It’s 100 years since the right to conscientious objection was enshrined in British law. What did taking a stand mean then, and how does it compare to today?
In 1916, the British government introduced conscription – all men aged 18-40 were compelled to join the armed forces. Along with other pacifists in the No-Conscription Fellowship, many Quakers refused to fight: to kill, in any circumstances, went against their conscience. They stood up for their right to refuse to kill, and many faced prison. Some were even sentenced to death, and only reprieved at the last minute. You can read more about the personal experiences of ‘conchies’ in the first world war in the White Feather Diaries.
The conscientious objectors remained strong, and their efforts helped to establish the right to conscientiously object in British law – a right we all enjoy to this day. 100 years on from The Conscription Act young men are no longer forced to join the armed forces. Instead modern wars are fought with professional armies, high-tech weapons, and the ideology of deterrence: paid for with our taxes.
Conscientious objectors (COs) believe that instead we must work for peace & justice. Many people across the world are taking a stand for things that they believe in:
- from Chelsea Manning (who leaked evidence of human rights abuses by US and allied forces;)
- to the Conscience: Taxes for Peace campaign (who are asking for our tax to be spent on peace, not war;)
- to prisoners of conscience like Darya Poliudova (facing two years in prison for criticising the Russian government’s war in Ukraine.)
Just like the COs of WWI, these people are taking a stand for what they believe in, and are not backing down in the face of pressure from society or the authorities.
What do you belive in? What price would you be prepared to pay to defend it?
And on Sunday 15th May, join with others across the world to mark International Conscientious Objectors day. Here in the West Midlands this will be marked with an event at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire – all welcome.