The situation of conscientious objectors in Switzerland - compared with the guidelines of the European Union

by Ruedi Winet


In contrast to many other countries the military service in Switzerland is not served in one part. The conscripts have to serve their days of duty - between the age of 19 and 42 - over several singular parts in several years. The military service consists of a basic course, the so-called school of recruits of 100 days, and approximately 10 repetitive courses of 20 days each. Those who have relatively acceptable qualifications have to be aware that they have to become a non-commissioned officer which means they have to serve at least 160 additional days. In addition all conscripts have to complete half a day of target practice in the years without repetitive courses.

Exactly one year ago Switzerland introduced for conscripts the possibility to apply for an alternative service. Before that all Swiss men who objected to military service, had to endure sanctions under the military penal law.

In Switzerland first demands for an alternative service had already been made in 1903. Two people's initiatives for the introduction of an alternative service failed in 1977 and 1984. Improvements in the state's behaviour towards conscientious objectors came on only very reluctantly and until 1996 only through the military penal law. One of these improvements was the introduction of the possibility of exclusion from the army. Before that, conscientious objectors (COs) were sentenced to several weeks of imprisonment every time they did not return to barracks. Thus, some COs spent several weeks per year in prison. Later, special privileges were given to COs with an acknowledged moral dilemma. They got the possibility to spend their sentence in open prison ("half-freedom"). First, only religiously motivated COs could profit from this new opportunity, later on the "half-freedom" was extended to those with so-called ethical reasons. Every year, up to 800 COs were sentenced to four to twelve months of imprisonment. In 1991 the courts got the opportunity to sentence them to public service in place of imprisonment.

For a long time the official Switzerland offered only the so-called military service without arms as the only legal alternative for COs. In the meantime another possibility for escape from conscription was established: the "Blue Way", named after the blue badges of the military doctors. Often with the help of psychiatric statements and diagnoses like "subnormal psychic reactions in peace and war", thousands of conscripts are and have been rejected as unfit for service, so that, together with those who are rejected for other reasons, only about one half of all conscripts stay in service until the age of 42. Approximately 870,000 men are in the age for military service. 290,000 of them have been rejected as unfit, about 110,000 do not have to serve due to other reasons. Every year about 35,000 men reach the age of conscription.

This is the milieu of the Swiss discussion on conscientious objection.

The present legal situation

In 1989, due to the changes in Eastern Europe and the success of the people's initiative "Switzerland without army" - they had about 38% positive votes - the Swiss parliament felt compelled to make some improvements for the COs. A parliamentarian initiative in 1992 lead to a publicite on an addition to the constitution . 83%, 1,4 million Swiss people voted for the introduction of the additional article 18 to the constitution " Every Swiss man is liable for military service. The law plans an alternative service." In the following years a respective law was written which has come into force on October 1st 1996.

Alternative Civil Service

On principle the present law on conscientious objection allows conscripts who can make believe that military service is incompatible with their conscience, to perform an alternative civil service. To prove that there are reasons of conscience one has to make an extended application and to attend a hearing before a civil commission. The application can only be made after the recruition but then any time if one has to serve and is found fit to do so. Those who are acknowledged have to perform an alternative civil service one half longer than the military service. So if one objects already at the very beginning of the service this means 450 days of alternative service in non-profit institutions and organisations.

Official figures state 2200 applications for conscientious objection in the first year. The lengths of proceedings differ regionally, for German Swiss it takes presently approximately 11 month. Until now 800 applications have been decided. About 80% of all applications have been acknowledged and there are no known complaints on rejected applications.

Moment of Conscientious objection

Applications for conscientious objection can be handed in anytime. The only precondition is that the applicant is a conscript. In consequence is that those who are rejected as unfit for psychological or other medical reasons can not apply for conscientious objection. The medical examination as well is compulsory for all. Those who hand in their application within the specified time, i.e. at least 3 months before a period of service like courses or target practices are freed from any service until a decision is made. There is also the possibility to apply within longer periods of service like stays at the school of recruits or the school for non-commissioned officers. These servicemen stay with the army and their application will be decided on in a quick procedure after 1-2 weeks. In the case of a positive decision they will be discharged immediately and regularly exempted from any armed service.

