A Conscientious Objector's Guide to the International Human Rights System

Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief

Summary

The Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council. It was formerly known as the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance and was originally created by the UN Commission on Human Rights.
The mandate is primarily based on article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 18 of the ICCPR and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.
The mandate holder is appointed to identify and examine incidents and governmental actions in all parts of the world which are inconsistent with the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief. The Special Rapporteur recommends remedial measures as appropriate which includes transmitting urgent appeals (to try to prevent human rights violations) and letters of allegation (about events which have occurred) to States. Furthermore the mandate holder undertakes fact-finding country visits and submits reports on them to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly as well as annual reports, highlighting state practice, trends and individual cases, and thematic studies.
As conscientious objection as a human rights falls under the right to freedom of thought, religion, or belief, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Beliefs has the mandate most closely related to conscientious objection to military service, and takes up most regularly issues of conscientious objection. Cases of non-religious conscientious objectors might however, be a little more difficult, although theoretically they fall under the mandate.

1. Likely results from use of mechanism

a) Individual cases

After the Special Rapporteur has received information on cases of alleged human rights violations, the mandate holder might either send an urgent appeal or a letter of allegation to the Government of the state concerned. Depending on the response received from the Government, the Special Rapporteur will decide on further steps to take.
As a general rule, the existence and content of both urgent appeals and letters of allegation remain confidential until a summary of such communications and the replies received from the State concerned are included in the joint communications report of all special procedures to the Human Rights Council. The joint communications report also includes links to the original urgent appeal or letter of allegation, and – if available – to the Government's response.

b) State law and practice

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Beliefs also receives information on state law and practice, and raises issues with a state concerned either in communications, or during a state visit. The Special Rapporteur might make recommendations in the Annual Report, or in a report on a state visit. For example, in the interim report to the UN General Assembly from July 2009 the Special Rapporteur noted that “Conscientious objection to perform military service is another issue of concern in some States. The Special Rapporteur welcomes the fact that a growing number of States have in their laws exempted from compulsory military service citizens who genuinely hold religious or other beliefs that forbid the performance of military service and replaced compulsory military service with alternative national service. However, certain domestic legislation remains problematic in terms of the eligibility to and conditions of conscientious objection. The Special Rapporteur recommends a thorough review of these laws from the perspective of their compliance with international standards and best practices.” (see http://wri-irg.org/node/20274)
Following a visit to Azerbaijan, the Special Rapporteur “urge(d) the Government to honour its commitment made before the Council of Europe and to adopt legislation on alternative service in pursuance to the provisions of its own Constitution, which guarantees such a right.” (see http://wri-irg.org/node/20254) Following a country visit to Turkmenistan, the Special Rapporteur recommended: “The Government should ensure that conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan, in particular Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse to serve in the army due to their religious beliefs, be offered an alternative civilian service which is compatible with the reasons for conscientious objection. As such, the Government should also revise the Conscription and Military Service Act which refers to the possibility of being sanctioned twice for the same offence. The Special Rapporteur would like to recall that according to the principle of “ne bis in idem”, as enshrined in article 14 (7) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he or she has already been convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.” (see http://wri-irg.org/node/20252)

2. To which States does the mechanism apply?

All States

3. Who can submit information?

Everybody

4. When to submit information?

Information on individual cases should be submitted as soon as possible, especially in cases where an urgent action by the Special Procedure is desired.
For information on State law and practice information can be submitted at any time. It is also advisable to watch out for a visit of the Special Rapporteur to your country, and to submit information timely before a scheduled visit, and to attempt to schedule a meeting during the visit. A coalition of NGOs might have a higher chance to have a meeting during a country visit than an individual NGO so far unknown to the Special Rapporteur.

