Conscientious Objection to Military Service in International Human Rights Law

Ozgur Cinar - 30th January 2014

Conscientious objection to military service is a means of resisting war and military service for reasons of conscience based on profound religious, ethical, moral, philosophical, humanitarian, or similar convictions. It generally concerns the exemption of people from fulfilling legal obligations that would necessitate a violation of their conscience, religion, or belief. The phenomenon of conscientious objection appears in diverse forms and covers a wide variety of societal issues from nonpayment of tax for military expenses to the performance of abortions. However, conscientious objection is more commonly associated with refusal to perform military service.

According to Moskos and Chambers, conscientious objection in the military context is a fundamental part of an individual’s relationship with the State: it calls into question the obligation to defend the nation, which is considered to be one of the most important duties of the citizen. When conscientious objectors refuse to perform such a duty they, in fact, experience a conflict in their relationship with the State, a conflict between the beliefs of the objector and the duties laid down in positive law. By making a declaration, the objector consciously avoids performing obligations in the name of a superior command originating from conscience.

Conscientious objection also exposes the limits of what a state can demand of its citizens where that demand may oppose individual conscience. This situation leads to the dilemma of whether a state can intentionally violate an individual’s conscience, and has attracted considerable controversy. It has been examined from historical, sociological, and political perspectives, as well as from an activist viewpoint. This subject has also excited interest in international human rights law.

My recent book on conscientious objection is composed of five chapters. Part I is divided into three chapters, of which the first chapter explores the concept of conscience with a view to understanding the meaning and potential scope of the right to conscientious objection from a legal perspective. The evolution of the concept of conscientious objection is expounded in the second chapter. In the light of the first chapter, this chapter shows that the secularization of conscience has played an important role in the concept of conscientious objection. An attempt is made in the third chapter to define various types of conscientious objectors in the light of the evolution of conscientious objection. A legal analysis of different forms of conscientious objection is conducted; current debates on how these different forms should be interpreted at national and international levels and whether they are officially recognised is also addressed.

Part II investigates the right to conscientious objection in international human rights law as a legitimate exercise of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This part is divided into two chapters dealing with the content and scope of the right to conscientious objection at both the international and regional level. United Nations mechanisms are examined at the international level in chapter 4; at the regional level, the European and Inter-American mechanisms are analysed in chapter 5.

The conclusion summarizes the current international standards on the right to conscientious objection to military service. Conscientious objection is now accepted as a legitimate expression of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Present international law standards suggest that alternative service should be of a purely civilian nature and should be in the public interest and not be, in any way, of a punitive or deterrent nature.

This post is an edited version of the introduction which was published in the book. Further information on the book is available here (United States) and here (United Kingdom). 

Author profile

Özgür H. Çınar is the author of "Conscientious Objection to Military Service in International Human Rights Law" (Palgrave Macmillan- December 2013). He received his PhD from University of Essex, UK. He was a Senior Associate Member (academic visitor) of Seesox, St Antony's College, University of Oxford, UK. He is also a lawyer and works as a legal expert for the Council of Europe.


Özgür H. Çınar, ‘Conscientious Objection to Military Service in International Human Rights Law’ (OxHRH Blog, 30 January 2014) <> [date of access].


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