Public Comment

Conscientious Objector Day Remarks

By Bob Meola
Friday May 24, 2013 - 06:36:00 PM

Welcome to the 7th annual Berkeley CO and War Resisters’ Day. In 2007, the Mayor and the City Council proclaimed May 15th, “…as the day on which Berkeley acknowledges, honors, and celebrates conscientious objectors and war resisters, civilian and military, past, present, and future.” May 15th is also International Conscientious Objectors’ Day. The City publicly recognized “that conscientious objectors and war resisters, past and present, civilian and military, have, due to conscience and principle, often sacrificed their time and freedom in prison or in exile or underground; and…conscientious objectors and war resisters often worked to end war and have refused for moral, ethical, political or religious reasons to participate in war; and…their resistance to militarism sets a noble example and an outstanding model for our youth and our whole community; and… their strength and their courage in following their consciences is often unsung.” 

Currently, COs around the world are imprisoned, some on a repeated basis, when they are released and repeatedly refuse to participate in military service. In the United States, U.S. Army PFC. Kimberly Rivera, a pregnant mother of four, was sentenced on April 29th, during a court-martial hearing at Fort Carson, Colorado, to 14 months in military prison and a dishonorable discharge after publicly expressing her conscientious objection to the Iraq War while in Canada. Under the terms of a pre-trial agreement, she will serve 10 months of that sentence. The Army has issued the harshest sentences to COs and war resisters who have publicly expressed their feelings about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Kimberly was also not given the information she needed to file a CO application when she declared her CO beliefs to a U.S. Army chaplain. A petition for her release can be signed here: 

Kimberly’s recent words before her court martial can be read at 

This year is poignant, also, due to the long anticipated June 3rd starting date of PFC. Bradley Manning’s Court Martial trial at Fort Meade, Maryland after over three years of confinement, much of it under torturous conditions, for executing heroic acts of conscience when confronted with U.S. war crimes and the knowledge that his command was complicit with them and that only he could shed light on them. 

In recent years, there has been a need, felt globally, to have the right of selective conscientious objection recognized by nations. The U.S. wars of aggression, of the last decade, have caused many U.S. soldiers to wake to the fact that even if they would defend their country militarily, they refuse to fight what they see as illegal and immoral U.S. wars.  


The most powerful weapon we have against war is the refusal of the individual to become a soldier and the refusal of the individual soldier to fight. It is his or her ability to say “No” that could stop armies and end wars. With more soldiers willing to desert and more soldiers willing to stand in solidarity with them doing so, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not have been waged. Mass desertion by military personnel backed by solidarity strikes in the military and in civilian society could stop many illegal wars as well as spread the message that all war is a crime against humanity. 

When even drone operators resist illegitimate orders to fight illegal wars, we will end these wars. The list of U.S. and international laws violated by George Bush is long, as is the list of laws broken, so far, by Barack Obama. Much of the law is on our side. But it is misinterpreted, misused, and largely ignored. With grass roots education of soldiers, GI resistance can grow.  

More than 200 “GIs have publicly refused service and spoken out against the wars, all risking prison and some serving long sentences. An estimated 250 U.S. war resisters are currently taking refuge in Canada. Countless others leave quietly, disappearing from the ranks, unrecorded by the military.” Regardless of how which states define which terms, i.e. conscientious objection, alternative service, noncombatant service, civilian service, etc. what is needed is a worldwide grass roots movement to demand the right of the individual war resister to be respected for his/her individual definitions and limits of what their consciences will allow them to do and not do. 

Conscience is an individual’s personal moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. It was innately apparent to Bradley Manning that the murders, by his government’s military, that he witnessed on video, were wrong. It was clear to him that Iraqi’s being handed over to be tortured for having exercised their right to petition was wrong. Real existing U.S. law and international law was on his side. But it has not backed up his actions.  

Soldiers like Ethan McCord and Josh Stieber have testified that the murders revealed by Bradley Manning with the leak of the Collateral Murder video, and the Iraq War Logs, and the Afghan War Diaries were not aberrations or isolated incidents. Rather they were routine, everyday occurrences. 

In the international legal framework, “Conscientious Objection to military service is based on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” [from Conscientious Objection to Military Service, page 7] From that is derived the concept of conscientious objection being based on religion or belief. We must no longer let any state decide what “belief” is acceptable for an individual or a soldier to hold before they are exempt from soldiering or further soldiering. Presently, a distinction is made between a pacifist and a conscientious objector. A CO may be opposed to all war and still believe in the use of personal, physical violence in response to a physical attack on one’s person or family. It follows that we must now demand that individuals need the freedom to decide for themselves that even if they would defend their nation’s shores from attack in a military capacity, that they still have the right, in every nation, to decide for themselves, to refuse to participate in, or be complicit in any way with, illegal wars of aggression like the imperialist wars waged by the United States in Iraq and in Afghanistan and so many other countries. We must demand the right of Selective Conscientious Objection and support those struggling for that right. 

No government ought to be able to discriminate against any conscientious objector to military service based on the nature of that CO’s beliefs. Selective conscientious objection, allowing an individual to accept the legitimacy of some military action and still refuse to fight in what his/her own conscience tells him/her is an illegal and immoral war, must be respected and legitimized by all states. Opposition to Apartheid in South Africa was recognized as a legitimate reason to be granted CO status and exemption from military service in South Africa. Political opposition to wars of aggression must also be accepted reasons to grant individuals CO status.  

There needs to be CO curriculum taught in high schools, if not also from kindergarten up. There is a need to have the definition of a conscientious objector communicated clearly to soldiers upon their enlistment. And there needs to be an ongoing educational campaign directed toward military officers that it is normal for individuals to evolve and develop and change their beliefs and that they have the right to change their beliefs without fear of penalty, retribution, or retaliation for doing so. 

U.S. Iraq war resister Andre shepherd is still in Germany appealing the denial of his asylum application by the German Federal Office. Andre has been very vocal with his opposition to the illegal war policies of the United States.  

Attorney James Branum, who has represented many, many conscientious objectors and war resisters has pointed out the fact that resisters, including deserters, who have spoken publicly of their opposition to the illegal U.S. wars of aggression have received longer prison sentences than those who have been silent, many of whom have been discharged without prison time. Many U.S. COs and War Resisters are still in Canada and facing the fear of being deported if they are not granted political asylum by the Canadian government.  

There must be nondiscrimination between those who have performed military service and conscientious objectors. Benefits granted by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, such as healthcare for veterans, housing and education loans, etc., should be granted to conscientious objectors whether or not they have served in the military or performed noncombat service or alternative civilian service if a military draft should return. 

Today, there are C0s in hiding, in open sanctuary, and in prison. Tomorrow COs must be honored and celebrated. In Berkeley, we have passed resolutions extending our sanctuary city status for COs to draft registration resisters, draft resisters, if a military draft should be reinstituted, and to military resisters who might be classified as AWOL or as deserters, even if they are not traditional COs, but are only opposed to the illegal and immoral Bush/Cheney/Obama wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. In 2010, the city council passed a resolution entitled, “Universal and Unconditional Amnesty for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan War Military Resisters and Veterans Who Acted in Opposition to the War for Matters of Conscience.” These are the possibilities for more of tomorrow’s conscientious objectors and war resisters.