5. Are there any special rules of procedure?

Information can be submitted by post or electronically, but anonymous submissions will not be considered.
In individual cases, submissions to the Special Procedures are not a quasi-judicial procedure, which means that they are not meant to replace national or international legal procedures. Therefore, there is no need for domestic remedies to be exhausted.
Allegations of human rights violations should contain clear and concise details of the details of the case, the name and other identifying information regarding the individual victim(s), information as to the circumstances including – if available – date and place of incidents and alleged perpetrators, suspected motives, and any steps already taken at the national, regional or international level regarding the case(s).
To facilitate the submission of allegations of human rights violations, the Special Rapporteur has produced a model questionnaire, which is available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/FreedomReligion/Pages/Complaints.aspx.

6. What happens to the submission (how long will it take)?

The Special Rapporteur may acknowledge receipt of information from individuals and organisations if requested to do so, but they often this does not happen. The Special Rapporteur is also not required to inform those who provide information about any subsequent measures they have taken.
In case of request for an urgent action, the Quick Response Desk of the Special Procedures Division of the OHCHR coordinates the sending of communications by all mandates. Often communications are sent as joint communications of several special procedures. Governments are generally requested to provide a substantive response to urgent appeals within 30 days. Only in appropriate cases a mandate holder may decide to make such urgent appeals public by issuing a press release.
Governments are usually requested to respond to letters of allegation of human rights violations within two months.
A summary of urgent appeals and letters of allegation and responses from Governments is usually included in the joint communications report of the Special Procedures to the Human Rights Council. This will include the names of the victims, unless there are specific reasons why the names of the victims should remain confidential. In this case, explain those reasons in your initial submission.
The joint communications reports can be accessed at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/Pages/CommunicationsreportsSP.aspx.
With the introduction of the joint communications report, the Special Rapporteur does no longer add observations to urgent appeals or letters of allegations, and responses received from governments.

7. History of the use of the mechanism.

The special rapporteur for religious intolerance has the mandate most closely related to conscientious objection to military service and is the thematic mechanism to most regularly taking up issues of conscientious objection.
The Special Rapporteur has been informed of the violation of the right to conscientious objection of individual conscientious objectors in several cases, such as cases from Armenia, Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Azerbaijan, among others (see “case law”, below). The issue of conscientious objection has also been raised by the Special Rapporteur during several country visits.
In the past, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief has drawn governments' attention to explicit international law (see “legal basis”), and urged governments to comply with international standards by recognising the right to conscientious objection. In several reports, the Rapporteur stressed the right of everyone to have conscientious objections to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as laid down in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Contact Details: 
The complaint should be sent to: Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief c/o Office Of the High Commissioner for Human Rights United Nations at Geneva 8-14 Avenue de la Paix 1211 Geneva 10 Switzerland Fax: (+41 22) 917 90 06 E-mail: freedomofreligion@ohchr.org or to urgent-action@ohchr.org (please include in the subject box: Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief) Model Questionnaire in Englisch: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/religion/docs/questionnaire-e.doc

Interpretations

Title Date
General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the ICCPR 13/07/1993

General Comment 22 emphasises the broad scope of the freedom of thought, and clarifies that article 18 protects all form of religion, including the right not to profess any religion or belief.
However, manifestation of religion or beliefs may be limited on the grounds of the protection of others (also article 20: prohibition of propaganda for war, hatred or discrimination).
No restrictions on other grounds may be imposed “even if they would be allowed as restrictions to other rights protected in the Covenant, such as national security”. (reiterated in General Comment 29)
(…) while the ICCPR does not explicitly refer to the right to conscientious objection, that right can be derived from article 18 “inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force may seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one's religion or belief” (para. 11).

