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  • Writer's picturealex j bellamy

For a universal right of conscientious objection

War is a fiercely collective endeavour. It demands that individual rights, interests, values, and perspectives be set aside in favour of the collective interest. War therefore tends to restrict, and sometimes squash, the individual. Powerful institutions and social forces, such as states and nationalism and group pressure, exert pressure on individuals. Typically, these forces make it far easier to support killing in war than to resist it. Those who resist are pilloried, coerced, punished, sometimes killed. Those who accept war are not. If we are to have any hope of building a more peaceful world, this needs to change. Peace demands that, as far as possible, individuals be allowed to determine and voice their own mind about war and—just as importantly—be allowed to follow their own conscience.

To have reasonable debates about war, individuals must be able to access reliable information about what war is really like. But there is a wide gap between what most of us imagine war to be like and what it actually is like. If more of us knew what war was actually like, and if we were free to form—and act upon—our own judgements about war in general as well as particular wars, societies would be less eager to fight, less capable of fighting, and more inclined towards resolving disputes peacefully.

Most of the leaders who commit soldiers to war or the publics that cheer them on from the sidelines have little comprehension of what war is really like. What is more, soldiers themselves—be they volunteers or forced conscripts—are not permitted to make up and act upon their own mind about the legitimacy of war in general or of the specific wars they are instructed to fight. A first and important step to leashing the passions of war must be to let these realities—the many tragedies and brutalities—of war be known and to protect dissenting voices. The second is to allow individuals to make up their own minds about its virtues and to act upon their judgements. That is, there should be a universal right of conscientious objection.

We can achieve more honest deliberations on war by allowing the realities to be seen, as Susan Sontag demanded. ‘Let the atrocious images haunt us’, for even though they cannot reveal the full horror, they still perform a vital function. ‘The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget’.[1]

Honest debate about war is possible only if dissent is protected. Those who fervently believe in the justice of their war should have nothing to fear from those who think differently. Yet history records that dissent is vilified and dissenters persecuted. War is too important a matter to be shielded from scrutiny, criticism, and debate. In fact, there is every reason to think that open reflection leads to better decision-making.

So much so that the need for open debate figured prominently in the ‘just war’ theory advanced by professor of theology in sixteenth-century Salamanca, Francisco de Vitoria (1486–1546). But, as Vitoria himself recognized, it is not enough to simply permit open debate. Everyone should scrutinize the moral case for war within their own conscience. And if they find that case lacking, they should refuse to fight or support it. They should, in other words, become conscientious objectors. But conscientious objectors face legal, political, and social persecution. We have created societies that make it much easier to support killing in unjust wars than to object to it. That needs to change, which is why alongside free and open debate about war we also need a universal right to conscientious objection.

To understand why, we can go back to Vitoria. He maintained that ‘any [single] man’s opinion was not sufficient to make it good’. Princes should consult widely before deciding to wage war and those consulted are ‘duty bound’ to examine the just causes. Even once a decision to fight was made, our human fallibility—what Vitoria called our ‘invincible ignorance’—meant that there was every chance that we acted in error and that our cause was not, in fact, just. For that reason, Vitoria maintained, we should conduct ourselves morally, ever mindful of the possibility that God’s justice lay with our opponent. And because it was possible that war be entered into unjustly, individuals had not just a right, but an obligation, to evaluate the morality of their cause and refuse to fight if they thought it unjust. Vitoria argued that ‘if the war seems patently unjust to the subject, he must not fight, even if he is ordered to do so by the prince’. One should follow one’s conscience, even if it is mistaken.[2]

If conscientious objection is indeed a moral obligation, and I think Vitoria was right about that, then it must also be a right, one closely related to the need to protect truth-telling and dissent in war.

This is not to demand universal pacifism or to say that we must necessarily agree with those opposed to any particular war. It is, however, a demand that pacifists and dissenters be heard, and that their right to dissent, object, and refuse to serve be everywhere protected. It is vital that people ‘speak with their own’ voice about war, and learn to hear and engage with the voices of others.[3] The protection of truth-telling, dissent, and conscientious objection is necessary to prevent states and societies sleepwalking into war, deluded by fantasies about its nature and its effects. War should be entered into with full knowledge of the costs and its stakes.

The protection of dissent and conscientious objection is an ambitious objective, and certainly one that needs to be fleshed out and defended more fully than I have done here. Yet it is not wildly utopian either. These principles can be found in existing laws and have been realized, to a decent extent, in some times and places. Open reporting and the protection of dissent (though not conscientious objection) demand only that individuals be granted rights that every government has already committed itself to, at least in declaratory form, rights set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought and conscience, and a right to manifest that belief in practice (Article 18). We all have a right to freedom of opinion and expression—including the right to hold and express opinions without interference and without regard to frontiers (Article 19).

Whether freedom of conscience entails a right to conscientious objection is another thing entirely, however. But if we are to move the world towards greater peace, it should. Neither the Universal Declaration nor subsequent conventions on civil and political rights are clear on the matter. The UN’s Human Rights bodies have adopted several resolutions (though not unanimously) that define forced military service as a violation of freedom of conscience, but governments legislate differently on the matter with a majority not yet recognizing the right to object.

Yet for the reasons Vitoria set out nearly four centuries ago, the right to refuse military service ought to be protected alongside the right to tell the truth about war and to voice dissent. Truth, dissent, and refusal help close the gap between the image and reality of war and create the space people need to make and act upon their own judgements about the legitimacy of war itself and of particular wars.


[1] Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, p. 102.

[2] Francisco de Vitoria, ‘On the Law of War’, in Anthony Pagden and Jeremy Lawrence (eds.), Vitoria: Political Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), question 2 article 2, and question 2 article 3, pp. 306–11.

[3] Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, p. 15.

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