European Court of Human Rights affirms the right to conscientious objection to military service

en

Joint statement of Amnesty International, Conscience & Peace Tax
International, International Commission of Jurists, Quaker United
Nations Office, Geneva, and War
Resisters' International

The
Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, in a
ground-breaking judgment (issued on Thursday) in the case of Bayatyan
v. Armenia

(Application no. 23459/03, 1/6/2011), has ruled that states have a
duty to respect individuals’ right to conscientious objection to
military service as part of their obligation to respect the right to
freedom of thought, conscience and religion set out in Article 9 of
the European Convention on Human Rights. In the light of this
judgment, the above-named organizations call on Turkey and
Azerbaijan, the only two parties to the Convention who do not yet
provide for conscientious objection to military service, to take
immediate steps to do so. Moreover, Armenia should amend its
Alternative Service Act to ensure that it provides a genuine
alternative service of a clearly civilian nature, which should be
neither deterrent nor punitive in character, in line with European
and international standards.

This is
the first time that the right of conscientious objection to military
service has been explicitly recognised under the European Convention
on Human Rights.

The
above-named organisations welcome this judgment in which the European
Court of Human Rights has interpreted this right in line with the
long-standing interpretation of the equivalent provisions of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by the UN Human
Rights Committee, the body set up under that treaty to monitor states
parties’ compliance with its provisions.

The
Bayatyan v Armenia case concerned 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. Amnesty
International, Conscience & Peace Tax International,
International Commission of Jurists, Quaker UN Office and War
Resisters' International submitted a joint third party intervention
(http://wri-irg.org/node/10689)
to the Grand Chamber which highlighted the UN Human Rights
Committee's long-standing position that conscientious objection to
military service is protected under the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion. The organizations also highlighted
recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly and Committee of
Ministers of the Council of Europe and provided the Court with
information about the recognition of the right to conscientious
objection to military service in the 47 member states of the Council
of Europe.



Contacts for further information:

Amnesty
International: Lydia
Aroyo, Press Officer Europe/Central Asia +44 20 7413 5599, m +44 7771
796 350


Conscience
& Peace Tax International: Derek Brett: dubrett@talk21.com


Quaker
UN Office, Geneva: Rachel Brett: +41 22 748 48 04; m +41 79 408 5468


War
Resisters' International: Andreas
Speck: +44 20 72784040; m:+44 7973 683936


Background

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.

On
accession to the Council of Europe in 2000, Armenia committed itself
"to adopt, within 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"1.
The Alternative Service Act of
17 December 2003 made provision for conscientious objectors to
military service including the creation of an "Alternative
Civilian Service". At no time was Bayatyan given the
option of performing this service; moreover those Jehovah's Witnesses
who did embark on the service found that it was not clearly civilian
in nature and included requirements such as the swearing of a
military oath and the wearing of military uniforms that were
unacceptable to them. More than 80 Jehovah's Witnesses have
been imprisoned in the last four years for refusing this "alternative
civilian service", which in its nature, in its duration (42
months, the longest stipulated anywhere in the world, and
one-and-three-quarter times that of military service) and in its
close supervision by the military authorities, is clearly not in
accordance with European and international standards.

This
judgment by the 17-person Grand Chamber of the European Court is the
result of its review of an October 2009 judgment in the case by a
seven-person Chamber which ruled that Article 9 of the European
Convention on Human Rights did not protect conscientious objection to
military service.

Article 9
of the European Convention on Human Rights and Article 18 of the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) contain
almost identical provisions on the right to freedom of thought,
conscience and religion. All states which are party to the European
Convention are also party to the ICCPR. Since 1993, the UN Human
Rights Committee, the body of independent experts established under
the ICCPR to monitor states' compliance with its provisions, has
interpreted this as including the right to conscientious objection to
military service. This is the first case where the European Court
has ruled on this issue. Earlier European Court cases, such as Ulke
v Turkey
2,
where the repeated imprisonment and other penalties imposed on a
conscientious objector for the refusal of military service were found
to constitute inhuman or degrading treatment, had not addressed
conscientious objection to military service as such.


Notes



1
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





2Ulke v Turkey, Application number 39437/98,
Judgment of 24 January 2006


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