In a 9-4 historic ruling by South Korea's apex court on Thursday (1 Nov), South Korea has declared that conscientious objection against military conscription based on religious grounds is now considered "justifiable grounds," and has subsequently removed its status as a crime in the eyes of the law.
The landmark decision will result in the acquittal of more than 900 Jehovah's Witnesses, known for their stance as conscientious objectors against military conscription, who have "cases pending in all levels of [South] Korea's court system."
The Supreme Court, in its judgement, provided the following reasoning for the ruling:
Liberal democracy operates in accordance with the principle of majority rule, but it can only be legitimate if it is based on tolerance and inclusion of minorities.
The state cannot always ignore the existence of conscientious objectors who inevitably refuse military service in order to protect their personal values [...]
It has been confirmed for many years that one-sided criminal punishment alone can not solve the problem of conflict of norms. Even if you do not agree with that belief, you should be tolerant and inclusive [...]
Sanctions such as criminal punishment should not be applied to those who do not fulfill military service obligations accompanied by military service and military training on the basis of their conscience ... Therefore, if it is conscientious objection, it corresponds to "just cause" of Article 88 (1) of the Military Service Act.
International spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses' global headquarters in New York Paul Gillies said in response to the landmark ruling: “We are happy to hear that the Supreme Court of South Korea has made a historic decision to recognize the rights of conscientious objectors.
"For the last 65 years, over 19,300 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been imprisoned for standing firm for their Christian beliefs. This ruling is a huge step forward in ending this policy of imprisoning our fellow believers for conscientious objection.
"Today the Supreme Court has brought South Korea more in line with international norms," said Mr Gillies.
Authorities ordered to provide conscientious objectors with alternatives to military conscription by Constitutional Court earlier this year
On 28 June this year, the Constitutional Court of South Korea came out with a ruling ordering authorities to authorities were ordered to impose substitutes to military conscription against conscientious objectors in the Republic's national service, nearly 65 years post-Korean War.
However, the court remained steadfast in its decision to uphold the imprisonment of able-bodied South Korean men between the age of 18 to 35 who have made clear attempts to evade their national service obligations under other circumstances.
The court ruled that while "it is legitimate to enforce military duty through criminal punishment", the absence of an alternative to military conscription violates the Constitution of the Republic of Korea.
Under South Korean law previously, those meeting the criteria for national service but refuse to be conscripted will face up to 18 months' imprisonment.
Jehovah's Witnesses' conscientious objection rooted in politically-neutral stance modelled on "Jesus' example"
In the official Jehovah's Witnesses information booklet titled "Conscientious Objection to Military Service," it is stated that while "Jehovah’s Witnesses respect the authority of the governments under which they live" in line with "Scriptural injunction" by "paying their taxes and cooperating with governmental efforts to provide for the public welfare," they are to remain "strictly neutral" in terms of politics, "following Jesus’ example of being no part of governmental affairs."
The booklet added:
Regarding the early Christians and military service, theologian Peter Meinhold said: “Being a Christian and a soldier was considered irreconcilable.” (Matthew 22:36-39; 26:52)
In his book An Inquiry Into the Accordancy of War With the Principles of Christianity, Jonathan Dymond explained that for some time after the death of Jesus, his followers “refused to engage in [war]; whatever were the consequences, whether reproach, or imprisonment, or death.” Dymond added: “These facts are indisputable.”
Like first-century Christians, the Witnesses today “beat their swords into plowshares” and do not “learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:2-4)
Thus, during the second world war, the Witnesses in all nations remained neutral, and for this many paid a high price.
As several historians have documented at length, Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organization were made the object of an extermination order by the Nazi regime, in part because of their peaceful refusal to support Hitler’s war effort.
Singapore continues to criminalise conscientious objection; Jehovah's Witnesses remain "imprisoned for their faith"
Currently in Singapore, citizens who are Jehovah's Witnesses are imprisoned for refusing to take up military conscription, as conscientious objection remains an invalid ground upon which they could not – or would not – carry out their National Service obligations.
As of August this year, according to JW.org, 10 conscientious objectors are currently "imprisoned for their faith" as Jehovah's Witnesses in Singapore. All of them are youths who have refused to be conscripted for military duty in National Service.
The Singapore government does not provide legal recognition of Jehovah's Witnesses through its deregistration of the faith organisation and imposition of a ban on Jehovah's Witnesses' publications in 1972, citing that the church was a threat to "public harmony".
Under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, conscientious objectors, with the addition of general comment No. 22 (1993), have a right to be exempted from military conscription "inasmuch as the obligation to use lethal force might seriously conflict with the freedom of conscience and the right to manifest one’s religion or belief", according to the United Nations' Human Rights Committee.
However, in a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last year, Singapore cited Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognises that the exercise of the rights and freedoms of an individual, and went on to emphasise that these rights and freedoms are "subject to limitations to meet the requirements of public order and the general welfare of the society".
To further justify the case for not offering alternatives to military conscription for conscientious objectors, Singapore stated in its contributions that "national defence was a fundamental sovereign right under international law", and that "where individual beliefs or actions ran counter to such a right, the right of a State to preserve and maintain national security must prevail".
According to Section 33 of the Enlistment Act of Singapore, which was passed in 1970:
any person within or outside Singapore who –
(a) fails to comply with any order or notice issued under this Act;
(b) fails to fulfil any liability imposed on him under this Act;
(c) fraudulently obtains or attempts to obtain postponement, release, discharge or exemption from any duty under this Act;
(d) does any act with the intention of unlawfully evading service;
(e) gives the proper authority or any person acting on his behalf false or misleading information; or
(f) aids, abets or counsels any other person to act in the manner laid down in paragraph (a), (b), (c), (d) or (e),
shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $5,000, or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years, or to both.