Conscientious Objection in Spain

By Rafael Ajangiz

The history of conscientious objection in Spain is a very short one. It first became an issue in 1971, 26 years now, when a catholic conscientious objector refused to join the army and made his position public; of course, he passed several years in prison as there was no legal provision for CO. The Law on conscientious objection was passed some years later, in December 1984. This is only 13 years ago, so it is a very recent story if we compare it with most other countries in Europe and even if we refer it to our personal experience in this matter.

But it is a very intense and exciting story. And the reason for it is that the conscientious objectors made up a movement back in 1977 and opposed all restrictions in the right to CO. Then, when the Spanish Government finally decided to enforce the law, this very movement chose total objection as a political mean to scrap the conscription system; that is, the conscientious objectors engaged in a civil disobedience against both military and substitutory services. This was in 1988. Today, the insumision, which is the name for this civil disobedience, is a huge and popular mobilisation that gathers some 15,000 total objectors and several hundred thousands more supporters. To the present, about 5,000 of the insumisos have been on trial and 1,000 of them have served or are actually serving prison sentences.

My presentation of this mobilisation on CO will have four chapters: 1) the impact on society and the political system; 2) the decision, why the CO movement chose not to accept a law which in fact does not defer from those existing now in Europe and can be considered more progressive than the German CO Law - ; 3) the processes of this resistance, how it is organised; and 4) the present situation of both conscription and the movement.

The impact

One. The very first result of this mobilisation was the opening of the media and political agendas to the issue of conscription. Before the insumision, conscription was not an issue. It is true that everybody disliked conscription but everybody as well regarded it as something certain and unavoidable, something you cannot do anything about. When the insumision entered the stage, the abolition of conscription became an issue and emerged as a general demand. You can observe how the number of news on conscription and CO was quite low before 1989 and how it rises and keeps high until 1994, we are talking of more than two news a day, and then it begins to decline - we will see later why - . And you can also observe that the evolution of opinion is somehow different, it follows a much slower path but stays longer than the news; that is, the political discussion is still strong in 1995 when the insumision has not that much cover in the media.

Impact two. Together with this opening of the media agenda, some political parties who had never cared about this social grievance before became very aggressive and demanding against conscription. Actually, conscription became the main issue in the general election in 1989, the first year of the insumision. In that election the leading party, the socialist party, had to counteroffer a reduction in the length of military service - from 12 to 9 months - not to loose support. Moreover, it is streaking to see how all the political parties in Spain have changed their position on conscription in this lapse of time. In 1986 no party openly chased conscription; the "uncertain" then was to "review if it could be possible to walk in the direction of dropping conscription in the long term". Today, on the contrary, no party stands for conscription. Of course, both socialist and conservative have moved slower than the others; the reason for it is that they have governing responsibilities on the military issues, and actually they joined the club only after they understood that it was impossible to retain conscription any longer. It is also very interesting to track the impact of the insumision on the social and political environment of ETA; it was a shock at first and it has forced a certain evolution in that world. To give an example, now they call themselves insumisos and they report to have embraced antimilitarism. It is a contradiction if we look at their practice but there are some interesting developments we cannot study now in detail because we have no time for it.

Impact three. The insumision, or better, the conflict situation the insumision has given birth to, has fuelled CO from a 3-4% of conscripts in 1988 to a 67% this year. You see the evolution in this figure: CO was minoritarian before the insumision, and its major gains have always come the year after a major repression by the military and government. Or more precisely, when it was clear that this contentious politics proved ineffective to deter the resistance and control the conflict. These contentious politics have been the military imprisonment of the first insumisos in 1989, the beginning of a civil but general imprisonment in 1991, and the harsh punishment measures included in the New Penal Code in 1995.

Impact four. Provision for substitutory service has always walked behind this reality and has been utterly ineffective to control it. The substitutory service had never existed before the insumision and when the Government introduced it in 1989 everybody understood that it was aimed to help in the repression and social isolation of total objectors. Consequently, the organisations who could host civilian servants refused to do so and the Government got short of places for substitutory service. This insufficiency has proved chronic. You can observe here that the waiting list is growing much faster that the provision of places. The main consequence of this gap is the promotion of CO: conscripts decide to apply for CO when they understand that such a chaos may result in not having to join the service at the end.

