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It was good to read, in the Broken Rifle insert in last month’s Peace News, the informative article by Andreas Speck about the present and possible future changes to the situation of conscientious objectors in Europe.
I was reminded of the outraged response I have often encountered in War Resisters’ International (WRI) gatherings by suggesting that the UK system is more oppressive than conscription in Western Europe.
Throughout the 1990s the UK sent MOD officials all over Europe to persuade governments that the “voluntary, professional” system, which we in At Ease call bonded servitude, was more efficient and suited to modern warfare than conscription.
Military regimes have adapted but the peace movement has not. The plight of conscientious objectors in the regular armed forces is ignored or denied by both.
The reaction of continental Europeans, who have themselves suffered imprisonment or exploitative forms of alternative service for their conscientious objection, is understandable. I find the preoccupation with conscription in the UK, so long after it finished here, more distressing.
There is a recurring urban myth in this country that the MoD has printed call-up papers for civilians and is about to issue them as soon as legislation is rushed through parliament.
I suspect this may have been started as a practical joke in the first Gulf War. I remember then that some people even held meetings and started a fund to help these non-existent conscripts. They could not be persuaded to extend their sympathy to the real live people trapped in the armed forces that we in At Ease were trying to help.
To this day people still contact us offering to help conscientious objectors when conscription is reintroduced. I find it hard to understand why those who would want to help if 18-year-olds were conscripted have no concern for those persuaded at 16 to sign a long contract they don’t understand. If present day soldiers google “conscientious objection” they will find plenty of information about the First World War before coming to anything they can recognise as relevant to their own situation. Those very persistent or lucky may find their way to the websites of WRI, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) or At Ease.
My answer to the question in the headline of the Broken Rifle “End of conscientious objection in Europe?” is that conscientious objection does not end. It will recur as long as wars recur. What changes is the recognition and support for conscientious objectors.
At Ease is a voluntary organisation providing advice, support and representation to members of the Armed Forces, their families and friends.