How fast can you go to the military


While many European countries - including France, Germany and Italy - have abolished compulsory military service, Switzerland is one of the few countries on the continent that has retained conscription. It has only been possible to do community service since 1996; before that, the conscientious objectors ended up in prison by the thousands.

This content was published on October 17, 2019 - 10:30 am

"Switzerland has no army, Switzerland is an army": This sentence sums up the Swiss military doctrine well during the Cold War. Military defense was an indisputable element of national identity and every man with a Swiss passport was obliged to make his contribution.

Thanks to the system of so-called repetition courses, the compulsory military serviceExterner Link for Swiss men lasted up to the age of 44. At least on paper, the Swiss Army was one of the largest in Europe with over 600,000 members.

Stigmatized conscientious objection

Against this background, the conscientious objection was perceived as a threat to the state and sanctioned with harsh prison sentences. Nonetheless, the number of denials increased significantly, especially since the late 1960s.

Between 1968 and 1996 around 12,000 men were sentenced to prison for refusing to serve in the military. The Swiss practice has been the subject of regular criticism, for example from Amnesty International. Two popular initiatives to introduce community service were rejected by the population in 1974 and 1984.

Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and after a third of the population voted for a popular initiative to abolish the ArmyExterner Link, which questioned the old model of national defense, did anything change. In 1992, Swiss voters said yes to a constitutional amendment to introduce community serviceExterner Link. The External Link Implementation Act came into force in 1996. Switzerland introduced alternative civilian service much later than most other European countries.

A popular choice

Anyone wishing to do alternative civilian service first had to explain to a commission in a personal interview to what extent a genuine conflict of conscience was holding them back from military service.

This test of conscience was abolished in 2009. Civil service takes one and a half times as long as military service; the acceptance of a longer service is considered evidence of the conflict of conscience.

However, the abolition of the examination of conscience has led to a significant increase in the number of people entering community service. While there were around 1,500 a year in the 1990s, it was around 6,720 in 2009.

More obstacles

The Federal Council (state government) intervened in 2011 to make community service less attractive and to reduce the number of applications. In October last year, he presented a new set of measures, External Link, designed to make it more difficult to switch to community service, especially for soldiers who have already performed part of their military service.

The government project was approved by the Council of States (small parliamentary chamber) in September. If the proposal is also accepted by the National Council (large parliamentary chamber), however, it is possible that the opponents will hold a referendum to prevent the proposal.

Not really a free choice

From a legal point of view, military service and alternative civilian service are not equivalent. The corresponding article of the Federal ConstitutionExterner Link obliges Swiss men to do military service and refers to the law for alternative civilian service.

Conscientious objection to military service remains punishable under the Military Penal ActExterner Link if admission to community service has been refused or the application has not been submitted on time. The same applies to refusal to do community service. However, the cases are very rare and the sanctions are usually mere fines.

No rehabilitation

In September 2018, the Geneva National Councilor of the Green Party, Lisa Mazzone, submitted a parliamentary initiativeExternal Link for the rehabilitation of conscientious objectors. In it, she calls for the annulment of criminal sentences passed between 1968 and 1996 against people who refused to serve in the military for reasons of conscience.

As evidence of the "unjust or at least questionable" character of these convictions, Mazzone cites a Council of Europe resolution of 1967 which, with reference to the European Convention on Human Rights, called on member states to grant their citizens the right to conscientious objection to military service.

In September 2019, the National Council decided not to follow the initiative.

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