Impact five. Maybe the more impressive impact is the end of the conscription itself. Very briefly, the end of conscription has always resulted from the combination of three factors: military and governmental priorities, social pressure or consent - election support, for example - , and mobilisation by a social movement. In France, the key factor has been the military/governmental one. Conscription was not essential for the professional design of Armed Forces and it was Chirac who, after the nuclear testing in Mururoa and for electoral reasons, decided to do without it. In Spain, on the contrary, the Armed Forces are far from professional and it is by all means inconvenient to end the conscription system now, so it has been the mobilisation the key factor for such a decision. The ministry of Defence recognised it in his presentation: the facts had made it inevitable. The facts are the previous impacts we have reviewed: active rejection of conscription, growth of CO, boycott to substitutory service, a civil disobedience that has no other solution. The result of all it is a structural deficit of personnel in the Armed Forces. They are running out of conscripts and the only way out is to end the conscription system.

Impact six. There is an impact which is not that instrumental of fact-oriented, but which may become more meaningful than the end of conscription if we look ahead in the future. It is civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is popular in Spain today, much more popular than it was ever before. Very few people call it civil disobedience, though, most people call it insumision. Insumision to the "compulsory family service", as the slogan of the women say, insumision to a town-planning modification plain people do not agree with, insumision to the conservative hierarchy inside the Catholic Church, insumision to pay fares in the motorway, or, in the Basque Country, insumision to the Spanish institutions on the one side and to ETA on the other. Civil disobedience has entered our political culture, it is a social learning: people have understood that it is a trustworthy and powerful political strategy.

Impact seven. Together with civil disobedience we have the nonviolent direct action. The action repertoire has improved quite a bit with the insumisos - I am sorry not to have space here to describe some of these actions, but they are very original and effective - . This impact is much more relevant in the Basque Country, where putting up barricades was almost the only thing we knew how to do. We could say that the culture of nonviolence is reaching the people. More and more social struggles develop nonviolent, and the mobilisation against ETA is one example.

The decision

Why did the Spanish CO movement decide to do total objection? Well, the main reason is that the Spanish CO movement was not an association of conscientious objectors who demanded respect for their individual rights or who wanted to improve the conditions of the substitutory service; it was a social movement. A social movement like the environmental, the women or the solidarity movements, but focusing its action against militarism. Logically so, it included conscripts and non-conscripts, men and women, all together committed to bring up a real and deep social change, a change of structures and values which they called social demilitarisation.

With such a far-reaching goal, the movement never took the right to CO as the end of their struggle, but merely as a tool, a mean to improve in such social demilitarisation. Setting off from this perspective, they reviewed the processes leading to the CO laws in many other countries, and they understood that the Governments recognised conscientious objection and established a substitutory service primarily to reinforce military service and secondly to disactivate the peace making potential of this behaviour. They ended up with the conclusion that such a conscientious objection had never meant a threat to the existence of the Armed Forces or to the military priorities of governments. So they had to look for other means.

Total objection became the natural answer; they saw in it a powerful mean to make CO political and meaningful in terms of demilitarisation. They reviewed then why total objection had never developed into a real challenge to the authorities and they found out that it was because it had never been a collective stand but an individual answer to militarism. Consequently, they passed on to discuss how to organise it properly.

The processes

How did the insumision organise? The key to the success of this mobilisation is civil disobedience; no other mean would have got such an impact and result. Of course, everybody knows that the answer of the System to those who disobey is punishment. Punishment is the rule under conscription, isn't it? We would like not to serve in the military but the costs of not doing it are too expensive. So once you understand that it is impossible to avoid punishment if you become a total objector, the following concern is how can you work that punishment out, how can you make it affordable on one side, and on the other, how can you play on it to denounce the punishing rule and the punisher himself. The insumision has worked it out through the following processes:

One. A collective decision. Total objection was not a decision of some leaders. This is a grassroots movement, non-hierarchical and decentralised to the most it can be. So it was the people in the movement who discovered, discussed and preferred total objection. It was the natural option anyway, because the movement was doing civil disobedience from its very beginning; civil disobedience was part of its collective identity. Nevertheless, there had to be a minimum of people doing total objection together, and a careful review of who could and who was ready to do it came out with three hundred people, which looked a safe number for the first year.

