The 15th of May is International Conscientious Objector’s Day
In London each year a brief ceremony is held at the Commemorative Stone, to Conscientious Objectors in Tavistock Square London.
At the annual ceremony. the names of representative people who ‘maintained the right to refuse to kill’ are read out and a white flower is laid on the Stone for each of the people remembered.
International Conscientious Objectors’ Day was initiated by the International Conscientious Objectors’ Meeting (ICOM) to provide solidarity and support to all those who have chosen to exercise individual conscience in the face of State conscription to the miitary and violence.
A conscientious objector (CO) is an “individual who has claimed the right to refuse to perform military service” on the grounds of freedom of thought, conscience, and/or religion In general, conscientious objector status is only considered in the context of military conscription and is not applicable to volunteer military forces.
Historically, many conscientious objectors have been executed, imprisoned, or otherwise penalized when their beliefs led to actions conflicting with their society’s legal system or government.
For those of us living in New Zealand this day gives us a chance to remember all those who have refused to participate in war , in preparations for war and all those who have conscientiously objected to specific wars.
Archibald Baxter (father of the poet James K. Baxter) is one of New Zealand’s better-known pacifists from the First World War. His book We will not cease records his opposition to the war. In his words, the book is ‘the record of my fight to the utmost against the military machine during the First World War. At that time to be a pacifist was to be in a distinct minority.’ Baxter was not alone, however, there were 2600 conscientious objectors to the First World War. They lost their civil rights, including being denied voting rights for 10 years and were barred from working for government or local bodies. Some like Baxter and Briggs were openly tortured and dispatched to the front lines in an effort to break their spirit.
In the Second World War after conscription was introduced in July 1940, conscientious objectors could appeal their military service. But the Appeal Boards were made up of older, military men, and the government expected them to ‘prevent the coward and the slacker from sheltering under a convenient conscience’. In New Zealand, of the 3000 appeals against conscription on conscience grounds, only 600 were allowed. Most of those turned down gave in to the law and served as required, but 800 refused to comply. As lawbreakers, with no right of appeal, they were sentenced to detention – a ‘scheme of concentration camps designed to be less comfortable than the army, but less punitive than gaol’. The term of their confinement was an indefinite sentence, while the war lasted.
Tomorrow we honour and remember all those who exercised their conscience and chose not to fight nor to kill in the service of the state. I will remember my father who spent 4 years in detention for his beliefs but I will also remember many others who made a big impact on me as an adolescent, Ormie Burton , a decorated World War One soldier who turned pacifist as a consequence of his experiences during the First World War. Archie Barrington, Bub Hyland, Merv and Marj Browne, Chris Palmer, Dave Sylvester, who endured detention and then developed a Christian Pacifist Community ( Riverside) at the end of the war to try and live according to strict nonviolent Christian and communitarian principles. I’ll remember, Bert Worboys, John McCreary, Wilf Foote, Jack Hammerton and many others. These I knew well.
What distinguished all of them was their reluctance to fight, their reluctance to kill in the name of anyone, and their care, concern and compassion for humanity. These men and their partners –and many many others- made a vocational commitment to non violence, to living their lives free of weapons of minor or mass destruction. They were motivated by Christian, Humanist and Socialist Principles. In any case tomorrow at dawn and through the day I shall remember them because they made a big impact on my on life and on my own values.