Asylum Rights and Protection to Conscientious Objectors and Draft Evaders

Report about the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation

by Yohannes Kidane

War has been part of humanity from early on. It mainly emanates from human greed, hatred and abuse of power. All this evil has been igniting causes of war. However, it seems collective behaviour of humanity can win over all these elements of evil and achieve everlasting peace. On the contrary all humanity regardless of origin, race or geographic location shares a common desire for peace. Almost all religious teaching advocates for peace. This was evident from the World Council of Churches (WCC), International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC).

The International Ecumenical Peace Convocation (IEPC) was held from 17 - 25 May 2011, Kingston, Jamaica. It was convened to end and to magnify the achievements of the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) which began in 2001. On May 24th the convocation ended with an ecumenical declaration on "just peace".

"Blessed are the peace makers!" it says in the second paragraph of the final message. Yes, there is nothing greater than to work to be in peace with oneself, in peace with mother nature, in peace with fellow human beings and to be in peace in the market place and trade fairly.

There were about 1000 participants from over 100 countries. The participants were from all areas of life who besides their missionary work and other activities are engaged in peace- making, peace-facilitating or peace-building processes. For me as the only Eritrean participant, the content of the final message and the symbolism of the workshop venue was quite an experience.

Most of all, I have experienced that such events are where one can speak for the voiceless, explain the situation and the reasons behind the exodus of young people from small countries like Eritrea and seek understanding and thereby protection.

Usually, due to the shame and inconvenience that I feel like many exiled Eritreans, I have been avoiding such gatherings and meetings for the last four years. However, this time I said I have to, assuming that my participation might help some Eritrean COs who flee the agonizing extended military service and dash into the darkness of exile. The consequences of exile and exile life are well understood by most Eritrea draftees before and after they decide. However they just ignore them and risk their lives because of the severity of the situation back home.

The convocation was held under the main theme "Glory to God and Peace on Earth" and consisted of four main parts: Peace with the earth, peace among the people, peace among communities and peace in the market peace. My part was to deliberate in a reasoning workshop on conscientious objection to military service and asylum. By the end of the convocation we were able to get our voice heard and the final message drafting committee placed a bold sentence in this regard. For me it was an historical moment because the final statement was made the same day as Eritrea was celebrating its 20th independence day. Hence, I am writing this article to elaborate on some aspects and contents of my presentation.  

During my stay in Kingston I was able to meet different people from all over the globe. But sadly my small militaristic police state, Eritrea, was not known to most participants though it has been a sovereign state since 1991, twenty years of independence. Not Freedom! We have not achieved that yet.

Eritrea is a small east African state located in the horn of Africa on the western flanks of the Red Sea. It became independent on 24 May 1991 after 30 years of acrimonious, bloody and costly armed struggle against the 1961 annexation of its neighbour, Ethiopia. It is a country which despite its long history of violence and atrocities has never undergone national reconciliation and peace negotiations. It is a country where there is no parliament, no political parties, with large numbers of prisoners of conscious, and large numbers of soldiers.

The people of Eritrea fought a thirty year bitter war for independence hoping that they would realize an economically strong and democratic country. Right after independence the solidarity and optimism was very high among the Eritrean people. Many exiled expatriates started to come home. Exile was halted for some time. But what followed a few years after independence and the reality was totally different. The dearly acquired independence bred one-party led to a tyrannical and militaristic government.

The government, masked in the euphoria of independence, started to propagandize on the importance and necessity of national service to support the economic revival and healing of the war-devastated country. Then it established the first military institution, the Sawa Defence Training Centre, in July 1994. Since then Sawa was established as the headquarters for the national service. Sawa, and the new established camp Kiloma Military Training Centre that was opened in 2004 have trained and recruited a number of young people and adults below 50 years of age. As a result the country became one of the most militarized nations. "At least 320 000 Eritreans are in the army out of a population of 4,7-million, according to the World Bank. The country has the largest armed forces in sub-Saharan Africa, ahead of arch-foe Ethiopia with 138 000 troops."1 So far, it can be said that the government has achieved its militarised and control targets.

In Eritrea, for years forced recruitment of the young, underage children and adults less than 50 years has been routine. Recruits are treated brutally and there is evidence of sexual abuse of women. Nobody has a right to question the authorities or the government policy. Hence it was to fight such a system that we started in 2004 to work against the militarism and founded the Eritrean Antimilitarist Initiative (EAI) to support Eritrean COs and refugees. For more info please refer to www.Connection-eV.org/article-178.

