Professional soldiers and the right to conscientious objection in the European Union

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NOTE: This is the preface to a full 60-page report, issued by Tobias Pflüger MEP in cooperation with WRI, which is available here in PDF (main text in English only; 4.5Mb). HTML versions of the individual country reports will be available upon the WRI website upgrade later in 2008.

Preface

There is no doubt about it, but the military forces in the European Union are professionalising, More and more countries are abolishing or suspending conscription – in the next year Poland, followed by Sweden. The number of countries within the European Union which maintain conscription will then be reduced to eight (nine if we include the candidate countries). Of those countries which maintain conscription more and more reduce military service, and are increasing the amount of professional soldiers: in Austria, Finland and Greece they represent almost 50%, in Estonia 60%, and in Germany more than 75% of the Armed Forces. De facto in most conscript armies within the EU professional soldiers play the major military role.

This goes hand in hand with the the fact that military interventions are carried out more and more frequently, within a framework of NATO, the EU, the United Nations, or of ad-hoc coalitions. Almost all military forces of the member states and candidate countries of the EU are militarily engaged abroad: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, and the United Kingdom have troops in Iraq, all EU countries with the exception of Malta and Cyprus take part in the NATO operation in Afghanistan, and Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, France, Macedonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Turkey take part in the UN mission UNIFIL in Lebanon. This list is far from complete.

With these increased military engagements the right to conscientious objection – which has been achieved in all EU countries, at least for conscripts, as a result of decades of struggle by CO movements – is even more important. Even though the European Union officially adheres to the right to conscientious objection, the practice is quite different.

The end of conscription also means the end of the right to conscientious objection, because most countries recognised and recognise this right only incompletely and just for conscripts. Only Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom recognise that professional soldiers can turn into conscientious objectors, but there are a range of problems in practice.

This publication gives a detailed overview of the right to conscientious objection in the countries of the European Union (including candidate countries), and as far as possible of practices regarding this right.

It has become obvious that the situation regarding the right to conscientious objection within the European Union is not good. Most countries of the EU are far from conforming with the existing international standards: of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, or the European Parliament.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe demanded from member states on 24 March 2006 in a decision on human rights in the Armed Forces to “introduce into their legislation the right to be registered as a conscientious objector at any time, namely before, during or after implementation of military service, as well as the right of career servicemen to obtain the status of conscientious objector”. Already the Council of Europe recommendation 1581 of 2001 suggested to member states to recognise the right to conscientious objection for professional soldiers. This right can be a potential obstacle to the increasingly wild military adventures of the European Union. It is therefore necessary that after the abolishing or suspension of conscription the peace and anti-war movements, and especially the CO movements, focus their work more on the right to conscientious objection for professional soldiers, and develop an active counter-recruitment work, and work with soldiers. This publication offers background information for this work.

Tobias Pflüger, MEP

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