Two. Public presentations until get arrested, not hiding. On the one side, disobedience was visible this way, it was news. On the other, it kept the group together. And finally, as they were public presentations before military authorities and it was the military who had to punish the insumisos, everybody understood that the problem was not the insumision but the military. The insumisos were just doing what everybody wanted to do,

Three. Nonviolent training. This helped the insumiso to face the punishment and continue active even in prison. The insumisos became a problem also in prison, because when they were in they organised resistance to demand full respect of human rights for everybody there.

Four. Implication of other people. The movement invited other people to accuse themselves of having helped the insumiso. Some of these supporters have been prosecuted and, in any case, their compromise has developed into the creation of support groups to single insumisos when they had to face prison. Both mechanisms, the self-implication and the support groups, have been very good to widen movement participation. These are some of the active supporters.

Five. Agreement with political parties and social movement organisations. You have some of them here. They are the allies of this movement, the so called "political and social mattress". The movement worked it out from the very beginning through the Manifesto for the Abolition of Compulsory Service, and since then both parties has kept regular meetings to negotiate and confirm this political pact. The administrative decentralisation of Spain has helped in great manner: the military issue is a lone responsibility of the Central government and therefore the other parties can play politically on the conflict. Autonomous parliaments have passed 10 motions against the Central government's politics on the issue, seven more have been proposed in the State parliament - one was accepted and it meant a political defeat for the socialists - , and two motions more in the European parliament - one in May 1990 and another in June 1993 - . Sometimes this support has been more than symbolical: many city and town councils, most of them in the Basque Country, have decided not to do with the military enlistment duties - they have even formed an association of insumiso cities - , and some city majors have already been sentenced with disability for election and citizen representation. In this figure you can see the extent of this practice, province by province; all four Basque capitals are included and, overall, it affects a 70% of the Basque population.

Six. Permanent updating of the strategy to keep the conflict alive. When the institutional actor decided to avoid the direct implication of the military in this conflict, the movement actor promoted desertion in connection to the Gulf War. When the trials were becoming a routine - no longer a news - and the authorities were promoting low sentences to avoid prison, the movement actor renounced to probation and filled the prisons up - in some of them there were more than a hundred insumisos at a time - . And so on. The last decision of the institutional actor has been to replace the prison penalty by an absolute disqualification for public service and benefits - the so called "civil death" - , and the movement actor has reacted with desertion - join the military service and quit afterwards - .

The present situation

Conscription is officially to be ended by year 2003, but it will not get that farther. This year, between 110,000-120,000 conscripts will apply for CO, while the total number of conscripts is only 170,000. This is a 65-70%, last year it was a 46%. So the end is near. Not because the Government decided it; but because the damn has already broken.

The impact is more serious that conscription though. The so called professional Armed Forces are thought to have 120,000 soldiers and today they only have 34,000. The Government decided last week to add up 15,000 more every year, but where is it going to get them if there is not any real conscription? Moreover, where will it get the money for it, cutting social expenses maybe? Perspectives cannot be worse for the new professional Armed Forces.

But success in ending up with conscription is having a big impact on the movement as well. Possibly, the movement has never been that closer to its aim of abolishing the army. But the people, the media and the politicians are happy enough with the end of conscription and they all consider than the conflict is over. You have already seen how the coverage in the media is going down. In spite of the many insumisos who are being prosecuted and in spite of the new strategy of the movement, the insumision in the barracks. It is a time of crisis for the government but also a time of crisis for the movement. To my opinion, it is clear that the movement has to reformulate its strategy and possibly focus on other issues, military expense for example. But it is the movement who will take the decision.