Conscientious objection according to War Resisters International "are persons who for reasons of conscience or profound conviction arising from religious, ethical, moral, humanitarian, philosophical, political or similar motive refuses to perform armed services or any other direct or indirect participation in wars or armed conflicts." From this we see that CO is seen as a question of human rights, but in reality it is more than that. It is a conscience-based deep decision which is fundamental during war and states of emergency.

In Eritrea nobody has a right to CO. It is absolutely taboo! Both by the people and the regime COs are branded as cowards and unpatriotic. There is no alternative civilian service for COs. The consequences of CO and desertion are severe torture, long-term incommunicado imprisonment and even death. Recently, after the end of the border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000, over the last ten years the number of COs within the military increased. Today there are thousands who object to the military service and the military. Despite the risks they have to face they are fleeing into exile. Considerable numbers of them are in Europe, Libya, Israel, Ethiopia and Sudan seeking political asylum.

Today globally there exists objection and evasion of war and military in many countries of the world. Conscientious Objection and draft refusal can occur at any time. Many COs and pacifists have been expressing their resistance to war and militaristic dictators in many different ways. Some may refuse all wars, some may be Selective or Partial Objectors or they may resist particular actions or wars. Others may refuse to pay for war (tax resistance) or some others are active Nuclear Pacifists. Objection and desertion an take place before or after joining the military, before or after being recruited in case of conscription.

In many countries evaders and deserters are generally prosecuted, repressed, or may face re-recruitment. For these reasons they prefer to flee and apply for asylum somewhere else where they feel protected. They are refused asylum still in a lot of countries. In some countries if a CO right exists, they often have to face a complicated and degrading screening process. Furthermore a lot of countries do not give the opportunity to already recruited draftees and professional soldiers to legally declare their CO.

As it is for individuals so also for nations. A country in peace with itself can also live in peace with its neighbours. In Eritrea the militaristic tyranny first of all needs to reconcile with its own people. The nation needs to build its internal peace in order to live in peace with its neighbours. The people of the horn of Africa in general and the people of Eritrea in particular are in political, social and economic crisis. In the region there is an urgent need to establish a healthy democratic atmosphere with a constitutionally elected leadership and the adoption of multiparty states and political systems. There is an urgent need to release all prisoners of conscience and political prisoners.

Conscientious Objection/refusing military service and war is vital in contributing to national and regional peace building processes. Because the ideas and teachings of CO are based on peace, humanity and morality, the ideas of CO are against propaganda of national unity and sovereignty, which are divisive, misleading and provocative. Globally and regionally the more people say “No to War” may force governments to rethink their decisions. They will be forced to go to international courts of justice and forced to think about peaceful solutions, start to develop respect for human life and plan to build a just and secure society for coming generations. Moreover, Conscientious Objection service and war is the check and balance against war. A CO is standing in contradiction to a warlord. COs can confront and divert military objectives.

Hence EAI is advocating for the refusal of military service in the above context. EAI calls on governments to: introduce and cultivate respect for the right of CO and offer them alternative civilian service, recognize prosecution of COs as a reason to grant them asylum, establish a culture of pluralism, civility, respect and tolerance, develop their political leadership on principles of democracy and multiparty system, listen to and respect nonviolent resistors, solve conflicts peacefully through dialogue, mediation and negotiation and abide by and respect international law.

Finally EAI envisions CO to military and war as one way to cultivate peace, CO’s rights have to be respected and they have rights to be listened to and court of justice, COs are not cowards, rather they are persons who live by the conviction of their conscience and COs deserve protection, understanding and respect.

 

1 Mail & Guardian online: In Eritrea, youth frustrated by long service, Juli 18, 2008

 

Yohannes Kidane ist activist of the Eritrean Antimilitarist Initiative (EAI) since the foundation in 2005.

 

Contact: EAI, Yohannes Kidane, Frankengutstr. 2, D-95447 Bayreuth, Tel.: +40-(0)921-1674195, yohannesk2000(at)yahoo.com. www.Connection-eV.org/eai

Keywords:    ⇒ Conscientious Objection   ⇒ Eritrea   ⇒ Human Rights   ⇒ International   ⇒ Project Reports