Recognition of CO Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Conscientious objection to military service (Resolution A/HRC/RES/20/2) 05/07/2012

recalling all previous relevant resolutions and decisions, including Human Rights Council decision 2/102 of 6 October 2006, and Commission on Human Rights resolutions 2004/35 of 19 April 2004 and 1998/77 of 22 April 1998, in which the Commission recognized the right of everyone to have conscientious objection to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as laid down in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and general comment No. 22 (1993) of the Human Rights Committee”.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Time limits Recognised
in-service objection Recognised
Selective objection Recognised
Repeated punishment Recognised
CO to military taxation Neutral
Conscientious objection to military service (Resolution 2004/35) 19/04/2004

The resolution recalled all previous resolutions of the Human Rights Commission and especially “calls upon States that have not yet done so to review their current laws and practices in relation to conscientious objection to military service in the light of its resolution 1998/77, taking account of the information contained in the report”;
In addition, it “encourages States, as part of post‑conflict peace‑building, to consider granting, and effectively implementing, amnesties and restitution of rights, in law and practice, for those who have refused to undertake military service on grounds of conscientious objection”.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Time limits Recognised
in-service objection Recognised
Selective objection Recognised
Repeated punishment Recognised
Conscientious objection to military service (Resolution 2002/45) 23/04/2002

The resolution recalls the previous resolutions of the Human Rights Commission regarding conscientious objections to military service and especially takes “note of recommendation 2 made by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention in its report (see E/CN.4/2001/14, chap. IV, sect. B), aimed at preventing the judicial system of States from being used to force conscientious objectors to change their convictions”.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Time limits Recognised
in-service objection Recognised
Selective objection Recognised
Repeated punishment Recognised
Conscientious objection to military service (Resolution 2000/34) 20/04/2000

The resolution recalls the previous resolutions of the Human Rights Commission on the subject of conscientious objection to military service and “calls upon States to review their current laws and practices in relation to conscientious objection to military service in the light of its resolution 1998/77”.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Time limits Recognised
in-service objection Recognised
Selective objection Recognised
Repeated punishment Recognised
Conscientious objection to military service (Resolution 1998/77) 22/04/1998

The resolution recalls the early resolutions of the Human Rights Commission on the subject of conscientious objection to military service, and highlights:

  • article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes the right of everyone to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”;
  • impartial decision making on applications for conscientious objection and the “requirement not to discriminate between conscientious objectors on the basis of the nature of their particular beliefs”;
  • that “States should (...) refrain from subjecting conscientious objectors to imprisonment and to repeated punishment for failure to perform military service, and (...) that no one shall be liable or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country”;
  • that States, in their law and practice, must not discriminate against conscientious objectors in relation to their terms or conditions of service, or any economic, social, cultural, civil or political rights”;
  • asylum for “conscientious objectors compelled to leave their country of origin because they fear persecution owing to their refusal to perform military service when there is no provision, or no adequate provision, for conscientious objection to military service”.
Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Time limits Recognised
in-service objection Recognised
Repeated punishment Recognised
Conscientious objection to military service (Resolution 1995/83) 08/03/1995

Recalling its earlier resolutions, the Commission “draws attention to the right of everyone to have conscientious objections to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as laid down in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” and “affirms that persons performing military service should not be excluded from the right to have conscientious objections to military service”.

The Commission calls on States to introduce “within the framework of their national legal system, independent and impartial decision-making bodies with the task of determining whether a conscientious objection is valid in a specific case”.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
in-service objection Recognised
Conscientious objection to military service (resolution 1993/84) 10/03/1993

The Commission recalls its previous resolutions on the subject and “appeals to States, if they have not already done so, to enact legislation and to take measures aimed at exemption from military service on the basis of a genuinely held conscientious objection to armed service”.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Conscientious objection to military service (Resolution 1991/65) 06/03/1991

The Commission reaffirms “its resolution 1989/59 adopted without a vote on 8 March 1989”.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Conscientious objection to military service (Resolution 1989/59) 08/03/1989

The Commission “appeals to States to enact legislation and to take measures aimed at exemption from military service on the basis of a genuinely held conscientious objection to armed service”.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised

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Reports and Observations
Title Date
Armenia. Alleged arbitrary detention and harassment of members of the Jehovah's Witnesses community 23/02/2012