Those who apply too late and still do not move into service have to be aware to become prosecuted for objection to military service. But the criminal proceedings will be postponed when the conscientious objectors hands in an application for alternative service. If the decision on the application is positive the military court can sentence them to up to three months of imprisonment because of ignoring an order. In practice up to now nobody has been sentenced to prison, only a few had to pay a penalty of maximum 300 Swiss francs. If no application is handed in or a handed in one is rejected a sentence to imprisonment up to 10 months is given, the actual length depending on the length of the future service.

Examination of applications

A person who wants to perform an alternative civil service has to hand in a written application at the Federal authority for industry, trade and labour (BIGA). Along with the statement of wanting to perform the alternative service the application has to include an explanation of the reason of conscience, an extended curriculum vitae and a criminal records extract. In a first step the application will be examined for its completeness. In the case of missing parts the applicant has the opportunity to complete his application. After a time between about three (French and Italian part of Switzerland) and ten months (German part of Switzerland) the applicant is summoned to a hearing. Participants of these hearings are the applicant and possibly somebody to assist him, three members of the approving commission as well as a representative from the BIGA. The members of the commission are elected by the head of the ministry for economics, but the defence ministry has a say in this process and this is quiet problematical. The presently 120 members of the commission are equally men and women who have replied to newspaper advertisements and have to perform this secondary occupation 20 days per year.

The commission's committee gives a recommendation to the BIGA whether to reject or approve of the application on the grounds of the presented documents and the results of the hearing. Other documents, for instance military records, are not available. The BIGA then decides and communicates the decision together with an information on the applicant's rights about one month after the hearing. If an application is rejected, the reasons for the rejection will also be communicated. On application the applicant may take a look at the transcript of the proceedings.

Reasons of approval

According to the parliamentarian discussions all reasons of conscience should entitle young men to perform an alternative civil service. A decision of conscience is according to the law based on "complex internal processes which so much commit a person to a distinct behaviour it becomes a question of identity. To contravene would damage or break the moral personality." In practice the commission accepts moral arguments based on religious, theological, philosophical, individual- or social ethical principles. Especially demanded for is "coherence of thinking and acting as well as a holistic lifestyle". The examination is also looking for "substantiveness of convictions, no contradictions, plausibility and personal credibility". Rejected are those applications which argue with cost-benefit calculations between military and alternative service or that the applicant feels himself better placed in the alternative service. If the impression of a mostly political-rational calculation emerges, the application is rejected as well. The application is also hopeless when the commission finds the argumentation too superficial or not put into practice in the applicant's life. This reads in decisions as follows: "In addition you have none of the values you see violated in the military service put into practice in your life".

The definition of the reasons for approval have mostly taken into account international standards. Difficulties from the present examination regulations occur only when they are put into practice. They tend to favour those with a better education because a lot of profound argumentation is needed which frightens off persons with a lesser education. The procedure does not do all applicants justice especially as it becomes evident again and again that the standards are very individually handled by the commission's committees and in the end the acknowledgement of a conflict of conscience is always a matter of discretion. The examination of conscience which all Swiss applicants have to pass is always subjective and therefore prone to arbitrariness. Furthermore a lot of personnel is involved in the proceedings which delays the handling of the applications nearly indefinitely.

Possibilities for further legal action

In the case of an rejection of the application there are only very modest possibilities for further legal action. The only instance of complaint is a commission in the ministry of economics an administrative body that mostly deals with the import of cheese and white wine. There is no possibility for further legal action at an independent judicial body. Thus it is also impossible to take a rejection to the highest Swiss court, the Federal Court.


Founded on the argument of the equality of either military and alternative service parliament has fixed the length of the alternative service 1.5 times as long as the military service. But the actual reason for this massive prolongation is another calculation which has turned out to work. Many young men are put off from the alternative service especially as there are now two obstacles to overcome: a lavish acknowledgement procedure in combination with a prolonged service. Therefore this procedure can easily be regarded as a punishment for convictions of conscience. At least this long duration is moderately mitigated by the fact that COs can not be forced to perform additional services like the training for non-commissioned officers. Despite this rather deterrent form of alternative service the parliamentarian majority has not reached their main goal: To avoid leavings from the army. The conscripts now prefer other ways, the number of leavings on so-called medical grounds are still increasing.

Places to perform the alternative service

The alternative civil service in Switzerland is served in non-profit organisations and institutions and in agriculture, usually in the residential region. This includes social and health care services, hospitals, homes and youth centres, protection of the environment, furthermore research at universities and archaeological activities as well as biological farming and forestry. Has the CO the required qualifications it is also theoretically possible to perform the service abroad within the context of development aid and humanitarian services. But as a non-member of the EU Switzerland up to now has not shown much interest in the co-operation in this field with other countries. Thus it is nearly impossible to perform the alternative service in exchange with other European countries.

