AUGUST 28, 2015
Ukraine’s high court has affirmed that conscientious objectors have the right to alternative service even in times of civil unrest and war. This decision has broad implications for human rights, both in Ukraine and abroad.
Vitaliy Shalaiko, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was accused of evading military service during mobilization because he requested alternative service when summoned for conscription. Both the trial court and the appeal court had acquitted him, but the prosecutor appealed to the High Specialized Court of Ukraine for Civil and Criminal Cases. On June 23, 2015, the high court dismissed the appeal, thereby finalizing the lower courts’ decisions.
The high court affirmed that “the trial court was fully justified in referring to the corresponding provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights and the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights.” The high court also agreed with the trial court that the case of Bayatyan v. Armenia applied. This case was decided by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights on July 7, 2011. That landmark judgment held that conscientious objection to military service based on sincerely held religious beliefs falls under the protection of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the case of Vitaliy Shalaiko, Ukraine’s high court made clear that the rights of conscientious objectors are protected even if a country mobilizes for armed conflict and not just when there are routine call-ups for military service. The high court’s decision is final, with no further appeal available.
This final ruling relieves Mr. Shalaiko of much anxiety. He states: “I understand my country’s interest in safeguarding its citizens by military mobilization. While my conscience does not permit me to perform military service, I am nevertheless willing to do my part in performing alternative civilian service. I am grateful that the courts have recognized that my refusal of military service is based on my sincere religious beliefs.”
A Decision That Benefits Many
Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout Ukraine have faced the issue of neutrality during mobilization. Those who face criminal charges of evading military service can now rely on the legal precedent established in Vitaliy Shalaiko’s case.
Mr. Shalaiko’s attorney, Mr. Vadim Karpov, noted: “In simple terms, the high court explains that as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mr. Shalaiko could not be prosecuted for refusing military service. Even in a country such as Ukraine, which is divided by war and instability, it is significant that norms of international law on freedom of religion and on freedom of conscience have been applied.”
Ukraine Sets an Example in Respecting Human Rights
The courts of Ukraine have recognized that conscientious objection to military service is a fundamental human right that merits protection even during military mobilization. It is neither a selfish evasion of duty nor a threat to national interests and security. In affirming the rulings of the lower courts, the high court has upheld human rights for all Ukrainians. Ukraine has set an example for countries that punish conscientious objectors who refuse military service for reasons of conscience.