The Fifth Commandment

Sep 22, 2011 | News

By John Lindsay-Poland
Thursday, September 22, 2011, 6:39pm

by María Elvira Bonilla

Although the struggle to recognize conscientious objectors and put an end to the Colombian military’s illegal recruitment practices, is gaining ground and visibility, these practices persist. El Espectador published the following commentary. Click here to read about the current case FOR is working on and how you can help.

August 29, 2011. See the original version in Spanish.

There are many who end up carrying a weapon wishing they hadn’t, acting against their convictions. This reality has allowed the conscientious objectors movement to develop, with a presence in ten regions of the country and whose voice made it last year to the Constitutional Court and this week to the House of Representatives. The court decided that a conscientious objector, through a writ of protection, can seek to protect his rights, at the same time that it ordered the Congress to legislate this personal choice. The debate has just begun.

If there were a consultation with Colombian youth or a survey, those against it would be an overwhelming majority. But no one asks them. They are simply forced to enroll through coercive methods. During recruitment times soldiers follow them around, as if hunting them, showing up at their meetings, in the parks, in line at the stadium, in the bus terminals — any corner is used to surprise young men between the ages of 18 and 28, who have not yet resolved their military service status.

Above all, those who live in rural areas and the poor in the cities, the unprotected and vulnerable, end up hopelessly on a truck which begins their sad path towards the barracks and war. Politicians and policy-makers define their future, converting their lives into cannon fodder in a conflict that is not theirs, while their dreams are eclipsed or pushed back.

It is for this reason that more and more young people, despite the risk of punishment, jail or being labeled deserters, opt for the road of conscientious objection to defend the Fifth Commandment through their own will: thou shall not kill. Protected by the Colombian Constitution’s 19th amendment, which defends the right not to act against your conscience, they have organized to not take up arms against their convictions. A right that the United Nations Human Rights Commission also recognizes, accepting conscientious objection to obligatory military service as a “legitimate way to exercise the right to free thought, conscience and religion.”

What’s needed is to substitute obligatory service with constructive alternatives, like an obligatory social service directed towards working with those most in need in the areas of health, education, environmental conservation and attention to natural and humanitarian disasters. Thousands of young people would be willing to do these activities with enthusiasm and energy, as an alternative to firing a gun.

Although their cause has been gaining ground and has found support in leaders like former president of the Constitutional Court, Magistrate Carlos Gaviria, who defended the constitutional foundations for this personal choice in the House of Representatives, the debate will not be easy in a country where the military budget has been growing exponentially for years and without an alternative to the decades of armed conflict. Sadly, this is a country where human life is not valued.