The right to conscientious objection in Belarus: Still a long way to go

, by Giorgos Kosmopoulos

The right to conscientious objection in Belarus: Still a long way to go

Belarus is one of the worst examples of European countries not having enforced the right for conscientious objection - the right to refuse military service.

The right to conscientious objection is well founded in international human rights law. It is prescribed among others in UN conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights and has also been enshrined in Article 10 of the Charter for Fundamental Rights of the European Union. According to the accepted definition, deriving from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art.18) a Conscientious Objector (CO) is an “individual [who has] claimed the right to refuse to perform military service" on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion.’’ It should also be noted that the right applies to both conscripts and professional soldiers. States should, in order to secure the enjoyment of the right have to set up an alternative military service, provide evidence that this service is of civilian nature and compatible to the reasons of the objection: it is serving the public interest and has no punitive nature. In Europe alone, many problems exist and Belarus is one of the worst examples.

A Conscientious Objector is an “individual [who has] claimed the right to refuse to perform military service" on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, or religion.’’

The civil society in Belarus, although severely impeded in its functions, has been calling for the introduction of the alternative service and the dropping of the cases against COs. Even though the Constitution of Belarus guarantees to its citizens the right to alternative civilian service and the Constitutional Court, since 2000, has ruled that the Parliament has to adopt the appropriate legislation, regrettably, ten years later, the appropriate law still hasn’t been adopted.

Currently, and despite the fact that President Lukashenka in 2009 has initiated the procedure of drafting a new law, Belarusian authorities have re-started criminal prosecutions of COs. In one of the most the recent cases, in February 2009, the Minsk district court, under Article 435 of the Criminal Code (‘evasion from military service’) sentenced Mr. Mikhailau to three months detention, because he has demanded to be assigned to alternative civilian service. Ivan Mikhailau, who objected the military service on religious grounds, was recognised as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and his case has also been supported by the European Bureau of Conscientious Objection (EBCO).

Currently, and despite the fact that President Lukashenka in 2009 has initiated the procedure of drafting a new law, Belarusian authorities have re-started criminal prosecutions of COs.

It is positive that recently the Belarusian courts, in four cases, have revoked previous decisions that led to their imprisonment and have set free the persecuted COs. According to campaign For Alternative Civilian Service ‘this is not a mere coincidence, but an order of the high-rank authorities connected to the preparation of a law on alternative service’. The goal however, for a fair alternative civilian service is far from attained. To cite Mr Mikhailau: “Do I hope for a positive outcome of the case? It is yet early to say. The case would be considered by the same Minsk Region Court as previously. But let’s believe in the better outcome”. Let’s hope and fight for it.

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