PSPD l People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy
[Statement] The Ministry of National Defense's decision use the term “objection to military service based on religious convictions and other reasons” instead of “conscientious objection” is inappropriate.
- 2019.01.15 (16:54:06)
The Ministry of National Defense's decision use the term “objection to military service based on religious convictions and other reasons” instead of “conscientious objection” is inappropriate.
This reduces conscientious objection to a purely religious issue.
The change is also against the Constitutional Court's decision that “conscientious objection to military service” is an example of freedom of conscience.
The Ministry of National Defense stated in a press briefing on January 4, 2019, that it will cease to use terms such as "conscience" and "belief," in order to address public concerns and minimize unnecessary controversy surrounding alternative service. The Ministry said they will instead use the term "objection to military service based on religious convictions and other reasons." In addition, the Ministry even asked the press to use the term "religious objection to military service." The ministry’s position is inappropriate because it distorts the meaning of conscientious objection which many have long struggled to have recognized. The Ministry of National Defense should immediately cancel this change in term.
The term "objection to military service based on religious convictions," goes squarely against the Constitutional Court's decision on conscientious objection as well as the Supreme Court's decision. The Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court clearly define objection to military service as the realization of freedom of conscience, a basic right under the constitution. In its decision, the Constitutional Court defined objection to military service as "a conscientious decision made for religious, ethical, philosophical or similar motives." The Constitutional Court also explained in detail how the word "conscience" used in everyday life and the word "conscience" in the constitutional sense are different. The Supreme Court also judged whether the act of conscientious objection was a crime or not based on their freedom of conscience. The government's intention, in using the term “objection to military service based on religious convictions," is to sidestep such rulings by the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court. The use of the term “religious objection to military service”, instead of “conscientious objection”, reduces the meaning of objection to military service to religious behavior, rather than a realization of the right to freedom of conscience.
The Ministry of National Defense's use of the term "religious objection to military service" reflects its intention to mask the reality that conscientious objection exists outside of religious contexts. Although Jehovah's Witnesses are the majority of Korea's conscientious objectors, the number of conscientious objectors who are not Jehovah's Witnesses has reached about 80 since the year 2000. There have been, and will continue to be, those who refuse to serve in the military on various grounds of conscience, including the peaceful belief that one does not want to participate in preparations for war, the belief that one has the right not to kill others, and the belief that one is opposed to national violence and militarism. Although the number is small, there are people who have chosen to go to prison based on their "right to conscience." Even if the term “conscientious objection” is controversial, it should not be ignored.
Rather than changing terminology to sooth public controversy, the government should work to educate the public on the meaning of conscientious objection. For example, explaining the difference of meaning between the word "conscience" used in everyday life and the word "conscience" in the constitutional sense. Freedom of conscience, as stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, is a fundamental right. It is not for the state to interfere in personal ethical judgments, such as the right to refuse. The term "conscientious objection" in legal terms has been used for a long time both domestically and internationally, including by the Korean government in the process of introducing alternative service. If a more appropriate expression can be found through social dialogue, then it may replace the existing expression. However, without social dialogue, it is wrong to unilaterally change and narrowly define such terms.
Acknowledging the right to refuse military service, based on conscience, provides a valuable opportunity to build a more democratic society that respects the conscience of various people, and does not punish people on the grounds of conscience. This opportunity has arisen only after almost 20,000 people have been sent to prison. The Ministry of National Defense is wasting this opportunity by introducing a punitive alternative service system and unnecessarily controversial terminology. If the Ministry of National Defense fully understood the meaning of Article 19 of the Korean Constitution, that "All people have freedom of conscience," the ministry would not repeat the same mistake of denying the right of conscientious objectors.
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