European Court of Human Rights rules on Right to Conscientious Objection to Military Service

A ground-breaking judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on 7 July 2011 confirms that states have a duty to respect the right to conscientious objection. The case is that of Bayatyan v Aermenia (Application no 23459/03 / 1/6/2011). It concerns a young Armenian man, a Jehovah’s Witness who applied to the relevant authorities in Armenia in 2001 to be recognized as a conscientious objector and to be permitted to do alternative service.

The Armenian Flag, one step closer to flying free. Image: no copyright.

Armenia joined the Council of Europe on 25 January 2001 and as a member of the Council of Europe is expected to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, it undertook on joining to introduce an alternative to military service within three years and to pardon all conscientious objectors sentenced to imprisonment. It is then startling to think that an application for recognition as a conscientious objector was rejected and the applicant sentenced to imprisonment only 3 months after Armenia had given this undertaking.

In an electronic newsletter issued by Human Rights without Frontiers on 8 July 2011, the significance of this judgment is further elaborated in the following two paragraphs:
‘The Grand Chamber reiterated that the Convention was a living instrument which had to be interpreted in the light of prevailing conditions and ideas in democratic States. At the time when the alleged interference with the applicant’s rights under Article 9 occurred, in 2002-2003, only four Council of Europe Member States, apart from Armenia, did not provide for the possibility of claiming conscientious objector status, although three of those had already incorporated the right to conscientious objection into their Constitutions but had yet to introduce implementing laws.’

‘Article 9 did not explicitly refer to a right to conscientious objection. However, the Grand Chamber considered that opposition to military service – where it was motivated by a serious and insurmountable conflict between the obligation to serve in the army and a person’s conscience or deeply and genuinely held religious or other beliefs – constituted a conviction or belief of sufficient cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance to attract the guarantees of Article 9.’

The judgment was welcomed by Amnesty International, Conscience and Peace Tax International, the International Commission of Jurists, Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva and War Resisters International who had submitted a joint third party intervention to the Grand Chamber.

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About Liz Scurfield

Liz worked for Quaker Council for European Affairs as one of two Joint Representatives from 2002 until 2012. Her main areas of work were on the EU role in Palestine/Israel, and Human Rights including criminal justice and conscientious objection to military service.

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