broken Rifle, May 2002, on the History of International COs Day. I missed at the time.

In that article you suggested that International COs Day was founded and first celebrated in 1985 by ICOM, and adopted by WRI after ICOM ceased to function.

In fact, 15 May was first celebrated in 1982, by a group of European COs, and then named European COs Day. Significantly, perhaps, you do not mention the particular choice of 15 May. My understanding is that the date was chosen for no better reason than it happened to suit the convenience of the group of European COs who planned the first day in 1982. They did not then fully envisage it becoming an annual event, but a year later the same, or perhaps a slightly different, group of COs decided to repeat it, and so both the day and the date became established.

At a WRI conference on Conscientious Objection, involving COs throughout Europe, held in Aubure, France, 25-27 November 1983, it was recommended that the WRI should promote European COs Day (see WRI Newsletter, December 1983), and a call issued by the West German Selbstorganisation Zivildienstleistender for "the third European Conscientious Objection Action Day, now supported by the WRI", was published in the April 1984 WRI Newsletter.

I published a summary of this account in the 2000 Housmans Peace Diary, and it therefore seems strange that more than two years later your account, suggesting an origin of International COs Day as late as 1985, should have been published by the WRI. I985 has its significance, of course, in the history, as the year in which European COs Day transmogrified into International COs Day, and the year in which ICOM became directly involved, but just as WRI traces its roots back to 1921, albeit under a different name, so should International COs Day properly trace its roots to 1982 rather than 1985.

Perhaps the Broken Rifle would accept from me a short piece setting the record straight.

Bill Hetherington

Honorary Archivist