(By Sara Newman, originally published in The Independent on Sunday, May 19 2006)
What's the story?
Tomorrow the annual ceremony honouring conscientious objectors (COs) takes place around the world. In London campaigners will gather in Tavistock Square, near a commemorative stone for COs.
The war in Iraq has given the event added significance this year with US serviceman unwiling to fight what they see as an unjust war havingfled to Canada while on leave. Perhaps to send a message to the men, the US has charged Jerry Texiero for not going to war in Vietnam 40 years ago.
What are they saying?
The former US president Bill Clinton was among thousands who avoided Vietnam by registering as a conscientious objector, but now says: "No service is more important or admirable than your decision to put on the uniform of this great nation and to serve wherever America calls you." But the wife of one US soldier said: "We should remember the thousands of Iraqi victims. But we should also keep in our thoughts those soldiers sent to fight a war they never believed in."
What happens next?
Since the development of sophisticated military equipment, compulsory military service is on the decline. France, Spain and Italy have abolished conscription and abolition is imminent in Greece. Russia has alternative service for COs. Eastern European and Scandinavian countries, among others, stil impose mandatory service. Many objectors are in prison in countries such as Armenia, Eritrea, Finland, Israel, South Korea, Turkey and the US, and the ethical debate goes on.