Long-term commitment

Achieving lasting, real change through steady, long-term commitment to key issues of concern

QUNO's work on the right to conscientious objection

Conscientious objectors often face serious consequences for their refusal of military service, such as imprisonment, fines, discrimination and restrictions on their freedom of movement. For nearly 70 years, QUNO has worked to gain international recognition for this right, both at the UN and at the State level. Today, expert and political bodies of the UN have clarified that the right to conscientious objection is protected by international law and this is informing decisions by national courts.

Conscientious objectors face a wide range of serious consequences for their refusal to perform military service, including heavy fines and repeated imprisonment. The threat of repeated prosecution and the withholding of identity documents lead to further rights violations including limitations on freedom of movement, access to vote and access to employment. This has been described in one case as civil death.

Since the 1950s, we have worked to gain international recognition for the right of conscientious objection to military service. The gradual process has been pursued through work to highlight the impact of the failure to recognize the right and clarify its protection in existing law.

We worked with the Human Rights Committee culminating in a groundbreaking decision in 2007 recognizing that conscientious objection to military service is protected under the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Similarly, we built on our work at the Commission on Human Rights, working closely with diplomats ahead of the Human Rights Council’s first resolution recognizing conscientious objection to military service, passed by consensus in 2012.

Despite recognition by the Commission on Human Rights, the Human Rights Council, the Human Rights Committee, Special Procedures and regional human rights courts of the right to conscientious objection to military service, those seeking to exercise this right continue to face violations of this and other rights due to non-recognition of the right or a failure to fully implement it.  To address this we have focused more recently on closing this implementation gap in two ways: increasing recognition of the right at the national level and improving the full implementation in countries where the right is recognized but human rights violations persist.

To increase recognition at a national level we have worked with others on briefs for key legal cases. As an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, we provided up to date information and analysis about the protection of the right in international law. Such cases before the Colombian Constitutional Court (2009) and the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Korea (2014) led to rulings that required recognition of conscientious objection to military service.

There is still much to be done to close the gap between international norms and national practices to ensure the full implementation of the rights of conscientious objectors. We continue to work for guidance for States to support them to ensure they are meeting these obligations, such as the recent checklist from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on application procedures. 

While we are still far from the full recognition and implementation of this right for all conscientious objectors to military service we have traveled a long way towards it, showing how our steady, long-term work on issues of concern leads to real change and demonstrating the role of international standards in improving national laws and practices.