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Finland's conscientious conscience
by Asa Butcher
2009-05-15 09:41:43
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Over the past week Finland has observed two national days on which their flag has been hoisted up the country's countless flagpoles, yet today the flag won't be flying in observance of International Conscientious Objectors' Day. Like myself at first, you may be wondering what that is, why they deserve a day and why I am going to look at little Finland.

At first glance Finland is the model country, with its low infant mortality rate, high literacy levels, stable political system, freedom of speech and safe from most Acts of God. However, would you believe that Finland was regularly criticised by a small organisation known as the United Nation's Human Rights Committee for human rights violations in a number of areas, one of which was its treatment of Conscientious Objectors.

Finland is among thirty countries that have mandatory military service for its male citizens; it wasn't until 1922 that civilian service was introduced, and from 1931 it was only available during peacetime. Two of the long-standing complaints about Finland from the UNHRC are the peacetime acknowledgement and the fact that the civilian alternative to military service is punitively long (13 months compared to the average nine for conscripts). Earlier this year a law was passed to reduce civilian service by a month, but the peacetime acknowledgement remained unchanged.

During my years in Finland I have spoken to many Finns about conscription and there have been a great number of differing views and opinions, albeit the majority did choose military over civilian. It has been surprising to hear that the reason most choose military service is because they are scared that employers will discriminate against those who opt for civilian service. Opposition to military conscription is commonly associated with anti-patriotism and Communism, while many conscripts are there to keep their family happy.

However, today is International Conscientious Objectors' Day and a paragraph should cordially be dedicated to those, dare I say it, brave individuals. There is a small percentage in Finland that refuse to have any part of conscription, be it military or civilian, meaning that they are left with two options: six months in prison or leave the country for good. I am grateful for never having to make that decision and the whole situation has left me highly baffled over the Finnish approach to conscription.

For years women were exempted from conscription and they fought for the right to be treated the same as the men, and now women have the choice of joining or not. However, Finnish men do not have a choice, which is actually discriminatory, no matter what you say. The law should be everybody does it or everybody can choose to do it. That is fair. A few years ago I interviewed a lieutenant on Santahamina, a military base just outside Helsinki, and he made the following statement: "We could have a professional army, but we have the highest percentage of men who come to military service in the world with free will. That shows that the normal people are keeping up the conscription, they are keeping it alive."

Free will is the key point in his statement. Why should anybody be forced to choose between the military, civilian or prison? Don't say that it is only a year out of their life because that is a year they will never get back and it has been taken involuntarily. Everybody should have the choice to enlist in either service for a certain period and not be coerced via the worry of employer discrimination or family pressure. Finns often boast of so-called sisu ('guts'), so why not make conscription voluntary and see if they really live up to this hyped-up claim.

National Service was abolished in my home country (UK) in 1960 and there have been countless calls to have it reinstated in the belief it will instil respect and good manners in a generation that is considered lacking. I think this is wishful thinking, but I still believe the choice should be given for anybody who wants to try. Conscientious Objectors are a brave group of people who certainly deserve their own day for fighting, what I personally believe, is a discriminatory law.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-05-15 09:28:05
One of the reasons for the persecution of Christians by various Roman emperors in the first three centuries of Christianity was that Christians refused to idolize the emperor and refused conscription in the Roman army because of their principles of non-violence. They were the first conscientious objectors. They were looked upon as subversive, unpatriotic and ungrateful to the largess and munificence of “goddess Rome.” All that changed overnight when the emperor Constantine became a Christian and proclaimed Christianity the official religion of the Empire. It was certainly a brilliant political move on his part; he had understood that religion is a powerful social and cultural glue. It preserved the Empire for a few more centuries. But, at that point the Christian fathers began putting less emphasis on non-violence and more on the just war theories and when was it morally legitimate for a Christian to serve in the army; the most famous tract on the subject being that of St. Augustine. It was now ok for a Christian to be conscripted in the army to defend “Christendom.” Whether or not such a novel stand violated original Christian principles of non-violence, I’ll let the theologians argue about and settle; but the fact remains that the underlying root-cause of this ethical problem of conscience which many countries have is not conscription itself but war and war mongering. I wager that were the world to outlaw war as a way of resolving conflicts of interests, there would be no problem of conscription either.

Emanuel Paparella2008-05-15 09:32:23
P.S. William James wrote a famous essay titled "The Moral Equivalent of War" which, in my opinion, ought to be required reading for all heads of state grappling with the problem of conscription.

Eva2008-05-15 14:51:15
I agree with your opinion, I find the mandatory military service very outdated in this day and age, but there are still many people in Finland who argues "remember the war, we need to be able to defend ourselves" bla bla. But I personally believe it will be abolished in not too far a future, the voices against it are getting more and louder.

A. P.2008-05-15 19:52:59
You are right, Asa, and the truth is that the discrimination does not come only from the future employers. I live with a male who had to do civilian service for a whole year and will never get that time of his life (as personally useful) back. He was not only discriminated at the civilian service place (and had to hear all kinds of offensive comments and insinuations while working there), as he is forced to hide at workplace that aspect of his past. This sounds ridiculous to some foreigners. More than ridiculous, it is a violence that finnish institutions and older generations commit against the younger ones. Something to think about.

A.P.2008-05-15 20:00:50
ps - I also know about some brave guys who have gone to prison "voluntarily" or on purpose, so they could struggle to change things. Know about another one who was put in civilian service and begun to shout, scream, kick and destroy things until they gave him a psychiatric leave. Interesting things, the ones they are forced to do while forbidden to express freedom of thought. Shame on Finland's Defence Ministry!

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