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Andreas Speck and Bart Horeman discuss conscientious objection: is it simply a human right, or does it represent an antimilitarist action?

Human right v Anti-militarist action

Andreas: When I became a total objector in Germany in the mid-80s, I saw my objection as an act of civil disobedience against militarism, or, more specifically, against the system of military slavery called conscription.

My refusal to serve was aimed towards abolishing conscription and I saw it as a small but important contribution to demilitarise peoples minds. And although I certainly acted out of conscience, I never perceived my conscientious objection as a human rights issue. For me, the very existence of the military forms the central problem, and (total) objection is one way to address it.

The human rights approach doesn't address this issue - it simply demands that people who have problems with military service need to have the right to do something else [for the state]. But this doesn't challenge the military's right to exist, it doesn't even challenge conscription, it just provides an exceptional right for those who have individual problems with military service in the end it de-politicises the whole issue of conscientious objection and turns it into an individual problem.

Bart: I can't say that I objected for any reason other than a personal one: I felt threatened as a human being. My norms and values were at stake: they needed to be protected. The state was attempting to force me to learn how to be a violent person, but I denied the state that right.

It was not until I had been able to set myself free that I had the space to think about the political side of conscription. I believe that this is the political element of the individual act of conscientious objection: to challenge the morality of compulsory military service.

In my view, my conscientious objection can never challenge the right of the military to exist: in the same way that a decision to only buy organically grown food cannot challenge the existence of the bio-industry. It can start the debate, it can be followed by others, it can spread like a disease, but in itself it remains an individual act. For me objection is an individual act and not because the “human rights approach” makes it so, but because of the very nature of conscription itself.

Andreas: I agree partly - by it's very nature being an objector is an individual act, because each and every person has to make his or her own decision to refuse to join the military - and to be prepared to deal with the consequences. But when we start to organise ourselves it becomes politically relevant and then it becomes important how we frame our conscientious objection.

When I look at the situation in Israel/Palestine right now, it is quite different. The increasing number of refuseniks - most of whom just refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories or while Israel is occupying Palestinian Territories - is important, not because they are principled pacifists, most are not, but because they challenge the Israeli policy of military might, and not because it is a human rights problem.

The framework of human rights is much too narrow for our approach - it is built on liberal ideals, and focuses on the individual rather than taking into account any social issues.

Bart: “The personal is political”, was a slogan in the Dutch feminist movement. I think the CO movement has some interesting similarities with the feminist movement. Although I believe that to be a CO is an individual act, I very much value its political impact. In certain circumstances, the impact may be huge.

But I feel very uncomfortable when “we” tend to focus too much on the political impact of individual COs. It is very easy to exploit an individual CO for the sake of our political goals, if - like Andreas says - “we present and explain what we are doing”. Of course it is clear that a large number of so-called refuseniks in Israel are not pacifists. But they are conscientious objectors and their human right to conscientious objection should not be ignored. On the contrary: we should go to them, ask them about their motives and challenge them as to whether they would be willing to fight in other circumstances. It is only through respecting their human rights that we might be able to spread our values of nonviolence and to show them the political value of their individual act.

Andreas: I'm not saying that the human rights approach is useless - it has it's advantages when it comes to the legal struggle. But I don't agree that we can use the human rights framework to spread ideas and motives. I think it limits us, and that there is a tension between the human rights approach which doesnt address social issues and militarism - and a principled antimilitarist position, which aims to abolish militarism (a broad project of liberation).

If we are aware of this tension, then we can use it creatively in our struggle, using the human rights approach when appropriate, but leaving it behind when it is in our way - when we need to confront militarism in principle, and not just CO as a human right. In this sense I agree that there isn't necessarily a contradiction between these two approaches - but a tension.

War Resisters' International, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX, Britain (+44 20 7278 4040; fax 7278 0444; email: andreas@wri-irg.org; http://wri-irg.org).

Andreas Speck is a WRI staff member (and former treasurer!).