Conscientious objection to military service

The Religious Society of Friends has always believed that anyone can discover the deep spiritual certainty that we each have the Light or ‘that of God’ within. Experiencing this, even seasoned soldiers might suddenly find it impossible to kill another person. Of course there are other reasons one might object to military service – such as a profound conviction that a particular war, like the Iraq war launched in 2003, is illegal and immoral. Such convictions can develop after volunteering to serve in the military.
 
The right to conscientious objection (CO) is a major concern of Friends. A 2006 minute from Canadian Yearly Meeting explains, “For more than 350 years, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) has affirmed the sanctity of human life. As a Society, we have refused to condone or participate in war. As a result of our witness and that of other historic peace churches, the right of conscientious objection to war has become a right of all Canadian citizens.”1
 

Canada’s Policy on CO

Military service is currently voluntary in Canada, so policy focuses on eligibility for release when a member of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) claims CO status. Canada defines conscientious objection as “a sincerely held objection, on the grounds of freedom of conscience or religion, to participate in: a) war or other armed conflict; or b) carrying and use of weapons as a requirement of service in the CAF.”2 When someone applies for CO status, the CAF says it considers a number of factors, such as the nature of the conscientious objection, its credibility (for instance by comparing asserted beliefs to records of conduct), and the applicant’s religious affiliation.
 
The factors considered may not accurately represent or measure a person’s objection to military service, especially if their conscience or religious faith has changed such that past behaviours don’t reflect current beliefs.
 
Just as significant is who makes the decision. The UN Commission on Human Rights, as well as other international legal bodies, call on governments to have “independent and impartial decision-making bodies” to consider CO claims.3 This makes good sense. It’s commonly accepted in democracies that a judge should be independent and free of obvious conflicts of interest. However Canada’s policy fails to meet this standard. The approval or denial of CO claims is done by officers within the CAF. Given the heavily hierarchical nature of the military, it can be very difficult to make a CO claim, knowing you will disappoint, and have your case judged by, your superiors, to whom you will have to speak against the very beliefs they hold dear and have been trying to instill in you.
 
We couldn’t find a single story of a Canadian CO since the end of conscription. It’s not clear whether this means there are none or they keep low profiles.
 
Canada is also among a number of countries that still recruit minors. International law asserts that states can recruit minors of 16 and 17 years of age (but not deploy them) if the recruit and her/his guardian are informed of the risks and obligations of military service. Yet one of the biggest risks is rarely, if ever, spoken of.
 
Recent evidence shows that chronically stressful environments, like military training, seriously affect psychological development in teens and can lead to long-term mental health problems. Youth recruits have significantly higher rates of suicide than their civilian peers. They also have an increased risk of violent behaviour, which can significantly harm their future relationships.4
 
All recruits, especially youth, need to be made aware of such risks before making a decision to join the Armed Forces. This is what CFSC attempted to do with the 2011 brochure Considering Joining the Military? https://quakerservice.ca/joiningthemilitary
 

The War Resisters

The US has a vastly larger military than Canada’s, and uses aggressive and misleading recruitment tactics. After shadowing a recruiter as part of a special program, US Air Force Staff Sergeant Jacob Williams had many serious concerns. He noted that, “Recruiters obtain contact information through sketchy means, they use that contact information to harass families, insult parents and ignore their legitimate requests to be left alone, and then they try to make minors feel like terrible people for accepting their parents’ financial aid as they go through higher education.”5 Recruits are often misled and told they won’t be deployed overseas. It’s little surprise, then, that stories of US conscientious objectors are more common.
 
Participating in war, and even training for it, can have a major effect on the ways we think about war and what it involves. Like many recruits, Stephen Funk said he joined the military because, “I wanted to belong and I wanted another direction in my life, and this seemed to offer it.”
 
However, during training the aggressiveness and some of the attitudes he was pushed to adopt did not sit well. Funk remembers a powerful moment during shooting practice when he said to himself for the first time, “I think killing people is wrong.” He was stunned at the relief he experienced. Funk hid, going on ‘unauthorized absence’ to avoid being deployed to Iraq. Later he gave himself up. He said “…I would rather take my punishment now than live with what I would have to do [in Iraq] for the rest of my life.”6
 
A US government report shows that in a four year period there were 425 applications for CO status, and of those only 224 were approved. Though only 425 applications were reported, the number of conscientious objectors is likely far higher.
 
Kevin Benderman recalls how his sergeant called him a coward and his chaplain told him he was ashamed of him. Benderman decided to apply for CO status anyway, after serving in Iraq in 2003. What he’d witnessed meant his conscience simply would not allow him to return to Iraq.7
 
Unlike Benderman, many soldiers may try to just disappear, perhaps because they haven’t heard of or don’t know how to apply for CO status, or because when they mention it they’re shamed and verbally abused, making them believe their applications won’t be fairly heard and will just be denied. In desperation, some decide to flee to other countries.
 