According to the information received, members of the Jehovah's Witnesses community had been facing harassment, as well as the imprisonment of the following 72 Jehovah's Witnesses: (...) The individuals have reportedly been charged under the Armenian Criminal Code for their conscientious objection to military service on religious grounds. Reportedly, a further three had been held in pretrial detention. On 19 July 2011, Garegin Avetisyan was allegedly convicted as a conscientious objector, sentenced and arrested for refusing military service.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, on his mission to the Republic of Moldova 27/01/2012

A. Recommendations for the authorities of the Republic of Moldova
(...)
84. The Government should continue to recognize the right to conscientious objection in law and in practice, and ensure that the relevant legislation is implemented in a non-discriminatory manner.
(...)
87. The “authorities” of the Transnistrian region of the Republic of Moldova are additionally urged:
(...)
(c) To cease without delay practices of detaining persons objecting on grounds of religion or conscience to military service, as well as to develop rules for alternative service for such conscientious objectors;

Recognition of CO Recognised
Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt: Mission to Paraguay 26/01/2012

VI. Conclusions and recommendations
(...)
58. (...) To date, Paraguay has respected conscientious objection to military service, and it is to be hoped that this practice will continue under Law No. 4.013. (...)
64. Against the background of these general observations, the Special Rapporteur encourages the Government: (...)
(g) To continue to recognize the right to conscientious objection in law and in practice; this includes the independent functioning of the newly established National Council on Conscientious Objection, ensuring fair and transparent procedures while maintaining non-punitive principles for alternative non-military civilian service.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Turkmenistan: Urgent appeal sent on 12 February 2010 jointly with the Chair-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention 14/02/2011

The Special Rapporteur would like to reiterate the observations and recommendations on the issue of conscientious objection in his predecessor’s country report on Turkmenistan (see A/HRC/10/8/Add.4, paras. 17, 50-51, 61 and 68). In paragraph 68 of the country report, the Special Rapporteur recommended that “the Government should ensure that conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan, in particular Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse to serve in the army due to their religious beliefs, be offered an alternative civilian service which is compatible with the reasons for conscientious objection. As such, the Government should also revise the Conscription and Military Service Act which refers to the possibility of being sanctioned twice for the same offence. The Special Rapporteur would like to recall that according to the principle of “ne bis in idem”, as enshrined in article 14 (7) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he or HRC/16/53/Add.1 she has already been convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Repeated punishment Recognised
Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir – Mission to Turkmenistan 12/01/2009

68. The Government should ensure that conscientious objectors in Turkmenistan, in particular Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse to serve in the army due to their religious beliefs, be offered an alternative civilian service which is compatible with the reasons for conscientious objection. As such, the Government should also revise the Conscription and Military Service Act which refers to the possibility of being sanctioned twice for the same offence. The Special Rapporteur would like to recall that according to the principle of “ne bis in idem”, as enshrined in article 14 (7) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he or she has already been convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Repeated punishment Recognised
Turkmenistan Communication sent on 17 July 2007 28/02/2008

The communication concerned the cases of two conscientious objectors imprisoned for refusing military service.
251. The Special Rapporteur regrets that she has not received a reply from the Government concerning the above mentioned allegation. She would like to refer to Resolution 1998/77 of the Commission on Human Rights, which draws attention to the right of everyone to have conscientious objections to military service. The Human Rights Committee recently observed “that while the right to manifest one’s religion or belief does not as such imply the right to refuse all obligations imposed by law, it provides certain protection, consistent with article 18, paragraph 3, against being forced to act against genuinely-held religious belief” (CCPR/C/88/D/1321-1322/2004, para. 8.3). In line with the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 22, there shall be no differentiation among conscientious objectors on the basis of the nature of their particular beliefs when the right to conscientious objection is recognized by law or practice; likewise, there shall be no discrimination against conscientious objectors because they have failed to perform military service.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Libya Urgent appeal sent on 13 February 2007 jointly with the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants and the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture 28/02/2008

