International Conscientious Objectors Meet in Bogota
by Yeidy Rosa, War Resisters League
From July 18-20, 2006, Colombia’s National Assembly of Conscientious Objectors, (Asamblea Nacional de Objetoras y Objetores de Conciencia de Colombia-ANOOC), held its International Meeting in Solidarity with Conscientious Objection in Bogotá. Participants included representatives from within Colombia, including members of Medellín’s Youth Network (Red Juvenil), Cali’s Object Collective (Colectivo Objetarte Cali), Cauca’s Artisans of Life (Artesanos de Vida), as well as representatives from the strife-torn department of Arauca, the Afro-Colombian village of Villa Rica, and the San José de Apartadó Peace Community. Also present were representatives from conscientious objector (CO) groups in from across the hemisphere and the planet, including the Ecuador Conscientious Objection Group (Grupo de Objeción de Consciencia del Ecuador-GOCE), Paraguay’s Conscientious Objection Movement (Movimiento de Objeción de Consciencia- MOC-PY), Spain’s Conscientious Objection Movement (Movimiento de Objeción de Consciencia- MOC-ES), Serbia’s Campaign for Conscientious Objection, and the United States’ War Resisters League (WRL); as well as international organizations such as the London-based War Resisters International (WRI) and Conscience and Peace Tax International, based in Geneva.
Moderating this dialogue were representatives from Colombia’s office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Inter-American Platform on Human Rights, Democracy and Development, and the Colombian ombudsman’s office, the Defensoria del Pueblo.
Article 18 of Colombia’s 1991 constitution states that “No one shall be obligated to act against their conscience.” Yet 1993’s law no. 48 mandates one year and eight months of military service to all those over 18 years of age. Those who pay a fine of one million pesos (roughly US$425 US), which in turn is used to finance Colombia’s ongoing 40-year war, may be exempt from military service, leaving no room for conscientious objectors not to take up arms and not contribute towards war financially. This fundamental contradiction, as well as the forced recruitment of youth by paramilitary and other armed groups, served as a springboard for a three-day discussion, held at Bogotá’s National Library.
Says Lukas, one young man participating in the conference: “In Colombia there exists the option to buy your libreta militar so that you do not have to serve the mandatory military service… This procedure is usually done illegally and serves to show the levels of corruption within the military forces.”
The event concluded on July 20, the day in which Colombia’s independence is commemorated with elaborate military parades throughout the country. Participants of the conference and some of the 300 attendees added to this parade their own finale: an action called the “Carnival of Life,” where militarism was depicted as violence, as opposed to a source of pride, and the right to conscientious objection was celebrated.
More sobering, however, was the worry on the faces of the participants traveling back to their homes in the department of Valle del Cauca, where paramilitary forces hold an intense presence. On Colombian Independence Day, it is routine for paramilitaries to conduct forced recruitment raids, snatching civilians from buses traveling through conflict-ridden regions. “They have already knocked down two transformers in our area in a show of power today,” one Colombian conference attendee said upon getting the news from home. “That means at least two months without electricity for our entire town.”
Former Dictatorships in the Vanguard
The conference served as an interchange for parallel struggles for the recognition of CO status in different countries. The CO movements in Colombia, Chile, Ecuador and Paraguay are strong and organized, with many tools and experiences to share. But in a region where obligatory military service (SMO, by its common Spanish acronym) is nearly universal, failure to serve is equated with forfeiting basic civil rights such as higher education, employment and freedom of movement across national borders. Currently, conscription is mandatory in Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Bermuda, and the Dominican Republic. As in the case of Colombia, the national constitutions of Paraguay, Ecuador and Argentina officially recognize the right to conscientious objection—due to pressure from the CO movement itself—yet there exists no enabling legislation for CO status to be fully recognized and civil rights guaranteed.
