Michael Thurman, Courage to Resist. November 16, 2011

I recently had the privilege to travel to Colombia to share my experiences as a conscientious objector in the US military with youth in a country that has been struggling for the right to conscientiously object to obligatory military service for decades. It was a very moving and inspiring to see the tremendous efforts of numerous youth groups and sectors of Colombian society organizing to establish this fundamental human right.

Colombia has been engaged in over 60 years of violent internal conflict. These conflicts have been heavily influenced and backed by the United States. With seemingly no end to the fighting, many feel that military force and responses have only caused more problems. Many Colombians believe that militarism has only perpetuated the cycle of violence their country. Many people I spoke with believed that militarism not only contributes to the source of the conflict, but also perpetuates oppression that is felt throughout Colombian society.

In Colombia, military service is mandatory. Currently all men over 18 must serve unless they are determined exempt through certain criteria—or they are able to buy their way out. Without a military service card, proving that person has served, they cannot graduate from a university or get a job with any private or public company. One of the most common forms of military recruitment involves rounding-up young men at places where they gather, including schools, parks, dance and billiard halls. If they are unable to produce proof that they have served they are simply loaded into trucks and taken away to begin their service. These are the kinds of practices that over $5 billion dollars in US military aid over the last decade have paid for.

Amnesty International describes US policy in Colombia as such:

Colombia has been one of the largest recipients of US military aid for well over a decade and the largest in the western hemisphere. Since 1994, Amnesty International USA has called for a complete cut off of all US military aid until human rights conditions improve and impunity is tackled. Yet torture, massacres, “disappearances” and killings of non-combatants are widespread and collusion between the armed forces and paramilitary groups continues to this day. In 2006, US assistance to Colombia amounted to an estimated $728 million, approximately 80% of which was military and police assistance….Year after year US policy has ignored the evidence and the cries of the United Nations, Colombian and international non-governmental organizations and the people of Colombia.

It’s in this context that Colombian youth have been fighting for the right to conscientiously object since 1988. The United Nations has long recognized the right of conscientious objection to military service, “as part of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion enshrined in both the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

The Colombian constitution states, and the Colombian constitutional court has affirmed, that “no one will be obligated to act against their conscience” and that conscientious objection is a fundamental right for all citizens. Despite this, the Colombian government has yet to pass any law that allows its citizens to opt out of military service on these grounds.

I myself had the process of conscientious objection available to me when I was in the US Air Force and I applied that law to secure an honorable discharge from the military in 2008. With the help of Courage to Resist, I was able to navigate that process successfully. However, today as a counselor to US military objectors, I know that as in Colombia, the law and reality of objection often doesn’t match up. We have a lot of work to do to better support the troops who refuse to fight here in the US, in Colombia, and everywhere in the world.

This tour was organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and like minded Colombia-based organizations.

Photo: Michael Thurman addressing Occupy Oakland gathering before veterans march. 11/11/11. Photo by Jeff Paterson.