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 Korea1.
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 religion2)
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 Convention3 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”4.
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 service5.
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 Rights7
its Special Procedures, in particular the Special Rapporteur on
Freedom of Religion and Belief8,
and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention9 have all addressed the right to conscientious objection to military service.
1 Yeo-Bum Yoon and Myung-Jin Choi vs Republic of Korea (CCPR/C/88/D/1321-1322/2004, 23 January 2007)
2 Article 18 of the ICCPR is the equivalent of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:
“1. Everyone shall have the
right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right
shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of
his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with
others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief
in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to
coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a
religion or belief of his choice.
3. Freedom to manifest one's
religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are
prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order,
health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
4. The States Parties to the
present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of
parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the
religious and moral education of their children in conformity with
their own convictions.”
Article 9 of the European Convention
on Human Rights:
“1. Everyone has the right to
freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes
freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone
or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest
his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and
2. Freedom to manifest one's
religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are
prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the
interests of public safety, for the protection of public order,
health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of
3 Article 8 para 3 of the ICCPR:
“(a) No one shall be required to
perform forced or compulsory labour;
(b) Paragraph 3 (a) shall not be
held to preclude, in countries where imprisonment with hard labour
may be imposed as a punishment for a crime, the performance of hard
labour in pursuance of a sentence to such punishment by a competent
(c) For the purpose of this
paragraph the term "forced or compulsory labour" shall not
(ii) Any service of a military
character and, in countries where conscientious objection is
recognized, any national service required by law of conscientious
Article 4 para 2 and 3 (b) of the
European Convention of Human Rights:
“2. No one shall be required to
perform forced or compulsory labour.
3. For the purpose of this article
the term forced or compulsory labour' shall not include:
(b) any service of a military character or, in case of
conscientious objectors in countries where they are recognized,
service exacted instead of compulsory military service;”
4 Opinion No. 221 (2000) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE): Armenia's application for membership of the Council of Europe, 28 June 2000, http://assembly.coe.int//Main.asp?link=http://assembly.coe.int/Documents/AdoptedText/TA00/eopi221.htm, accessed 31 October 2009
5 Jehovah's Witnesses, Office for Public Information: European Court ruling fails to protect the right of conscientious objectors in Armenia, 27 October 2009, http://www.jw-media.org/frames/091027.htm, accessed 31 October 2009
6 See for example: The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion ( Art. 18) : General Comment No 22, 30/07/93. CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4, http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/0/9a30112c27d1167cc12563ed004d8f15, accessed 31 October 2009; Concluding Observations COLOMBIA, CCPR/CO/80/COL, 26 May 2004; Georgia, CCPR/CO/74/GEO, 19 April 2002; Viet Nam, CCPR/CO/75/VNM, 26 July 2002; Estonia, CCPR/CO/77/EST, 15 April 2003; Morocco, CCPR/CO/82/MAR, 1 December 2004; Tajikistan, CCPR/CO/84/TJK, 18 July 2005; Yemen, CCPR/CO/84/YEM, 9 August 2005; Republic of Korea, CCPR/C/KOR/CO/3, 28 November 2006; Chile, CCPR/C/CHL/CO/5, 17 April 2007; Russian Federation, CCPR/C/RUS/CO/6, 29 October 2009; Frédéric Foin v. France, CCPR/C/67/D/666/1995, 9 November 1999; Yeo-Bum Yoon and Myung-Jin Choi vs Republic of Korea (CCPR/C/88/D/1321-1322/2004, 23 January 2007)
7 UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution 1998/77, ‘Conscientious Objection to Military Service’. This resolution brought together in a single text the various elements of resolutions 1989/59, 1993/84, and 1995/83 and was subsequently reaffirmed in Resolutions 2000/34, 2002/45 and 2004/35.
8 See for example: Report submitted by Mr. Abdelfattah Amor, Special Rapporteur, in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1999/39, 15 February 2000, E/CN.4/2000/65, para . 87, http://www.unhchr.ch/Huridocda/Huridoca.nsf/0/80f0e46fc1648260802568ba004b44bf/$FILE/G0011063.pdf; Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir - Summary of cases transmitted to Governments and replies received, 27 March 2006, E/CN.4/2006/5/Add.1, paras . 10-11, 25-26, 138 and 305, http://daccess-ods.un.org/access.nsf/Get?Open&DS=E/CN.4/2006/5/Add.1&Lang=E; Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir - Addendum - Mission to Turkmenistan, 12 January 2009, A/HRC/10/8/Add.4, paras 50-51, http://daccess-ods.un.org/access.nsf/Get?Open&DS=A/HRC/10/8/Add.4&Lang=E