Conscientious Objection Internationally
A Survey of the Americas
In many parts of the world conscription is a reality. Young men and women must face the decision to serve, or to refuse because of their beliefs and conscience. Unfortunately, not all nations give the same protections to men and women of conscience. The Center on Conscience & War helps those in the United States seeking asylum from service in their own countries, such as when their conscientious objector applications have been denied. We also keep track of conscientious objection trends throughout the world with the hopes that one day an international standard for the rights of conscience will be recognized.
Conscientious Objection and the Oath of U.S. Citizenship
If you are a conscientious objector, when you apply for citizenship, you must petition for the right to take the alternative oath.
Military Service, Alternative Social Service, and Conscientious Objection in the Americas: A Brief Survey of Selected Countries
Military recruitment and military service have been the sources of egregious human rights violations in the Americas. The practice of forcible recruitment, while on the decline, continues in several countries. Children also are susceptible to forcible recruitment where practiced. Our office has received reports indicating that recruits often are subjected to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse at the hands of their military superiors. Often occurring as “punishment” for infractions of military rules, such abuses appear to result from the arbitrary exercise of authority by military officials. Moreover, reports indicate that standard military training practices may in some countries involve subhuman conditions including an inadequate diet and exposure to ritualistic “hazing” practices such as the consumption of human or animal blood.
The transition from military to civilian rule in much of the Americas has been accompanied by an evaluation of military service requirements and other issues germane to improving human rights guarantees. In several instances collaborative efforts between elected government officials and various sectors of civil society have led to significant changes in military conscription practices and military service requirements. Most notable is the case of Honduras, where popular outcry over the practice of forcible conscription resulted in the passage of a constitutional amendment establishing a voluntary military service. The case of Honduras also provides an illuminating example of the difficulties that will be encountered in the transition from obligatory to voluntary military service. Recent reports indicate that nearly 50% of youth conscripted during a 1994 military draft have since deserted. Few Honduran youth have interest in serving in the military, due to the poor image of the armed forces and difficult conditions within the armed forces.
A tendency toward a voluntary military service in the Americas is becoming apparent, however. Additionally, in several countries where military service remains obligatory, civilian efforts are underway to establish regulatory guidelines for military conscription and legal protections for youth susceptible to conscription. Of critical importance are the advances being made for those persons who oppose military service on moral, ethical, religious, humanitarian, and other grounds. Such persons are commonly referred to as conscientious objectors. The concept of Alternative Social Service (Service Civil) is being introduced in several countries as an alternative to armed service for conscientious objectors. This trend is consistent with developments in numerous European nations and international legal standards. It should be noted that only Canada and the United States extend conscientious objector rights to military personnel.
The present survey utilizes results of a comprehensive investigation being conducted by NISBCO on the subject of human rights and military service, to be released in September of 1996. Where more recent data is not yet available, we have relied on an Amnesty International study published in 1991 entitled Conscientious Objection to Military Service, and a 1994 report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the Economic and Social Council on the matter of conscientious objection (E/CN.4/1995/99). Data also comes directly from the embassies of the countries in question, and through the official published records of legislative proceedings. For those countries designated with an asterisk, additional information is provided.
Annex to the Survey of the Americas: Constitutional Protection of Freedom of Conscience and Religion by Country
We, the representatives of the people of the Argentine Nation, . . . invoking the protection of God, source of all reason and justice, do ordain, decree, and establish this Constitution for the Argentine Nation.
The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic Faith.
All inhabitants of the Nation enjoy the following rights, in accordance with the laws that regulate their exercise, namely … of freely professing their religion …
The private actions of men that in no way offended public order or morality, nor injure a third party, are reserved only to God and are exempt from the authority of the magistrates. No inhabitant of the Nation shall be obliged to do what the law does not command nor be deprived of what it does not forbid.
The State recognizes and upholds the Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion. It guarantees the public exercise of any other worship. Relations with the Catholic Church shall be governed by concordats and agreements between the Bolivian State and the Holy See.
Every human being has legal personality and capacity, in accordance with the laws. He enjoys the rights, freedoms, and guarantees recognized by this Constitution, without distinction as to race, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, origin, economic or social condition, or any other.
The dignity and freedom of the person are inviolable. To respect them and protect them is a primary duty of the State.
