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          • Year: 2005
          • Civil service in Serbia and Montenegro – one year later

          • 22. august 2005. Petar Milićević, President, the Belgrade Office of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection

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          The right of conscientious objection consists of the right to reject participation in military operations of a country. For now, international documents recognize the right to have the possibility to choose an alternative or replacement service for all citizens who are obliged to go through military or other training that includes usage of weapons and to whom their conscience does not allow them to take part in that for any reason. Such service is called civil service in most international documents.

          There is also a broader concept of conscientious objection, which is becoming more and more popular, that consists of rejection of any violence or participation in possible violence. The examples that are pointing to the development of new standards within the concept of conscientious objection are the proposals of laws in the area of fiscal objection (using the part of taxes for peace purposes instead of spending it on weapons), such as in: Italy, Germany, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, etc. Similar campaigns and lobbying carried out on an international level mostly from the organizations that have consultative status at the United Nations (CPTI, the Quaker Council, WRI).

          In Serbia and Montenegro (SCG), the civil service was first implemented in practice on December 22, 2003, when the first conscientious objector chose the civil service option. To date, more than 16,000 conscripts have signed up and a number of them have already been sent to this type of "military" service. However, even today there is a lot of confusion regarding the future development of this option, especially in connection with adjusting it to the international standards in this area and the needs of the society.

          The civil service is being implemented according to two official documents: the Decree on Military Service with changes and additions (State Gazette, SCG 37/03 from August 26, 2003) made by the Council of Ministers and the Instructions on the Application of the Articles from the Decree on Military Service referring to the Civil Service (Military Gazette, 31/03 from November 3, 2003).

          Already the fact that one of the documents comes from the SCG Ministry of Defense and that it is impossible to familiarize oneself with its content (it is not clear whether it has the status of a public document or a document with restricted access) creates certain problems that stem from different interpretations or not following the rights given in this document.

          It was foreseen that civil service would take place in rescue, humanitarian, health care and other institutions of public interest.  In more than 575 institutions on the territory of SCG the civil service was organized. Most of these institutions were added to the list during the period between the time the Decree on Military Service was put in place and the time the Instructions from the Ministry of Defense were adopted. At the time that the last additions to the list of institutions were made, the number of conscientious objectors was 1,500 while today 16,000 conscripts are interested in civil service.

          In addition to the increase in the numbers of objectors there are more and more institutions and organizations that are interested in accepting conscientious objectors, which at the same time do not have any relevant information from the Ministry of Defense or their corresponding ministries. The conscripts wait for more than six months to be assigned to civil service and many institutions are rejected or wait more than nine months for answers from the responsible bodies. The latest example of rejecting some institutions (the Cultural Center of the Students Town, the Serbian National Theatre in Novi Sad, the Universities of Novi Sad and Belgrade, etc.) prove that the institutions in charge and other public institutions (especially educational and cultural) have different needs in regards to the development of the civil service. The aforementioned institutions received a negative answer from the Ministry of Defense with the explanation that socially useful work is not being conducted in them.

          The majority of the remaining institutions, which have shown interest in civil service, do not have any feedback from government or state institutions nor has anyone informed them on the application procedures and the consideration process, as well as about models of developing civil service, with the exception of construction and non-profit organizations. The education and training of the responsible persons and institutions was not organized on the subjects of: rights and obligations of conscientious objectors, sustainable models of civil service and examples of good practice in Europe and possible abuses and violations of rights during civil service. So far it has been proven that this was necessary.

          A separate problem is that the attitude towards conscripts who are interested or have already decided to choose civil service is increasingly different from the attitude towards those who want to serve in the military. For example, from the moment a conscript receives a letter to report to the draft board, he cannot find anywhere any official information about the right of conscientious objection and the possibility of opting for civil service. Additionally, the rights and obligations of conscripts and conscientious objectors are regulated by documents that are not public (the Instructions from the Ministry of Defense and the Order of the General Staff that only conscripts born in 1976 and 1977 can be sent for civil service starting September 2004) or by the documents that are in conflict with the Law on Universities and the Law on SCG Armed Forces (the order to the draft boards that the renewal of "pre-graduation status" is not considered to be a reason for delaying military service starting in December 2004). Often, the draft boards provide half true or very unclear information due to the general confusion as to the right to access to information on conscientious objection and alternative or civil service. Informing on these questions has never been implemented in practice.

          Conducting civil service in most institutions has all the characteristics of alternative or civil service. There are numerous successful examples of good, socially useful and humanitarian work with additional personal effort of the objectors while helping the institution and users of services provided by that institution. The best results have been observed in some centers for social work; child and youth care centers and other institutions that are involved in improving the living conditions of socially endangered groups.

          However, there are more and more institutions in which the civil service has the characteristics of very poor forced labor and where the attitude towards the objectors is degrading. In several hospitals in Serbia, the objectors were sent for hard physical labor and even on duties where their health was endangered because of improper training and work protection. This directly violates the rules according to which conscientious objectors are to be sent to civil service on duties that are commensurate with their education, tendencies and choices and according to which all the laws, by-laws and internal work protection regulations have to be respected during civil service. In the majority of institutions, the objectors have not been given work that is commensurate with their education. They are under constant threats that they will be sent to military service if they do not complete their work tasks even though this type of punishment was planned for gross violations of works tasks or in the case of criminal offenses during civil service. I would stress that conscripts do not have the right to complain about the decisions on sending them to military service, which is against the rules on two level procedures and adequate legal and court protections guaranteed by the constitutional charter and international legal standards. An example of adjusting the work of conscientious objectors with the work tasks of civil service would be Croatia, where the work positions that objectors can conduct are prescribed.

          This year it will be three years since SCG’s entrance into the Council of Europe, which is the period of time set for adopting the law on civil service that would include all the standards of the Council on this subject (civil administration of alternative service, the right to information, equal treatment, prohibition of punishment and the forceful character of civil service, the right to complain, etc.).

          The fact that we were among the last to institutionalize civil service as well as the existence of examples of good practice in Europe and the fact that we already acquired good and bad experiences from the first generation of objectors in SCG, should give us the opportunity to use such experience for accelerated development and for the adjustment of this service to the demands of society and international standards.

          * Translated by Natalija Marić

        • Tags: military, reform, soldier, civil service, Serbia and Montenegro, conscript, youth
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