The term ‘conscientious objector’, or ‘CO’ for short, was first used during the First World War to describe those who refused to fight in the armed forces on moral grounds.
In 1916, conscription was introduced, meaning that all young men were forced to fight. However, 16,000 men claimed exemption from military service. Some felt that fighting went against their religion, others simply held all life sacred or saw the war as purely an upper class quarrel.
Those applying for CO status had to undergo a court trial. Very few COs were granted full exemption by the tribunals judging their cases. Many were willing to join the war effort in non-combatant roles such as ambulance work, however, about 6,000 were imprisoned for refusing to help in any way. The majority of these were employed by the government to grow food, but 1,500 refused even to compromise that much and remained in prison. 24 men died due to the treatment which they received. The remaining COs were not released until 1919 and were not allowed to vote until 1929.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights did not recognise the right to conscientious objection until 1987. There are still many places where it is not acknowledged today.
To find out more about conscientious objection and COs visit the Peace Pledge Union’s CO Project at: http://www.coproject.org.uk/
To find out about issues facing COs today visit War Resisters’ International at: http://wri-irg.org
Conscientious Objector – Ron Mallone
Ron Mallone (1916-2009) decided to become a pacifist, or someone who is against war and the use of violence, at the age of 15 after reading the Sermon on the Mount in the Bible, which he said changed the rest of his life.
Ron worked as a schoolteacher and also found a way to combine his interest in politics and his pacifist beliefs by getting involved with anti-war groups. During the 1930s he joined a number of anti-war organisations, including the League of Nations Union (a forerunner of the United Nations Association), the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship and the movement to demand a peace ballot.
Ron was an ‘absolute pacifist’. An absolute pacifist believes that it is never right to kill a person, take part in war, or use violence even if defending oneself or someone else from attack. As an absolute pacifist Ron opposed even the building of air raid shelters because he felt that they contributed towards the support of war in some way.
When war came in 1939, Ron registered as a conscientious objector (CO). In 1940 he had to appear in front of a Conscientious Objection Tribunal which decided whether he would have to do alternative war service or whether he would be exempted from having to do so. Ron’s Tribunal members included a military man, a local MP and a trade unionist. Ron asked to present his own case instead of having someone speak for him. Ron must have presented his case well because he became the first absolute pacifist to gain unconditional exemption from war service in his district!
You can hear Ron speak about his experience at his Tribunal at: http://www.peacemuseum.org.uk/2009/10/24/ron-mallone-conscientious-objector-tribunal/