In Chile, a military dictatorship became deeply entrenched under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. All men face mandatory eight-to-twelve months of military service from the age of 18, and there are no legal provisions for conscientious objection. Since the return to democracy in 1989, however, a number of youth-led groups have organized against conscription, such as Neither Helmet Nor Uniform (Ni Casco Ni Uniforme-NCNU), the Movement for Conscientious Objection (Movimiento de Objeción de Consciencia-MOC-Chile), and the Breaking Ranks Antimilitarism and Conscientious Objection Group (Grupo Antimilitarista y Objeción de Conciencia Rompiendo Filas). On August 28, 1997, Chilean COs signed a public declaration officially appealing for the legal right to CO status to the general director of mobilization. The Chilean government is required to respond to any citizen request such as this one within 15 days—but has yet, to this day, failed to respond. Chile currently has three conscientious objector cases pending in the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
Paraguay’s MOC-PY, formed in 1994 following both the end of military rule and the declaration of Paraguay’s first five COs the previous year, today counts over 115,000 COs nationwide. The group campaigns for the upholding of articles 37 and 129 of Paraguay’s 1992 constitution. Article 37 says “conscientious objection for ethical and religious reasons is recognized….” Paragraph 5 of article 129 says “those that declare their conscientious objections will perform service benefiting the civilian population through centers …under civil jurisdiction.” But there is no legal mechanism for alternative service, so these provisions are meaningless. MOC-PY also works closely with the Paraguay branch of Latin American pacifist network SERPAJ (Servicio Paz y Justicia), which first proposed the constitution’s reforms on the recognition of conscientious objection.
As MOC-PY member Edilberto Alvarez states: “In the context of the dictatorship, the military became a force that permeated the social fabric of all groups, such as family, school, politics and other spaces of interaction.” Cases of forced recruitment in public spaces are still reported, with missing youths reappearing months later as soldiers, to the surprise of their families and communities. Alvarez says these practices “reinforce the culture of violence, sexism, and submission, ending in psychological trauma and death.”
Ecuador’s GOCE emerged in 1994 as a response to increasing militarization despite the end of military rule 15 years earlier. With SERPAJ-Ecuador, it proposed an alternative civil service, which was presented as a reform to the constitution in 1996 and passed by the National Assembly in 1998 as Article 188. GOCE, based in Quito, currently works with COs, as well as with women, youth and environmental groups in twelve provinces throughout Ecuador. It has also established an exchange program with youth from Peru following the 1995 war between the two countries over an oil-rich stretch of jungle, the Cenepa River Valley. The group has reached out to over 7,000 youths through workshops against conscription, war toys, French nuclear testing in the Pacific and US military bases in the region.
COs in Ecuador are not able to attend public universities, work in the public sector, or leave the country, facing fines of up to $500 for every year of military service refusal, or serving one day in jail for every ten cents owed in fines, with all civil rights suspended for two years. Xavier León, a member of GOCE and a declared CO since 1999, currently has his case pending in the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. José Luis Echeverria, who declared himself a conscientious objector this past year, is currently waiting to hear from the public university where he has registered, since the right to education is officially denied to those that have not served their mandatory military service. If his right to education is refused, GOCE is prepared to bring a legal case charging discrimination based on political convictions.
In Colombia, Red Juvenil is a twelve-year-old collective committed to creating nonviolent alternatives to counter recruitment efforts by the over 200 armed groups that operate in Medellín. Despite constant harassment by the national police, Red Juvenil holds public events such as concerts and public theater in collaboration with other youth initiatives such as Antimili Sonoro, La Madeja theater group, and the Aeroteatro Pulsaciones Coloridas acrobatic and dance project. Red Juvenil also recognizes the struggle of objectors who have not declared themselves publicly, given the highly dangerous nature of public activism in Colombia. As declared CO and Red Juvenil member Jhony Arango says the group supports “all those objectors, women and men, living in this country who without declaring themselves and without organizing, assume their positions as an individual way of life.” Cali’s Colectivo Objetarte also emphasizes a multiplicity of forms of objection. The group’s Sandra Piedrahita says the group expresses their dissent from Colombia’s intense militarization “by painting murals, refusing to have bank accounts [in which war taxes are accrued] and boycotting products from multinationals that profit from the war.”
