South Korean Marines at Camp Mu Juk, Korea.

When it comes to religious freedom, it is hardly a secret that the world’s worst violators remain authoritarian regimes. From Iran to China, such regimes’ daily actions reflect hostility to human rights as well as habitual abuse of a panoply of internationally recognized individual liberties, including freedom of conscience or religion. Yet, there are certain religious freedom rights which even relatively democratic governments are challenged to embrace—notably, conscientious objection to military service.

The right to conscientious objection has been affirmed and reaffirmed by international bodies and agreements. The UN Human Rights Council and its predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, recognize “the right of everyone to have conscientious objection to military service as a legitimate exercise of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as laid down in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” As recently as July 2012, the UN Human Rights Council called on all nations to review their laws, policies, and practices relating to conscientious objector status.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has urged member states to provide alternatives to military service, and the Council of Europe (CoE) requires recognition of the right of conscientious objection as a precondition for membership. In 2011, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in a case against Armenia that the failure to affirm this right violates the European Convention’s guarantee of the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.  As the CoE’s Human Rights Commissioner has said, “People should not be imprisoned when their religious or other convictions prevent them from doing military service. Instead, they should be offered a genuinely civilian alternative.”

Despite these affirmations, too many nations unconditionally demand that their citizens serve in the military, even when it would violate the dictates of conscience. This is surprisingly true of relatively free countries such as Armenia and South Korea.

When Armenia joined the CoE in 2001, it committed itself to introducing a civilian alternative to military service by 2004. Unfortunately, the new law it enacted—which has been criticized by experts from the UN, CoE, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—left such alternative service under Defense Ministry oversight. Moreover, Armenia’s 42-month duration of alternative service was the world’s longest. The ECtHR responded by issuing four decisions, along with fines, against Armenia in conscientious objector cases, including those involving Jehovah’s Witnesses whose beliefs prohibit military service.

In the case of South Korea, military service is a national duty stipulated in the country’s constitution, and South Korea’s Military Service Act (MSA) requires all 19-to-25-year-old Korean men to serve a two-year military commitment. Since the start of the Korean War in 1950, South Korea has imposed 18-month sentences on more than 17,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses and other conscientious objectors for violating the MSA by refusing military service; there are now around 800 people serving these sentences. The UN Human Rights Committee has ruled repeatedly that South Korea is abusing these conscientious objectors’ rights.

In June of this year, Armenia introduced a civilian alternative to service and reduced the maximum duration of alternative service to 36 months. Even so, 20 conscientious objectors remain behind bars while only 9 were released.

As for South Korea, its Supreme Court and National Human Rights Committee have recommended the creation of an alternative system of service, and in 2007, President Roh Moo-hyun’s outgoing administration announced such a program offering objectors three years of civilian service. However, President Lee Myung-bak’s administration postponed it indefinitely, citing heightened conflict with neighbor North Korea. In August 2011, the nation’s Constitutional Court upheld the law penalizing objectors for refusing military service.

Though both Armenia and South Korea have security issues of genuine concern to their military, jailing the minority of citizens who heed their own consciences against military service fails to advance security. Furthermore, it diminishes the state’s authority in the world on human rights, including the right to freedom of conscience and religion. Nations everywhere must give full honor and respect to freedom of conscience, affirming the rights of citizens who are conscientious objectors and offering them civilian service as a viable alternative to service in the military.