The case concerned the situation of 430 Eritrean refugees in Libya, the majority conscripts who fled Eritrea to avoid military service. All were detained in Libya. “The 430 individuals are facing imminent deportation to Eritrea. During their detention, Libyan authorities have reportedly beaten and raped or sexually abused some detainees. Concerns were expressed that, should they be forcibly returned to Eritrea, they may be at risk of torture or ill-treatment, as well as for potential persecution with regard to their freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Further concern was expressed for their physical and mental integrity while in detention.
(…)
The Special Rapporteur “would like to take the opportunity to refer to her last report to the General Assembly where she has dealt with the vulnerable situation of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced persons (see A/62/280, paras. 38-63). A refusal to perform military service in the refugee’s country of origin may give rise to a well-founded fear of persecution and relevant UNHCR documents (see ibid., para. 58) provide that refugee status may be established if the refusal to serve is based on genuine political, religious or moral convictions or valid reasons of conscience. In conscientious objector cases, a law purporting to be of general application in the country of origin may be persecutory where it impacts differently on particular groups, where it is applied in a discriminatory manner or where the punishment is excessive or disproportionately severe or where it cannot reasonably be expected to be performed by the individual because of his or her genuine beliefs or religious convictions.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Eritrea Communication sent on 11 October 2007 jointly with the Special Rapporteur on the question of torture 28/02/2008

95. The Special Rapporteur regrets that she has not received a reply from the Government concerning the above mentioned allegation. She wishes to stress that the right of conscientious objection is a right which is closely linked with freedom of religion of belief. The Special Rapporteur would like to draw the Government’s attention to paragraph 5 of resolution 1998/77 of the Commission on Human Rights, which emphasizes that States should take the necessary measures to refrain from subjecting conscientious objectors to imprisonment. Imprisoning conscientious objectors for more than 13 years is clearly a disproportionate measure which violates the individuals’ right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as laid down in article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Recognition of CO Recognised
Repeated punishment Recognised
Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir - Addendum: Mission to Tajikistan 27/11/2007

The Special Rapporteur is concerned that the Government of Tajikistan does not recognize the right to conscientious objection to compulsory military service. She would like to reiterate the recommendation of the Human Rights Committee that the Government take all necessary measures to recognize the right of conscientious objectors to be exempted [7] from military service. In line with the Human Rights Committee’s general comment No. 22 (1993), when this right is recognized by law or practice, there shall be no differentiation among conscientious objectors on the basis of the nature of their particular beliefs; likewise, there shall be no discrimination against conscientious objectors because they have failed to perform military service. Furthermore, the Special Rapporteur encourages the Government to ensure that no legislation is adopted which overstates the permissible limitations on the freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief, especially with regard to the issue of conscientious objection to compulsory military service.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Discrimination Recognised
Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir 20/07/2007

The first mandate-holder, Mr. Angelo Vidal d’Almeida Ribeiro, developed a set of criteria concerning cases of conscientious objection (E/CN.4/1992/52, para. 185). Conscientious objectors should be exempted from combat but could be required to perform comparable alternative service of various kinds, which should be compatible with their reasons for conscientious objection, should such service exist in their country. To avoid opportunism, it would be acceptable if this service were at least as onerous as military service, but not so onerous as to constitute a punishment for the objector. They could also be asked to perform alternative service useful to the public interest, which may be aimed at social improvement, development or promotion of international peace and understanding. Conscientious objectors should be given full information about their rights and responsibilities and about the procedures to be followed when seeking recognition as conscientious objectors, bearing in mind that application for the status of conscientious objector has to be made within a specific time frame. The decision concerning their status should be made, when possible, by an impartial tribunal set up for that purpose or a by a regular civilian court, with the application of all the legal safeguards provided for in international human rights instruments. There should always be a right to appeal to an independent, civilian judicial body. The decision-making body should be entirely separate from the military authorities and the conscientious objector should be granted a hearing, and be entitled to legal representation and to call relevant witnesses.

Recognition of CO Recognised
Length/terms of service Recognised
Discrimination Recognised

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