Skip to content

Skip to table of contents

European Court Upholds the Right to Conscientious Objection

European Court Upholds the Right to Conscientious Objection

JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES around the world are well-known for their neutral stand when it comes to the politics and wars of any nation. They firmly believe that they must “beat their swords into plowshares” and not “learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) They do not interfere with those who choose to serve in the armed forces. But what if the conscience of a Witness does not permit him to serve in the military, yet the country in which he lives makes it mandatory? That was the situation faced by a young man named Vahan Bayatyan.

Events Leading Up to the European Court Case

Vahan was born in Armenia in April 1983. In 1996, he and other members of his family began to study the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and when he was 16 years old, he was baptized. From his study of the Bible, Vahan developed a deep regard for the teachings of Jesus Christ, including the direction Jesus gave his followers not to take up physical weapons of warfare. (Matthew 26:52) Therefore, only a short time after his baptism, Vahan faced a critical decision in his life.

Armenian law makes military service compulsory for all young men when they turn 18 years of age. If they refuse to perform this service, they can be punished with imprisonment for up to three years. Vahan wanted to serve his fellow citizens. At the same time, he did not want to violate his Bible-trained conscience. So, what did he do?

As soon as he was deemed eligible for military service in 2001, Vahan began writing letters to the authorities in Armenia. In his letters, he stated that such service would violate his conscience and religious beliefs. At the same time, he declared his willingness to perform alternative civilian service instead.

Vahan Bayatyan in front of Nubarashen Prison in Armenia

More than one year passed, during which Vahan continued to appeal to authorities to recognize his conscientious refusal of military service. However, in September 2002, Vahan was arrested, and later he was charged with draft evasion. He was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. The prosecutor, though, was not satisfied with that punishment. Just one month after the sentencing, the prosecutor filed a motion with the appeal court, demanding a harsher sentence. He argued that Vahan’s religiously motivated conscientious objection to military service was “unfounded and dangerous.” The appeal court granted the prosecutor’s petition, increasing Vahan’s sentence to 30 months’ imprisonment.

Vahan appealed this decision to Armenia’s highest court. In January 2003, the Court of Cassation upheld the appeal court’s judgment. Vahan was immediately transferred to a prison facility to begin serving his sentence along with murderers, drug dealers, and rapists.

Events in the European Court

Since 2001, Armenia has been a member of the Council of Europe. Its citizens therefore have a right to appeal cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) once they have exhausted all domestic remedies for justice. That is what Vahan chose to do. In his appeal he argued that his conviction for refusal to serve in the army had violated Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He asked that his right to conscientious objection of military service be protected under this article​—something that had never been successfully argued before.

On October 27, 2009, the ECHR issued its judgment. The court held that, in view of existing case law, freedom of conscience as defined in Article 9 of the European Convention does not protect the rights of conscientious objectors who refuse to serve in the military.

Bayatyan with his wife, Tsovinar, and son, Vahe

By that time, Vahan had long been released from prison, was married, and had a little boy. Vahan was disappointed by the judgment. He then had to make the choice either to drop the case or appeal to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR. He chose the latter. The Grand Chamber accepts only exceptional cases, so Vahan was pleased when it decided to review his case.

Finally, on July 7, 2011, in Strasbourg, France, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR issued its ruling. The court concluded by an overwhelming majority of 16 votes to 1 that Armenia violated the right of freedom of conscience of Vahan Bayatyan when it convicted and imprisoned him for his conscientious objection to military service. The judge from Armenia provided the sole dissenting vote.

Bayatyan with his legal counselors in the European Court of Human Rights, November 24, 2010

Why is that ruling significant? Because it was the first time in the history of the ECHR that the right to conscientious objection to military service was viewed as being fully protected under Article 9 of the Convention. As a result, the court views it as a violation of fundamental rights in a democratic society to imprison a conscientious objector.

The Court made the following remark about the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses as conscientious objectors: “The Court therefore has no reason to doubt that the applicant’s objection to military service was motivated by his religious beliefs, which were genuinely held and were in serious and insurmountable conflict with his obligation to perform military service.”

Reaction to the Decision

Over the past two decades, over 450 conscientious objectors who are Jehovah’s Witnesses have been sentenced in Armenia. At the time this article was being prepared, there were 58 young men in that country who were imprisoned for their conscientious refusal of military service on religious grounds. Five of those individuals were imprisoned after the landmark decision in the case of Bayatyan v. Armenia. * In one of those cases, when the young conscientious objector filed a motion requesting that the local prosecutor terminate the criminal proceedings against him for refusing military service on the basis of conscience, the prosecutor rejected his motion. In his written response, the prosecutor stated: “The judgment by the European Court in the case Bayatyan v. Armenia, dated July 7, 2011, does not apply in this case, since it is obvious that there are no similar circumstances in the two cases.”

Why did the prosecutor feel that way? When Vahan Bayatyan was charged, there was no alternative civilian service provision in place. The government of Armenia asserts that since then, a law has been adopted making such a provision, so those opposed to military service now have the option of performing civilian service. However, the alternative service law is under military control, so it does not apply to many of the conscientious objectors who are presently being called up for military duty.

Vahan Bayatyan is pleased with the milestone decision that was made in his favor. The judgment now places an obligation on Armenia to stop prosecuting and imprisoning individuals whose deeply held religious convictions do not allow them to engage in military service.

It is not the purpose of Jehovah’s Witnesses to introduce reform into the legal system of any country. However, just as young Vahan Bayatyan did, they seek to establish their legal rights based on some of the existing laws governing the countries in which they live. Why? In order that they may continue to live peaceably and freely obey all the commands of their Leader, Jesus Christ.

^ par. 17 Two of them were sentenced on July 7, 2011, the same day as the ECHR ruling.