The CO movement is significantly less advanced in Bolivia, but the case of conscientious objector Alfredo Díaz Bustos in 2003 brought the issue to light. Reports of torture within the military, and the ability to buy your way out of the SMO, started a national discussion on conscientious objection. Bustos and the Bolivian government reached an “amicable settlement” after his case was taken to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in 2005.
The Caribbean and Central America
But organizing around issues of conscientious objection is growing outside these strong cases. Despite its colonial relationship with the United States, or perhaps because of it, Puerto Rico’s antimilitarism movement identifies strongly with CO movements throughout the Latin American region. The Caribbean Peace and Justice Project (Proyecto Caribeño de Paz y Justicia-PCJP) has been working on the island since 1973, particularly around the negative impacts of US military presence in the region. Iván Broida from PCJP, in New York City for an international CO conference called Operation Refuse War in May 2006, stated: “This year marks 20 years of our campaign and festival against war toys; we feel we were a part of the success in shutting down the US Navy base at Vieques, and helped in internationalizing the struggle; and we have popularized the concepts of demilitarization and a culture of peace on the island. In the next five years, we plan to have developed a permanent counter-recruitment campaign in the schools. We want total demilitarization for the island of Puerto Rico and the entire Caribbean region.”
These issues came to public attention in Central America after the 1996 murder of Lucia Tiu Tum, a member of the National Coordination of Guatemalan Widows (Coordinadora Nacional de Viudas de Guatemala-CONAVIGUA), an organization of Maya women formed in 1988 who had lost their husbands to political violence and worked against forced recruitment and for the right of conscientious objection. René Godínez García, who works with the Weavers’ Association for Integral Maya Development (Asociacion Tejedora de Desarollo Integral Maya-TEDIMAYA), a group that addresses issues of conscientious objection and revolutionary nonviolence through textile work, emphasizes the role of indigenous women in Guatemala’s anti-militarist opposition. He states, “The participation of women in the movement has been of vital importance. Throughout the period of forced recruitment, it has been the women, the widows, the mothers, and single mothers who have reclaimed their partners and sons as victims of militarization. It was the women that organized and demonstrated in the streets to defend and demand their rights.”
In Latin American and Caribbean countries where conscription is not written into the constitution, is not enforced, or has been abolished, conscientious objection to military fiscal spending (war tax resistance), resistance to the poverty draft, campaigns against war toys, and mobilizations against US military bases have emerged. There are currently US military bases operating in Cuba, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Honduras, Aruba, Curação, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, with unofficial bases in Bolivia, and US military exercises being periodically conducted in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This issue will be the focus of the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases (Red Internacional Contra las Bases Militares Extranjeras) world conference, to be held in Quito and Manta, Ecuador, March 5-9, 2007.
Regional networks such as the Latin American Antimilitarism and Conscientious Objection Coordinator (Coordinadora Latinoamericana Antimilitarista y Objecion de Consciencia- CLAOC) and the Campaign for the Demilitarization of the Americas (Campaña por la Desmilitarización de las Américas-CADA) are working to create and sustain strong, long-term links between CO struggles throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. With a general remilitarization of much of the region now underway with US leadership, following the spring thaw that followed the end of the Cold War dictatorships, the work of these movements will doubtless be ever more vital in the years to come.
A shorter version of this story appears in the Fall 2006 issue of WIN, the magazine of the War Resisters League
Grupo de Objeción de Conciencia del Ecuador (GOCE)
“Nonviolence in Colombia:
A Growing Anti-Militarist Movement Demands Right to ‘Active Neutrality’ in Armed Conflict”
by Bill Weinberg
WW4 REPORT #92, September-October 2003
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Nov. 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution