Conscientious objection at stake

One month ago, on 12 November 2003, Jonathan Ben Artzi was convicted by the Military Court in Jaffa for disobeying an order by refusing to serve in the Army. Nevertheless, the Court recognized him as being a pacifist and recommended that he appears once again before the Military Conscientious Committee. The Military Court in Jaffa is also hearing the cases of Noam Bahat, Adam Maor, Haggai Matar, Shinri Tsameret and Matan Kaminer, who are among more than 300 “Shministim,”, or high school seniors, who refuse to serve in military forces involved in the occupation of Palestinian Territories.

Unlike Yoni they are selective Conscientious Objectors (Cos), a category of COs that is peculiar to Israel. They are not against war per se, but against the occupation war. The verdict of their trial is due on Tuesday, 16 December 2003.

The Oservatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH and OMCT joint-venture) and organized, for the release of a new report on the Conscientious Objectors’ trial, a press conference in the presence of Anat Matar, Haggai’s mother, who explained the reasons behind his son’s refusal to serve the “army of occupation” and the way the conscientious objectors were being treated in such an exceptional and harsh manner in Israel.

This is the first time since the 1970’s that COs have been brought before a court martial. Previously, the usual practice was to avoid recognizing COs while exempting them from military service on other grounds after brief prison terms. This practice, however, seems to be changing. None of them has been dismissed like many other COs (total or selective) on other grounds; they have already spent from 11 to 18 months in military prisons and their trials are not over yet. It is believed that this new strategy may be the result of the sharp increase in the number of young refuseniks (those refusing to serve in the Occupied Palestinian Territories), which may become a threat to the image of the Israeli army and policy.

The Observatory has many times expressed its concerns about the violation of the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion enshrined in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Israel is party.

The use of military courts to try COs is also source of concern. Recommendations by human rights experts of the Sub-Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights indicate that civil courts should deal with similar cases to ensure impartiality and independence of justice towards those people willing to exercise their freedom of conscience and opinion.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders demands that: the Israeli legislation as well as the military authorities recognize the right to conscientious objection as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as contained in article 18 of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights; a true alternative civil service which is not of a punitive nature is being established; all persons affected by military service are effectively informed about their right and the procedures to follow to acquire conscientious objector status; and the conscientious objectors that are currently arbitrarily detained and judged before the military court are released.