The freedom to obey your conscience in Finland

By Alexander Gunnar Raboisson

Finnish conscripts giving their military oath, Author: Karri HuhtanenSource, Date 26 August 2005

Finland is the only country in Scandinavia that requires obligatory military service for all men. In the three other countries, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, conscription remains in place; but only 20% of those in the age group end up serving. Finland continues a prevalent military tradition that is exemplified by its refusal to scrap conscription and its treatment of conscientious objectors (CO).

According to the Quaker Council for European affairs it is estimated that around 70 to 80 percent of conscripts are called up. The proximity of Finland to its more powerful Russian neighbor has historically been a source of anxiety for this small country. During the Cold War all the Scandinavian countries had military service and Finland is the only one that now keeps such an extensive conscription. On the condition of COs, it is interesting to consider the handbook that is given out to future Finnish conscripts. The section that demonstrates what alternatives there are to the military service is short. The section on unarmed service does not elaborate on how you can apply for it and the non-military service sections refers readers to the website or local authorities.

Alternative military service is possible in Finland, but it is not encouraged; a report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee by the Union of Conscientious Objectors (Aseistakieltäytyjäliitto, AKL) explains how during the call ups organised by the army for the future conscripts, the “army brass” make non-military service sounds suspicious and negative The possibility to perform non-military service is normally mentioned quickly and sometimes not at all. Conscientious objectors are also not given information on how to perform non-military service and need to find this information by themselves on the internet. The army and the government are discouraging people from seeking out alternatives to military service.

The report by AKL also indicates how non-military service is always 347 days, equivalent to the longest possible military service. Yet those who serve in the army mostly spend shorter time in duty, with 41% of conscripts serving 165 days, 15 percent serve 255 days and 44% serve 347 days. Those who choose to perform non-military service must always perform a longer service which in itself is a discriminatory measure. The concluding observation in 2021 by the UNHCR, written in response to the AKL report , pointed out their concern that the alternatives to military service may be discriminatory in terms of their duration. The UNHCR also mentioned the lack of information that is given to new conscripts on alternatives to military service and asked Finland to increase its efforts to raise awareness amongst the public about the right to conscientious objection and the existence of alternative service. A summary of the AKL report by WRI can be found here.

One of the concerns raised in the report is that conscientious objectors in Finland can end up getting tried twice for the same accusation. To paraphrase the report: “The ne bis in idem law principle goes: No one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country. (ICCPR art. 14 (7)).” This clearly states that if someone has been tried by a tribunal and you were convicted or acquitted during the trial they cannot be tried again. But, as the report elaborates, under section 79 of the Non-Military Service Act, acquitted COs who refuse to perform both military service and non-military service are ordered again to start non-military service. In the report the translated text of the original article reads: “If a person liable for non-military service against whom a report on an offence has been entered for refusal to perform non-military service or a non-military service offence is not charged with the offences in question or given a prison sentence, the Centre for Non-Military Service must order the person back into service”. Those who refuse to perform military and non-military service are called “total objectors” and they are sentenced to imprisonment for half of their remaining military service time, the maximum time period is 173 days. What is also important to note here is that the Finnish state repealed the preferential treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in April 2019. This was done against the recommendation by the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) who in 2013 had asked Finland to extend the exemption from military service that Jehovah’s Witnesses had to other groups of conscientious objectors, a concern that was raised in the concluding observation of 2021 by UNHCR seventh periodic report of Finland. The measure has led to several “total objectors” to be retried in court and given new sentences after having previously been acquitted.                      

The army does not only exert control when it comes to military service, but also retains control of the non-military service. The UNHRC had recommended in 2017 that the Finnish state ensured that civilian alternatives remain under civilian control. A concern raised again in the AKL report, which points out that military parties support the idea of changing the nature of non-military service into something that is more adequate to prepare for times of crisis, a measure that would go against the conscience of many COs. The report by AKL also mentioned how every year they are contacted by dozens of military servicemen who want to change to non-military service, which they are entitled to, but face denial and procrastination by the military hierarchy. This was also a point of concern for the UNHCR in its 2021 report, where it asks that alternatives to military service remain of civilian nature and outside of military involvement.  

                      In conclusion we can see that in Finland there remains an issue with alternative military service and that militaristic norms and values remain widespread to the point that those who may wish to perform non-military service are inhibited and discouraged from doing so. It is vital that Finland allows its citizens the freedom to obey their conscience.

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