The Human Right to Conscientious Objection and the Resolutions of the European Parliament

(Report at the congress Conscientious Objection in Europe 17/18 October 1997 in Osnabrück)

Dr. Christof Tanner
Member of European Parliament

It is a natural thing that there are astonishing surprises after the beginning of a new occupation. One of these surprises for me when I started my work as Member of the European Parliament in 1994 was the fact that in the EU member state Greece each young man who conscientiously objected to military service and escaped the draft by going underground or by fleeing to another country had to fear being imprisoned for up to four years.

As a newcomer in the Subcommittee for Human Rights I engaged myself with the trial case of four conscientious objectors in Turkey. But I was told by Turkish officials to first look closer to home: Whoever critizes the lack of a law recognizing the right to conscientious objection in Turkey must not ignore the situation in Greece.

Up to then I wasn't aware of the fact that Greece as a democratic country treats its conscientious objectors in such a bad way, and as a citizen of the former German Democratic Republic this hit me twice: In the undemocratic GDR there was at least the right to serve the military obligation without arms in the construction field and I know from my own experience what it means to become imprisoned because of one's political convictions.

From that time on I engaged myself continuosly for the introduction of the right to conscientious objection to military service in Greece and Turkey, in Greece even with a first success.

The fact that I didn't know much about these cases was not my own fault as I learnt later during my engagement for the right to conscientious objection. "This is no topic for the media" was most of the time the monotone answer to the question why press releases were ignored. However this is not my subject today.

My subject is: The human right to conscientious objection and the resolutions of the European Parliament.

The European Parliament has in the past engaged itself again and again for the recognition of this right. As proof I will quote from recent resolutions:

After the European Parliament has adopted the "Resolution on the Declaration of the Fundamental Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" on 12 April 1989 containing Article 4 (Freedom of Thought): "Each person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion", it passed in the same year on 13 October 1989 a "Resolution on Concsientious Objection and Alternative Civilian Service". This resolution starts with the demand: "The European Parliament calls for the right to be granted to all conscripts to refuse military service, whether armed or unarmed, on grounds of conscience, with full respect to the principles of freedom and equal treatment for all members of society."

On 18 December 1993 the European Parliament tackles this topic again with the adopted the recommendations of its members Bandres Molet and Bindi "on Conscientious Objection in the Member States of the Community" by "deploring the lack of response to its previous resolutions in 1983 and 1989, especially the possibility of refusing, for reasons of conscience, to fulfil an obligation to perform military service."

In the annual report of the European Parliament "on the Respect for Human Rights within the Member States" of 11 March 1993 it states: "The European Parliament ...

50. Condemns the trials and imprisonment of conscientious objectors in the Member States (...)

51. Stresses that an alternative civilian service should be provided for, of the same length as military service (...)

53. Condemns, in particular, the practice of Greece which treats conscientious objectors as criminals and condemns them to long periods of imprisonment in military prisons."

The practice of the member state Greece was again and again brought up in questions and petitions by the European Parliament as well as in following annual reports on the respect for human rights. In Greece however the changing governments have been promising to change the existing discrimination since 1988.

The European Parliament has also urged the Member States in a "Resolution on Deserters from Armed Forces of State in former Yugoslavia" on 28 February 1993 to "provide deserters and draft evades from the former Yugoslavia with a legal status instead of allowing them to be deported back".

And in the Wiebenga-Report on the "Development of a European Immigration and Asylum Policy" of 21 September 1995 the Parliament called on the European Commission and the Member States to give special attention to persons who withdraw from the participation in the civil war by escaping from military units and paramilitary armed forces."

These quotations should suffice to show the engagement of the European Parliament for the right to conscientious objection,

but the European Parliament cannot force its members to follow this lines.

In the Bandres Molet/Bindi report it has called on the Commission "to submit a proposal for the harmonization of legislation (...) and a proposal for the establishment of a European Civilian Service",

but the Commission is up to now not bound to follow this call by the European Parliament.

The European Parliament can only condemn, propose and call for measure in this political area which is not yet a European Union aera and this way it can increase public pressure, which often is a time-consuming procedure as can be seen in the example of Greece.

After the end of the military dictatorship Greece was accepted as full member of the European Community in the shortest process so far, also to help to create stable democratic conditions. However in the question of cocnscientious objection to military service Greece did not justify its full membership. Just recently, in June 1997, the right to conscientious objection was introduced.

To assure that the shameful example of Greece is not going to be repeated somewhere else I am trying to win within my colleagues a majority for the following

- that the right to concientious objection has to be recognized by future member states before the membership,

- that this right belongs to those human rights criteria which have to be recognized by the candidates before becoming accepted as new member

Only if we have detailed information and experience from the countries willing to join can we discuss seriously and objectively. The study on hand was made for this purpose. It shall be the basis for the discussion in the European Parliament and its committees that are dealing with the resolutions on the enlargement of the European Union and will therefore influence the decision of the plenary, because this resolution of the European Parliament will be effective.