WHEREAS the People of Belize–
(a) affirm that the Nation of Belize shall be founded upon principles which acknowledge the supremacy of God, faith in human rights and fundamental freedoms, the position of the family in a society of free men and free institutions, the dignity of the human person and the equal and inalienable rights with which all members of the human family are endowed by their Creator;
(d) recognize that men and institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect of moral and spiritual values and upon the rule of law;
(e) require policies of state which protect and safeguard the unity, freedom, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Belize; which eliminate economic and social privilege and disparity among the citizens of Belize whether by race, colour, creed or sex…Whereas every person in Belize is entitled to the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, that is to say, the right, whatever his race, place or origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest, to each and all of the following, namely
(a) life, liberty, security of the person, and the protection of the law;
(b) freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association;
(c) protection for his family life, his personal privacy, the privacy of his home and other property and recognition of his human dignity; and
(d) protection from arbitrary deprivation of property,
The provisions of this Chapter shall have effect for the purpose of affording protection to those rights and freedoms subject to such limitations of that protection as are contained in those provisions, being limitations designed to ensure that the enjoyment of the said rights and freedoms by any person does not prejudice the rights and freedoms of others or the public interest.
(1) Except with his own consent, a person shall not be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience, including freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
(2) Except with his own consent (or, if he is a person under the age of eighteen years, the consent of his parent or guardian) a person attending any place of education, detained in any prison or corrective institution or serving in a naval, military or air force shall not be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion which is not his own.
(3) Every recognized religious community shall be entitled, at its own expense, to establish and maintain places of education and to manage any place of education which it maintains; and no such community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for persons of that community in the course of any education provided by that community whether or not it is in receipt of a government subsidy or other form of financial assistance designed to meet in whole or in part the cost of such course of education.
(4) A person shall not be compelled to take any oath in a manner which is contrary to his religion or belief.
(5) Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this section to the extent that the law in question makes provision which is reasonably required–
(a) in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health;
(b) for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons, including the right to observe and practice any religion without the unsolicited intervention of members of any other religion; or
(c) for the purpose of regarding educational institutions in the interest of the persons who receive or may receive instruction in them
(6) References in this section to a religion shall be construed as including references to a religious denomination, and cognate expressions shall be construed accordingly.
(1) Subject to the provisions of subsections (4), (5) and (7) of this section, no law shall make any provision that is discriminatory either of itself or in its effect.
(2) Subject to the provision of subsections (6) (7) and (8) of this section, no person shall be treated in a discriminatory manner by any person or authority.
(3) In this section, the expression “discriminatory” means affording different treatment to different persons attributable wholly or mainly to their respective description by sex, race, place of origin, political opinions, colour or creed whereby persons of one such description are subjected to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of another such description are not made subject or are accorded privileges or advantages which are not accorded to persons of another such description.
BRAZIL, FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF: 1988
The following constitute the fundamental purposes of the Federative Republic of Brazil:
IV. To promote the welfare of all, without regard to origin, race, sex, color, age, or any other forms of discrimination.
All are equal before the law, without distinction of any sort. Both Brazilians and aliens resident in Brazil are guaranteed the inviolability of the right to life, liberty, equality, security, and property, under the following terms
VI. The freedom of conscience and belief is inviolable, the freedom to hold religious services is assured, and protection of the sites of religious services and their liturgies is guaranteed pursuant to law;
VII. The rendering of religious assistance in civilian and military collective confinement facilities is assured under the law;
VIII. No one shall be deprived of rights by reason of religious belief or philosophical or political conviction, unless the individual invokes them to gain exemption from a legal obligation that is imposed upon all and refuses to perform alternative service as established by law;
Military service is obligatory, pursuant to law. Paragraph 1. The Armed Forces have authority, pursuant to law, to assign alternative service to those who, in time of peace and after having registered, invoke the dictates of conscience, such being understood as deriving from religious belief and philosophical or political conviction, in order to exempt themselves from activities of an essentially military nature.
Paragraph 2. Women and clergymen are exempt from compulsory military service in time of peace but may, however, be subject to such other responsibilities as the law may assign to them.
COLOMBIA, REPUBLIC OF: 1991
The people of Colombia,
In the exercise of their sovereign power, represented by their delegates to the National Constituent Assembly, invoking the protection of God . . .
. . . The authorities of the Republic are established in order to protect all individuals residing in Colombia, in their life, honor, property, beliefs, and other rights and freedoms, and in order to insure the fulfillment of the social duties of the state and individuals.
All individuals are born free and equal before the law, will receive equal protection and treatment from the authorities, and will enjoy the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities without any discrimination on account of gender, race, national or family origin, language, religion, political opinion, or philosophy.
The state will promote the conditions so that equality may be real and effective and will adopt measures in favor of groups which are discriminated against or marginalized . . .
Freedom of conscience is guaranteed. No one will be importuned on account of his/her convictions or beliefs or compelled to reveal them or obliged to act against his/her conscience.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed. Every individual has the right to freely profess his/her religion and to disseminate it individually or collectively. All religious faith and churches are equally free before the law.
CANADA, DOMINION OF: 1867
Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:
Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association
COSTA RICA: 1949
No one may be disturbed or molested for an expression of his opinions nor for any act which does not infringe the law. Private actions which do not harm public morals or order or which do no injury to others are outside the scope of the law.
However, no political propaganda may be carried on in any way by clerical or secular persons invoking religious motives or making use of religious beliefs.
CUBA, REPUBLIC OF: 1976
The socialist state, which bases its activity and educates the people in the scientific materialist concept of the universe, recognizes and guarantees freedom of conscience and the right of everyone to profess any religious belief and to practice, within the framework of respect for the law, the belief of his preference.
The law regulates the activities of religious institutions.
It is illegal and punishable by law to oppose one’s faith or religious belief to the Revolution; to education, or to the fulfillment of one’s duty to work, defend the homeland with arms, show reverence for its symbols and fulfill other duties established by the Constitution.
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: 1966
8. Freedom of conscience and of worship, subject to respect for public order and good customs.
ECUADOR, REPUBLIC OF: 1979
The Republic of Ecuador, faithful to its historical origins and decided to progress in the realization of its destiny, in the name of its people, invokes the protection of God and is organized fundamentally, by means of this Political Constitution.
Without prejudice to other rights necessary for a complete moral and material development that derives from the person’s nature, the State guarantees:
6-Freedom of conscience and of religion, individually and collectively, in public and in private. Persons can freely practice the faith that they prefer, except for the limitations prescribed by law to protect the security, public morality and fundamental rights if other persons.
15-The right to privacy concerning political and religious convictions. No one may be required to declare his convictions except in the cases prescribed by law.
EL SALVADOR: 1983
The free exercise of all religions, without other restriction than that required by morals or the public order, is guaranteed. No religious act shall serve as evidence of the civil status of persons.
GUYANA, CO-OPERATIVE REPUBLIC OF: 1980
Guyana is an indivisible, secular, democratic sovereign state in the course of transition from capitalism to socialism and shall be known as the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.
(1) Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of conscience, and for the purposes of this article the said freedom includes freedom of thought and of religion, freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and both in public and in private, to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
(2) No religious community shall be prevented from providing religions instruction for persons of that community.
(3) Except with his own consent (or, if he is a person who has not attained the age of eighteen years, the consent of his guardian), no person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion which is not his own.
(4) No person shall be compelled to take any oath which is contrary to his religion or belief or to take any oath in a manner which is contrary to his religion or belief.
(5) Nothing contained in or done under the authority of any law shall be held to be inconsistent with or in contravention of this article to the extent that the law in question makes provision that is reasonably required.
I. in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality or public health; or for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons, including the right to observe and practice any religion without the intervention of members of other religion;
b. with respect to standards or qualifications to be required in relation to places of education including any instruction (not being religious instruction) given at such places.
6. References in this article to a religion shall be construed as including references to a religious denomination, and cognate expressions shall be construed accordingly.
(1) Every person in Guyana is entitled to the basic right to a happy, creative and productive life, free from hunger, disease, ignorance and want. That right includes the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual, that is to say, the right, whatever his race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest, to each and all of the following, namely
(a) life, liberty, security of the person and the protection of law; (b) freedom of conscience, of expression and of assembly and association; and (c) protection for the privacy of his home and other property and from deprivation of property without compensation.
(2) The provisions of Title 1 of Part 2 shall have effect for the purpose of affording protection to the aforesaid fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual subject to such limitations of that protection as are contained in those provisions, being limitations designed to ensure that the enjoyment of the said rights and freedoms by any individual does not prejudice the rights and freedoms of others or the public interest.
(1) Subject to the provisions of this article ¾
(a) no law shall make any provision that is discriminatory either or itself or in its effect; and (b) no person shall be treated in a discriminatory manner by any person acting by virtue of any written law or in the performance of the functions of any public office or any public authority.
(2) In this article the expression “discriminatory” means affording different treatment to different persons attributable wholly or mainly to their respective descriptions by race, place of origin, political opinions, colour or creed whereby persons of one such description are subjected to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of another such description are not made subject or are accorded privileges or advantages which are not afforded to persons of another such description.
All religions and faiths shall be freely exercised. Everyone is entitled to profess his religion and practice his faith, provided the exercise of that right does not disturb law and order.
No one may be compelled to belong to a religious organization or to follow a religious reaching contrary to his conviction.
The law establishes the conditions for recognition and practice of religions and faiths.
The free exercise of all religions and cults is guaranteed without predominance, provided they do not violate the law and public policy.
Ministers of the various religions may not hold public office or engage in any form of political propaganda, invoking religious motives or, as a means to such end, thus taking advantage of the religious beliefs of the people.
The state has no official religion.
All persons have the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion, including the right not to profess a religion. No one shall be the object of coercive measures which diminish these rights, or be obligated to declare his or her creed, ideology or beliefs.
The profession of all religions is free, as is the practice of all forms of worship, without any limitation other than respect for Christian morality and public order. It is recognized that the Catholic religion is that of the majority of Panamanians.
Religious organizations have legal capacity and they manage and administer their property within the limits prescribed by law, the same as other juridical persons.
Article 24. Freedom of Religion and Ideology
The freedoms of religion, worship and ideology are recognized and are subject only to those limitations established by the Constitution and by law.
… No one will be importuned, investigated or obligated to divulge their beliefs or ideology.
Article 37. Conscientious Objection
Conscientious objection is recognized in those cases admitted by the Constitution and the law.
Article 129. Military Service
All Paraguayans are obliged to participate in the armed defense of the nation. Those who declare their conscientious objections will perform alternative service benefiting the civilian population.
Every person has the right:
(3) To freedom of conscience and religion in individual or collective form. There can be no persecution because of ideas or beliefs. The public exercise of all faiths is free as long as it does not offend morals or disturb the public order.
(17) Not to disclose one’s political, philosophic, religious, or any other convictions.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: 1788
[no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.]
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….
All religious sects are free in Uruguay. The State supports no religion whatever. It recognizes the right of the Catholic Church to ownership of all temples which have been built wholly or partly from funds of the National Treasury, with the sole exception of chapels dedicated for use by asylums, hospitals, prisons, or other public establishments. It likewise declares exempt from all forms of taxes the temples dedicated to worship by the various religious sects.
Everyone has the right to profess his religious faith and to practice his religion privately or publicly, provided it is not contrary to the public order or to good customs.
Religious faiths shall be subject to the supreme inspection of the National Executive, in conformity with the law.
No one may invoke religious beliefs or disciplines in order to avoid complying with the laws or to prevent another from exercising his right.
* See below for more information
Countries surveyed: 27
Countries with obligatory military service: 13
Countries with voluntary military service: 9
Countries with no military service: 4
Countries recognizing conscientious objection: 6
Countries with alternative social service: 4
Law number 24.429, entitled Servicio Militar Voluntario, promulgated on 5 January 1995, regulates military service in Argentina. The law establishes a voluntary military service yet reserves for the congress the right to conscript 18-year-olds for a period of service not to exceed one year. Such conscription may be ordered when, for enunciated reasons, an inadequate number of volunteers present themselves for military service.
During military conscription those persons (conscientious objectors) who, for “profound religious, philosophical, or moral convictions,” are unable to perform obligatory military service will be required to perform alternative social service in such areas as public health and the environment. The law further states that in time of war, alternative social service will consist of activities related to civil protection and defense.
