Finnish teenager Risto Miinalainen is part-way through a 173-day prison sentence. The 19-year-old was imprisoned in October for refusing to join the army or undertake mandatory civilian service. Finland is one of 16 of the 47 states in the Council of Europe that maintain obligatory military service – down from 40 in 1960.
The right to conscientious objection is enshrined in most states’ law. But punishments and grounds vary, according to a 2016 report by the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection, which supports those fleeing conscription in Turkey, Egypt, South Korea and Ukraine who seek asylum in Europe.
‘Our mission is not to turn young men against military service, but to uphold any whose conscience does not permit them to undertake it,’ says Derek Brett, who contributed to the report.
The treatment of Conscientious Objectors has been improving. Greece and Turkey, for example, are much more reluctant to resort to imprisonment, partly as a result of pressure from the European Court of Human Rights.
But problems persist. ‘Alternative service arrangements’ are often of a punitive duration. And those who cite religious motives tend to receive much more favourable treatment than those whose grounds are moral or ethical. ‘Examining another’s conscience is an impossible task,’ Brett says. ‘There’s a strong temptation to rely on religious affiliation as a surrogate.’