David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting, and Quaker Peace and Legislation Committee

The Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO) has recently released a publication on International Standards on Conscientious Objection, by Laurel Townhead. Here is a summary and some notes about the Australian situation.


Quakers have a peace testimony (presented to King Charles II in 1661) which states that “the Spirit of Christ which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man (sic) with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ nor for kingdoms of this world”. Our founder, George Fox, said he “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of war”. As a result, Quakers over the years have opposed war and sought to create the conditions in which it is prevented. Conscientious objection to military service is one example of the expression of the peace testimony.

United Nations Standards

The Quaker United Nations Office publication on Conscientious Objection was issued in April 2021 (see link below). It surveys the development of international thinking and decisions, and includes the following points;

  1. Both the Human Rights Committee and the UN Human Rights Council have recognised the right of conscientious objection to military service as part of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  2. This right has been reaffirmed on numerous occasions as a “protected right” under the Convention – it cannot be restricted by States. It has also been clearly defined as applying to anyone with a religious-based or conscience-based belief.
  3. A person may become a Conscientious Objector (CO) even after joining the military forces as a conscript or volunteer. Processes must be available for such an application to be considered. This includes objection to a particular conflict or weapon.
  4. Member states have been urged to adopt legislation that recognises conscientious objection and ensures that objectors can exercise this right effectively.
  5. Assessment of applications for exemption from military service as a CO are expected to be made by mainly civilian rather than military panels, to ensure impartiality and independence. An assessment checklist has been prepared by the UN Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, and includes such provisions as – free application, full access to information needed by applicants, non-discrimination, good faith determination, right to appeal, and compatibility of alternative service to the reasons for applying.
  6. Any arrangement for alternative service must be non-punitive and be a civilian option that contributes to the community.

QUNO’s work over 60 years has helped increase recognition of CO status in human rights instruments by (a) supporting the development of standards and implementation, (b) linking COs to relevant UN processes, (c) collaborating with other agencies, and (d) researching the application of refugee status determination in CO cases.

See QUNO report at: Conscientious Objection to Military Service | QUNO

Australia’s Position

 As a result of the Vietnam War and the issue of conscription, there was an intense debate over some years about whether there should be a wider definition of CO status. Senator Michael Tate (ALP) and later Senator Jo Vallentine (Greens and Quaker) led efforts for changes to allow conscientious objection to particular warfare. As a result, Australia adopted new legislation (Defence Legislation Amendment Act 1992) which provided for exemption to be given to

  • Those with mental or physical disability;
  • members and officers of Parliament;
  • judges, magistrates and police;
  • ministers of religion;
  • members of religious orders and theological students;
  • An official of another government or an international organisation.

In addition, exemption may be sought by “persons whose conscientious beliefs do not allow them to participate in war or warlike operations…persons whose conscientious beliefs do not allow them to participate in a particular war or particular warlike operations….and persons whose conscientious beliefs do not allow them to engage in duties of a combatant nature”.

The legislation prescribes a process for determining exemption using a civil tribunal (usually three people) appointed by the relevant minister. The tribunal sets its own processes within general guidelines that they must be informal, quick, fair, and economical. They can call witnesses and seek further information as needed. There is a provision to allow an appeal against the decision. Alternative civilian service is not included in the legislation.

This broader approach is not common around the world, yet it has been maintained in a legislative form ever since. Let us hope this position will continue, including for people seeking asylum because they are COs from a country where the right is not available.

Note: QPLC issued a Watching Brief on Conscientious Objection – WB 16-1 www.quakersaustralia.info/QPLC/quaker-peace-and-legislation-committee-archive-page






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