The Constitution of Brazil, in article 143, paragraph 1, recognizes conscientious objection, assigning competence to the Armed Forces for the adjudication and assignment of conscientious objectors. As regulated by Decree Number 8.239 of 4 October 1991, and by Regulation 2.681 of 28 July 1992, those persons who are opposed to armed service for “religious beliefs or philosophical or political convictions” may be exempted from “activities of essentially military character” while fulfilling their obligatory military service requirements. Conscientious objector advocates in Brazil have noted that the present system is inadequate insofar as the option of civilian alternative service is unavailable. Many conscientious objectors are opposed to any affiliation with or service in the armed forces. Military service is obligatory in Brazil.
Colombia’s Constitution of 1991, in article 216, establishes an obligatory military service, regulated by Law 48 of 1993. The same constitution, in article 18, states that “…freedom of conscience is guaranteed. No one will be obligated to act against their conscience.” While a right to conscientious objection is not explicitly stated in article 18, conscientious objection was one of the concepts discussed in the formulation of this article. However, legislative efforts to provide guarantees for conscientious objectors have not prospered. Conscientious objectors who refuse military service may be subject to the charge of desertion and imprisoned.
The Salvadoran Constitution and military service law establish an obligatory military service. In practice, since the end of the armed conflict in January of 1992, military service has been rendered on a voluntary basis. The military service law is currently undergoing revision.
Article 135 of the Guatemalan Constitution establishes an obligatory military service. The Ley Constitutiva del Ejercito, in title 4, articles 68-78, regulates military service.
The Global Human Rights Accord signed in March of 1994 by representatives of the Guatemalan government, the URNG guerrillas, and the United Nations stipulated that a new military service law would be enacted in order to end the practice of forced recruitment and other violations of human rights occurring in the context of military service.
Two distinct law proposals, from the Minister of Defense and the Human Rights Ombudsman, were submitted to the Guatemalan Congress for review. The Comision de Apoyo Tecnico Juridico (UPAT) of the Guatemalan Congress analyzed the two proposals for consistency with the Guatemalan Constitution, the Global Human Rights Accord, and obligations deriving from international treaties.
The UPAT analysis recognizes the constitutional requirement of obligatory military service. Ambiguity arises in the same constitutional article, which stipulates that it is a right and duty of Guatemalans to perform “military and social service.” The study also concludes that current obligations under international law require that Guatemala provide guarantees for conscientious objectors. In an attempt to reconcile deficiencies contained in the two proposals, UPAT has proposed an alternative, the Ley del Servicio Patriotico. Military service remains obligatory in this proposal, though the option of alternative social service is granted for conscientious objectors.
The practice of forced recruitment came under fire in the early 1990’s as a result of several incidents leading to the death of civilians during forced recruitment operations. Decree Number 24-94 was passed in May of 1994 establishing a voluntary military service during peacetime. The amendment reserves for the Congress the right to conscript “…in conformity with the Military Service Law.” Military service is regulated by Decree Number 98-85 of 22 August 1985.
At present, the Honduran Congress is preparing to debate a new law proposal to regulate military service, in conformity with the above-mentioned constitutional reform. The proposal reserves the right for the military to conscript. Reports indicate that the proposal does not provide guarantees for conscientious objectors, although on two occasions in the 1980’s proposals recognizing conscientious objection were brought before the Congress.
Law 569 regulates military service, which is obligatory in accordance with the Paraguayan Constitution of 1992.
Articles 37 and 129 of the constitution explicitly recognize a right of conscientious objection. Article 37 reads “conscientious objection for ethical and religious reasons is recognized….” Paragraph 5 of article 129 states “those that declare their conscientious objections will perform service benefiting the civilian population through centers …under civil jurisdiction.”
There is no law regulating conscientious objection and alternative service in Paraguay. The constitutional guarantees for conscientious objectors remain unenforced.
The right of the government to raise and maintain an army, including the right to conscript, has been recognized and upheld by the courts. While military service presently is voluntary, all 18-year-old youth are required to register with the Selective Service System, the civilian agency charged with conducting a military draft when required by law. The Military Selective Service Act provides for military conscription. Section 6(j) of the Act states that “nothing contained in this title shall be construed to require any person to be subject to combatant training and service in the Armed Forces of the United States who, by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.” Alternative service is provided for conscientious objectors when there is conscription.
Military personnel who develop conscientious objections to military service may seek reassignment to noncombatant duties or discharge from the Armed Forces under Department of Defense Directive 1300.6.