Joint statement of European Bureau for Conscientious Objection, Quaker
United Nations Office, Geneva, and War Resisters' International on
the ECtHR Third section judgement Bayatyan v. Armenia (Application no. 23459/03, 27/10/09)
In the case of a Jehovah's Witness who was sentenced to two and a half
years in prison following his refusal of military service on the
grounds of conscientious objection, a Chamber of the European Court
of Human Rights has stated categorically that conscientious objection
to military service is not protected under the European Convention on
In the judgement, the Chamber appeared, in its interpretation of Article 9
of the European Convention, to overlook the international human
rights standards and jurisprudence . The United Nations Human Rights
Committee addressed precisely the same issues in relation to the
equivalent provision of the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights in the case of Yeo-Bum
Yoon and Myung-Jin Choi vs Republic of Korea.
In that case (January 2007) the Human Rights Committee specifically
interpreted Article 18 of the International Covenant (the right to
freedom of thought, conscience, and religion)
as protecting conscientious objection to military service.
The Human Rights Committee stated that the reference in Article 8 para 3
of the International Covenant to “any service of a military character and, in countries where conscientious
objection is recognised, any national service required by law of conscientious objectors”
as exceptions to the prohibition of forced labour “itself neither recognises nor excludes a right of conscientious objection”.
By contrast the Chamber judgement claims that the equivalent provision on forced labour in the European Convention trumps the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in
this respect, even stating that States are not prevented from punishing conscientious
It is important that the Grand Chamber agrees to hear an appeal in order
to bring the European Court's position in line with international
EBCO, QUNO Geneva, WRI
Budapest, 1 November 2009
The case concerned Armenian conscientious objector Vahan Bahatyan, born
in 1983, who lives in Yerevan, Armenia. He is a Jehovah's Witness who for reasons of conscience refused to perform military service. In 2001 he was sentenced to a prison term of one and a half years. His
sentence was increased by one year after the Prosecutor appealed for
a harsher sentence, claiming that his conscientious objection was
“unfounded and dangerous.
When this decision was confirmed by the Armenian Supreme Court,
Bayatyan took his case to the European Court. The European Court has
now ruled against him even though it did “not doubt that the applicant's objection to compulsory military service was based on his genuine religious convictions”.
Situation in Armenia
On accession to the Council of Europe in 2000, Armenia committed itself
“to adopt, with three years of accession, a law on alternative service in
compliance with European standards and, in the meantime, to pardon
all conscientious objectors sentenced to prison terms or service in
disciplinary battalions, allowing them instead to choose, when the
law on alternative service has come into force, to perform non-armed
military service or alternative civilian service”.
The Alternative Service Act of 17 December 2003 introduced a right to
conscientious objection, and a substitute civilian service. However, this law, and the substitute civilian service, are not in conformity with European and international standards, in particular because the substitute
civilian service is under the control of the military.
According to Jehovah's Witness sources, there are currently 71 conscientious
objectors who are Jehovah's Witnesses in Armenia in prison for their
conscientious objection to military service.
International Human Rights Standards
The Human Rights Committee has interpreted the International Covenant on
Civil and Political Rights as encompassing the right to conscientious
objection in individual communications, General Comments, and
In addition, the former United Nations Commission on Human Rights
its Special Procedures, in particular the Special Rapporteur on
Freedom of Religion and Belief,
and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have all addressed the right to conscientious objection to military service.