Statement to the European Parliament on Conscientious Objection

EDITORIAL, 26 Jan 2009

#47 | Johan Galtung

Mr. Chairperson, Parliamentarians, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have six points, three about conscientious objection for soldiers-officers in bello, when the war–organized violence with one or more governments–is on, and three about objection ad bellum, to specific wars or war as such. But first a question: Why is the right to conscientious objection important?

For the same reasons that human rights and democracy are important as pillars in modern state constructions. The right to conscientious objections, like all human rights, protects humans, individuals and/or groups; in casu against being forced to act against their own conscience. And that legitimizes articulation of an inner conscience dialogue into an outer social dialogue, so essential for an open, free society. Thus, the importance is double: both protection of humans, and promotion of democracy.

The citizen duty to kill and be killed for the state derives from the Westphalia 1648 treaty right of states to conduct war, provided they are declared. Hence, any right to object to that duty must derive from an authority above the state order, such as the Divine Order in a Thou Shalt Not Kill articulated by gods and prophets of revealed religions.

The Enlightenment produced a second, secular, Legal Order, above the state system, articulated in laws, conventions about warfare, and human rights (Art. 28), and embodied in the United Nations. Thus, the UN Charter Art. 2,4 forbids Member States to go to war against each other except when self-defense, collective defense and-or a Security Council Mandate can be claimed.

Do professional soldiers have the right to refuse illegal orders?

First, in bello objections: not only a right, but also a duty.

    Point 1: The Nürnberg Judgment established that “obeying orders” did not constitute a defense for war crimes.

   Point 2: The Tokyo Tribunal, the Yamashita case, established that “lack of information” did not constitute a defense for war crimes and the duty of those in command to be informed by making “the fog of war” transparent, eg. through independent journalism.

 Point 3: The Geneva Conventions and related frameworks  establish binding rules regulating warfare and by implication which commands not to issue, and not to obey. Thus, the National Public Radio in Washington estimated 25,000 deserters from the US forces in Iraq, giving reasons such as “I do not care about the consequences, but I am no longer a party to this kind of war”.

Second, ad bellum objections. Here we are addressing rights more than duties, and we are moving into uncharted legal territory where there may or may not be laws in the making, de lege ferenda.

Point 4: Soldiers may find that they have entered the war on false premises. Thus, in a case in Germany the objector to war in Afghanistan quotes the UN Charter Art. 2,4 and does not find justifications in terms of self-defense, collective defense and-or a Security Council Mandate valid (nor did Kofi Annan for the Iraq war declaring it illegal in the sense of the Charter). The Swiss justification for withdrawing from in ISAF in Afghanistan (by 1 March 2008) argues that what was presented as a Chapter 6 peacekeeping support operation for development actually was a Chapter 7 war of peace-enforcement. Norwegian UN soldiers found Israel type perspectives insufficient. Conscientious objection translates critical words about a war into deeds of refusal to participate, and changes acts of omission into acts of refusal commission.

 Point 5: there is a third basis for objection, Reason Order, a “reasonable nonviolent settlement” order. How about defensive war? Reality is not that simple. Take the Israeli attack on Gaza after years of rockets into South Israel: Israel invokes defense against rockets, Hamas invokes defense against occupation as frozen warfare, both true. The parties pick up only their truth. Picking up both implies at least as much time, human resources and money for a settlement as for the warfare, like for a Middle East Community of Israel with the five Arab neighboring states, with Palestine fully recognized according to international law–the model being the European Community of the 1958 Treaty of Rome.

The assumption is that war is the last resort after all nonviolent approaches, including diplomacy, have been exhausted. Nonviolent conflict resolution demands empathy and creativity, and with more such skills recent conflicts underlying, Yugoslavia, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza could have been settled.(*)

It is in the interest of democracy that such points are articulated, by objecting in words and by objection in deeds; from rational conviction about irrationality of war, not conscience. Democracy, invoked by Israel and the UK, does not constitute a defense; as recent warfare by USA, UK, Israel and Hamas indicate demos steered by deep irrationality, Kant notwithstanding.

Point 6: Could it be that our civilization, including this timely hearing, has cut the issue wrongly by putting the burden of proof on those who refuse military service and-or disobey military commands? Why must those who refuse to kill and be killed argue, invoking divine, legal or rational orders, and not those ready to kill and be killed? Hopefully the burden of proof will soon be put on those who obey, and not only on those who disobey, orders.

Thank you, Mr. Chairperson.

(*) My own experiences as an NGO mediator are summarized in 50 Years: 100 Peace & Conflict Perspectives,

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 Jan 2009.

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