Since 2003 CFSC has joined with the War Resisters Support Campaign in helping former US soldiers who’ve come to Canada seeking refuge. We feel that Canada should welcome and protect those who express their conscience. Instead, we’ve been told by both Conservative and Liberal Ministers of Immigration that US war resisters are inadmissible to Canada due to ‘serious criminality.’ Canada alleges this because the crime of desertion from the military carries a maximum penalty in the US of life imprisonment!
 

CFSC’s other support for COs

In 2017 we began supporting two CO/refuser groups in Israel/Palestine – Mesarvot, a Jewish network, and Urfod, a Palestinian-Druze network. What these networks are up against is significant! Young Jewish and Druze citizens of Israel are conscripted to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). It’s common for anyone who doesn’t serve to be seen as a coward or traitor, harming their social standing. Failure to serve also closes off: access to certain scholarships, discounts on loans and house mortgages, easier admission conditions for academic institutions, and even some future career prospects. There is tremendous pressure to ignore one’s conscience and join the IDF.
 
In Israel there are different types of exemption one can apply for. COs may choose to go the easier route of applying for medical or mental health exemptions. Those who are determined enough to seek CO status, with its much longer and more daunting process, appear before a committee that has no clear and published procedures (it did for women until 2004, but that has since changed).
 
Current non-binding regulations say that if CO status is denied then applicants can try to appeal the committee’s decision once, which doesn’t guarantee that the committee will hear the appeal. Some applicants denied CO status may still get out of military service on mental health grounds. After serving jail time while their applications are processed, most COs whose status has been denied have then been exempted from military service on grounds of ‘incompatibility.’
 
Both Mesarvot and Urfod educate about the realities of service in the IDF, helping young people understand the various options available to them. Free legal consultations are provided when necessary, and those who decide to go public with a conscientious objection are trained on how to talk to the media. A community of support is crucial in helping teens make informed choices that will affect the rest of their lives. These networks bravely share vital information in a context where it is a crime to encourage anyone not to serve in the IDF.
 
Quakers remain active in advancing the human right to CO internationally, and CFSC supports this work through our annual financial contributions to the Quaker United Nations Office. They’ve helped take CO from a fringe issue the United Nations wasn’t too concerned with to one on which legal precedents and official guidelines exist. You can find out more about this at https://quakerservice.ca/CO.
 
Much remains to be done to support COs. War Resisters International, one of the key groups working on CO issues, notes, “Conscription still exists in over 100 states, and there remains a variety of responses to conscientious objectors, many of whom are still imprisoned.”8
 
Keira Mann is CFSC’s Program Assistant and Matthew Legge is CFSC’s Peace Program Coordinator. The photo that appears with this article is of Canadians writing in support of US war resisters. It was taken by Alex Lisman.

  1. Civil Liberties / Anti-terrorism Legislation Minutes from Canadian Yearly Meeting. (2006). 74, 4. Retrieved from https://quakerservice.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/11.CYM-Minutes-re-Civil-liberties.pdf
  2. Canada, National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, Policies and Standards. (n.d.). DAOD 5049-2, Conscientious Objection (2.3). Toronto, Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/about-policies-standards-defence-admin-orders-directives-5000/5516-2.page
  3. United Nations, Economic and Social Council. (n.d.). Commission on Human Rights Report (Vol. 3, 1998/77, pp. 253-255). Retreived From http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CHR/54/Documents/E.1998.23_EN.pdf
  4. Why 18 Matters: UK, US & NATO militaries ‘may violate international law’ in treatment of teenage recruits. (2018, May 25). Child Soldier International. Retrieved from https://www.child-soldiers.org/News/why-18-matters-uk-us-other-nato-armed-forces-may-violate-international-law-in-treatment-of-teenage-recruits
  5. Williams, J. (2014, May 1). Military Recruiters Are Bigger Snakes Than You Think. Thought Catalog. Retrieved June 27, 2018, from https://thoughtcatalog.com/jacob-williams/2014/05/military-recruiters-are-bigger-snakes-than-you-think/
  6. Campbell, D. (2003, April 1). Marine who said no to killing on his conscience. The Guardian. Retrieved June 27, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/apr/01/usa.politics1
  7. Zucchino, D. (2005, February 7). Army sergeant refuses second deployment to Iraq. The Seattle Times. Retrieved June 27, 2018, from https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/army-sergeant-refuses-second-deployment-to-iraq/
  8. Brock, H. (2018, January 19). The return of conscription? War Resisters International. Retrieved June 28, 2018, from https://www.wri-irg.org/en/story/2018/return-conscription