A conscientious objector is a person who decides not to be a combatant in military forces, citing beliefs such as religion, pacifism or ethical and moral beliefs against killing human beings.
Throughout history, the definition, role, perception and legality of conscientious objectors has varied widely. Some countries have historically offered provision for total military exemption, whereas others punish it harshly.
It is difficult to encompass all attitudes across the world towards conscientious objection throughout history. For the purposes of this article, we’re predominantly focusing on facts about conscientious objection which relate to the United Kingdom and parts of the Western world.
1. The first recorded conscientious objector was in 295 AD
The first recorded conscientious objector was called Maximilianus. He was conscripted into the Roman Army in the year 295 AD, but told the Proconsul in Numidia (the ancient kingdom of the Numidians located in northwest Africa, now Algeria) that “because of his religious convictions he could not serve in the military.” He was immediately beheaded for his objection, but was later canonized as a saint and martyr.
The ‘Order of Maximilian’, a group of American clergy who objected to the Vietnam War in the 1970s, took their name from him. His name is also regularly read out at the annual International Conscientious Objectors’ Day in Bloomsbury, London.
2. The ‘Just War’ theory was used to reconcile Christian belief with war
Theodosius I (347-395 AD) made Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire, which then developed into the official position of the Western Church. The ‘Just War’ theory was therefore developed to reconcile warfare with Christian belief.
The theory aims to justify violence if it satisfies a number of conditions: having just cause, being a last resort, being declared by a proper authority, possessing right intention, having a reasonable chance of success and the end being proportional to the means used.
In the 11th century, there was a further shift of opinion in the Latin-Christian tradition with the Crusades, which made the idea of a ‘holy war’ acceptable. Objectors became a minority. Some theologians see the Constantinian shift and the loss of Christian pacifism as one of the church’s greatest failings.
3. Conscientious objection is normally claimed on the grounds of religion
Religiously motivated anti-war behaviour has been historically recorded long before the term ‘conscientious objection’ appeared. For example, the medieval Orkneyinga Saga mentions that Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney (the future Saint Magnus) had a reputation for gentleness and piety, and due to his religious convictions refused to fight in a Viking raid on Wales. Instead, he stayed on board his ship singing psalms.
Similarly, before the American Revolution, most conscientious objectors – such as the Mennonites, Quakers and Church of the Brethren – belonged to ‘peace churches’, which practiced pacifism. Other religious groups, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, though not strictly pacifist, also refused to participate.
4. Britain first recognised conscientious objectors in the 18th century
The United Kingdom first recognised the right of individuals to not fight in the 18th century after problems with attempting to force Quakers into military service emerged. In 1757, the Militia Ballot Act allowed Quakers to be excluded from service in the Militia. The issue then died down, since Britain’s armed forces were generally all-volunteer. However, press gangs, which forced people to sign up for the armed forces, were used extensively between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Pressed men did have the right of appeal. The Royal Navy last took in pressed men during the Napoleonic War.
5. Britons were granted the right to refuse military service in 1916
A general right to refuse military service was first implemented during World War One. Conscription was first introduced in 1916 with the Military Service Act. It allowed for objectors to be totally exempted, perform alternative civilian service, or to serve as non-combatants in the army’s Non-Combatant Corps, so long that they could convince a Military Service Tribunal that their objection was truthful.
Around 16,000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors, with Quakers forming the largest proportion.
6. Many conscientious objectors undertake other tasks related to war
Some conscientious objectors, known as ‘absolutists’, object entirely to contributing to any kind of war-related job or task, whereas others are willing to take on alternative civilian work or enter the military in non-combatant roles.
Around 4,500 objectors during World War One were offered so-called ‘work of national importance’ which mainly consisted of agriculture, forestry or unskilled manual labour, and 7,000 were conscripted into the specially-created Non-Combatant Corps.
Certain countries around the world have different stances towards conscientious objectors. As of 2005, conscientious objectors in many countries are permitted to serve as field paramedics in the army (though for some this is seen as humanising war, and therefore not a genuine alternative). Some are also permitted to serve without arms.
Certain European countries such as Austria, Greece and Switzerland allow their citizens to perform an alternate civilian service. Often, civilian service is longer in duration than military service.
7. The United Nations regards conscientious objection as a human right
Both the United Nations and the Council of Europe define conscientious objection as a human right. However, it is not legally recognised, and does not have a defined legal basis in most countries.
The European Court of Human Rights judged the denial of conscientious objectors as a violation of freedom of religion and thought in 2013. And the European Union has recognised the choice to be a conscientious objector as a fundamental right.
8. Around 100 countries in the world have conscription
Of the roughly 100 nations around the globe that enforce military conscription, only 30 countries have some legal provision for conscientious objectors, with 25 of them in Europe. In Europe today, most countries with conscription fulfill international guidelines regarding conscientious objection legislation. Exceptions include Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Finland and Russia.
Many countries around the world, especially those in conflict areas such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, punish conscientious objection very severely.
9. Muhammad Ali claimed conscientious objection
Boxing heavyweight superstar Muhammad Ali (1942-2016) is one of the most well-known Americans to have claimed conscientious objection. In 1967, he refused to be inducted into the military after he was drafted for the Vietnam War, and was subsequently arrested and convicted for violating Selective Service laws. He faced 5 years in prison and was stripped of his boxing titles.
His appeal travelled to the US Supreme Court where it was overturned. However, in the 4 years that it took to reach the Supreme Court, he lost much of his peak physical fitness.
Ali’s conscientious objection served as a symbol for wider counter-culture and contributed more widely to his image as a prominent supporter of the Civil Rights movement.
10. Public opinion towards conscientious objectors varies
Being a conscientious objector has historically been a difficult decision, both because of potential legal implications and public perception. Conscientious objection in Britain in 1916 was largely seen as rejecting the whole of society and everything it stood for. Imprisoned conscientious objectors were also not released until 6 months after the war ended – in order to give returning soldiers a head start in the job market – and they were also deprived of the right to vote until 1926.
Media treatment of conscientious objectors at the time was overwhelmingly negative, with the nickname ‘conchie’ accompanying a widespread stereotype that they were lazy, traitorous and cowardly. The press also depicted objectors as physically weak, calling them ‘sissies’ or ‘pansies’, inferring that they were homosexual (which was illegal at the time) and often pictured them wearing dresses or performing traditional female roles.
By World War Two, conscientious objection was more accepted in British society, and almost 4 times as many men applied to be registered as one compared to 1916.
More recently, conflicts such as the Vietnam War have been publicly opposed by high-profile figures, and public perception towards conscientious objection in the west in general has become more accommodating.