Not many people are aware that every year more than 60 young men are sentenced to six and a half months of imprisonment because of their refusal to take part in the system of compulsory military service in Finland. This makes Finland the only European Union country in which Amnesty International says there are prisoners of conscience.
PHOTO: FOR MOTHER EARTH
Conscription system in Finland
There is still a very extensive conscription system in Finland. All 17-18-year-old male citizens are called up for an annual enrolment, where about 80% of the young men sign up for the military service. About 10% are excused from service on medical grounds, and about 7% choose alternative service.
Military service, and the alternative service - which normally takes place at public services such as hospitals, schools, elderly homes, libraries, or certain non-profit NGOs - are supposed to be equal choices. However, the most common military service lasts 180 days, while alternative service typically lasts for 395 days. At the annual enrolment events military officials are legally obliged to provide information about alternative service, but fail to do so at most of the events.
In addition to the punitive length of the alternative service, the men who choose it also face several other problems. The authorities are supposed to arrange placements for alternative service, but in the reality it's often up to the “servants” to find their own place. In the worst cases they have to stay for some or all of their 13 months service at the training centre for “alternative servants”.
The places hosting an “alternative servant” are obliged to provide them with a daily allowance, accommodation and lodging, healthcare and travel costs, but many places neglect their duties.
While there is a choice between military and alternative service during peacetime, there is no law on the status of conscientious objectors during wartime. It would be up to the Defence Staff, the headquarters of the Finnish army, to decide how COs would be treated. In theory this could mean that a person who hasn't taken part in any kind of military training would be obliged to bear arms.
What can you do?
About 60 young men refuse both military and alternative service in Finland every year. Some of these total objectors do so in protest against the compulsory conscription system, and wouldn't agree to take part in it under any circumstances. Others refuse service in protest against the punitive length and other problems with alternative service. Total objectors are sentenced to prison for half of their remaining service time, the maximum being 197 days. In 1987 Finland passed a law that excuses members of the Jehovah's Witnesses church from the conscription system during peacetime, on the basis of their religious convictions. Unfortunately the government fails to recognise non-religious pacifist convictions as a reasonable excuse for objecting to military service, and keeps on imprisoning COs who are not Jehovah's Witnesses.
Amnesty International began adopting the Finnish total objectors as prisoners of conscience in 1999 because it sees the length of alternative service as a form of punishment. This makes Finland, which has otherwise enjoyed a high profile in the field of human rights and equality, the only EU member state with prisoners of conscience.
In Finland the president has the power to give amnesty to prisoners, and there are ongoing campaigns to urge her to pardon imprisoned COs, which, to date, she has unfortunately never done.
The Hermaja case
Jussi Hermaja, a Finnish conscientious objector sentenced to 197 days of imprisonment, fled Finland in October 2001. He went to Belgium to ask for political asylum. Belgium is the only EU country that doesn't automatically classify the other EU countries as safe states, and therefore it's still possible for a person from another EU country to seek asylum there.
The Belgian Committee for Refugees (the government body responsible for dealing with asylum applications) decided not to even start investigating Hermaja's case, and rejected his asylum request immediately. It is quite clear that EU membership and the good human rights reputation of Finland had an effect on the decision. Still, the fact that the Finnish alternative service system is discriminative and punitive remains. Hermaja's lawyer has appealed to the High Court of Belgium against the decision.