AUGUST 9, 2016
The first generation of young Witness men in Armenia to take advantage of the alternative civilian service program are productively working to fulfill their national obligation. The previous generation of Jehovah’s Witnesses faced imprisonment for their conscientious objection to military service. However, in 2013 the Republic of Armenia amended its legislation to provide for alternative civilian service in lieu of military service. To date, over 200 Witnesses have been enrolled in this program. Sixteen Witnesses had completed their national service by the end of June 2016.
A Successful Alternative Civilian Service Program
The first young Witness men who finished the program were originally imprisoned for refusing to enroll in the military. When the new law came into force, these Witnesses were transferred to the alternative civilian service program. By January 2014, they began work as landscapers, street cleaners, support staff at medical facilities, or general laborers performing other services.
The young men who have completed their alternative civilian service assignments are grateful that the government gave them the opportunity to serve in meaningful ways, including work to beautify their community and to care for the needy. Under this new program, young men who complete their assignment can continue as productive members of society without the stigma of a criminal record.
Davit Arakelyan, 22 years old, completed his alternative civilian service as an orderly at a nursing home. He commented: “Alternative service helped me to be more serious, responsible, and hardworking. I was happy to satisfy my national service obligation in a way that genuinely helped others. The management and staff at the nursing home, and even some residents, praised our work.” Mikhayil Manasyan, also 22 years old, was assigned work at the Ministry of Emergency Situations. He said: “I learned a new skill simultaneously with my service, and this can now become my job. I was also able to fulfill my national service without violating my conscience.”
Could Armenia’s Experience Move Other Countries to Adopt Alternative Civilian Service?
Recently, Armenia took the further step of amending its constitution to include the recognition of the right to conscientious objection. Article 41(3) of the amended constitution, which came into force in December 2015, states: “Every citizen for whom military service contradicts his religion or beliefs shall have the right to replace it with alternative service in the procedure prescribed by law.” The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe commended Armenia for taking this step, calling it “an outstanding way of securing the implementation of the case of Bayatyan v. Armenia * [that] has to be praised.”
This alternative civilian service program brings Armenia in line with international standards. Armenia has progressed from a regime that punishes conscientious objectors to one that respects their right to freedom of conscience. The benefits of this policy provide an example for other countries that punish conscientious objectors. Armenia’s experience demonstrates that implementing this program can satisfy the needs of both the government and its citizens.
Speaking on behalf of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia, Tigran Harutyunyan said: “We are grateful that the Armenian government has taken positive steps to ensure the protection of basic human rights, including the right to conscientious objection. Young Witness men in Armenia can now fulfill their obligation to the government in a way that respects their conscience and benefits others.”
^ par. 8 Bayatyan v. Armenia ([GC], no. 23459/03, ECHR 2011) was a landmark judgment issued by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. For the first time, the Court ruled that the right to conscientious objection to military service is recognized as being fully protected under Article 9 (freedom of thought, conscience, and religion) of the European Convention on Human Rights.