It is also possible to perform the alternative service in businesses, provided the business has been granted approval after a respective application. These applications are handled by a commission which consists of employers' associations and unions' representatives. The most important criterion here is the so-called neutrality for the labour-market. The CO should contribute to the improvement of an already established service but he must not take away a regular job. Most of the service places for COs fulfil this criterion but some of them compete with the newly set up programs for the unemployed. The still only few problems in this area are due to the low number of COs.


As the alternative service is regarded as an equal fulfilment of conscription the CO has the same rights as the recruit. They both get the same financial compensation, presently the minimum is 1080 Swiss francs per month, and in the luckier cases the income is as high as during the previous employment. Accident and health insurance are the same for both and both are entitled to board and accommodation or the respective monetary compensations Disadvantaged are those COs who need further financial support. COs in this situation are referred to social services in the community whereas the army has special funds for cases like this.

Regarding a professional career the alternative service can be advantageous: For work in nursing, courses of two weeks are provides by the Red Cross and sometimes the alternative service can be acknowledged as period of practical instruction for an education in a social services profession. Otherwise not much happens in terms of adult or further education like for instance the courses for COs in Germany. Though there is no formally planing, the CO has a say in the choice of his place of service.

Naturally all civil rights are maintained throughout the alternative civil service. And COs are not under the military laws but primarily under the law on conscientious objection and in general under the civil laws. Acknowledged COs who object to alternative service have to appear before civil courts. For this offence the law plans prison sentences up to 18 months of imprisonment, but up to now there have been no such charges let alone convictions. The CO also does not have a civil defence duty and does not have to pay a conscription compensation rate - in contradiction to all those who are rejected as unfit for medical reasons. An official representation of COs is nowhere planned, there organisation gets no state support. They are merely invited to make suggestions towards alterations of the law on conscientious objection.


A very problematic point concerning conscientious objection and alternative service is the information policy on this subject. Only those who look actively for information may obtain useful details. All conscripts receive an extended booklet about their opportunities within the army, but the alternative service is only mentioned in some short paragraphs that on top provide only outdated information. On the official state-run information evenings for conscripts only wrong or no information on the alternative service at all are given.

Increasingly those soldiers with problems in the school of recruits are referred to the alternative service, often with insufficient or wrong information about the reasons they have to name in order to be approved. Therefore it does not come as a surprise that many of these applications for an alternative service are eventually rejected.

Another problem is one article in the penal law which forbids to call upon the public for conscientious objection. The article is not used any more but it is still on people's minds. Also a widespread information on the alternative service is not wished for and consequently not promoted by the state. In Switzerland, conscientious objection is not regarded as a right in itself, there exists only the right to apply for an alternative service. But as shown, even information on this subject are scarce. No real caution on conscientious objection is given to conscripts, only those who ask for it, obtain it. In Switzerland the military service has priority- hence the information policy.

On the other hand in the last ten years private organisations which try to spread the information on conscientious objection in the population have not been prevented from doing their work. But this may be only due to their modest propaganda possibilities.

Military service without arms

Another alternative to military service provided by the law is the so-called military service without arms for reasons of conscience. Those who opt for this kind of service have to make the respective application and have to endure a procedure similar like the one for those who applied for an alternative service. But here the application is approved or rejected by the military in the first instance and in the second by a civil commission elected by the military. The last legal resort is the Federal Council.

The applications for a military service without arms have continuously declined since 1982: In the last year 166 out of still 291 applications have been accepted. The military service without arms lasts as long as the military service but no additional services like the target practices have to be performed. Often the military service without arms is quite unsatisfying for those performing it especially when superiors only reluctantly respect their special status.

Total objection

Since the introduction of the law on conscientious objection there have only been few legal actions against total objectors who object to military as well as to alternative service. Some weeks ago I watched one of the first, against a parson. Out of protest against the military system he had refused to serve his last 52 days of military duty and also refused to perform an alternative civil service which he denounced as being part of the same system. The military court sentenced him to four month of imprisonment without probation - a sentence that went far beyond all sentences in comparable cases up to now. His objection to an alternative service was valued as the expression of profound egoism and viewed as a reason to prolong the sentence.