Landmark decision by the Grand Chamber of the European Court protects rights of conscientious objectors
STRASBOURG, France—On July 7, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) concluded by an overwhelming majority of sixteen votes to one that Armenia violated the right of freedom of conscience of Mr. Vahan Bayatyan, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Armenia convicted and imprisoned for his conscientious objection to military service. The ruling marks a defining point in the protection of the rights of conscientious objectors since it reverses the 44-year case law on this issue.
In 2002, Mr. Bayatyan was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment by the Armenian authorities for his refusal to bear arms, a personal decision motivated by his Bible-trained conscience. Armenia’s punitive actions toward Mr. Bayatyan took place despite its previous commitment to the Council of Europe on its accession in January 2001 to institute a genuine civilian alternative service for conscientious objectors and, in the meantime, to pardon all those who had been convicted. Mr. Bayatyan appealed his case to the ECHR, stating that his conviction violated his rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“the Convention”). Although a chamber of the Court ruled against Mr. Bayatyan in 2009, the Grand Chamber reversed this decision by holding that “. . .the applicant’s conviction constituted an interference which was not necessary in a democratic society within the meaning of Article 9 of the Convention. Accordingly, there has been a violation of that provision.” The Grand Chamber explained that Article 9 protects “a religious group whose beliefs include the conviction that service, even unarmed, within the military is to be opposed.”
This is the first time in the history of the ECHR that the right to conscientious objection to military service is recognized as being fully protected under Article 9 of the Convention and that, as a result, the imprisonment of a conscientious objector is viewed as a violation of fundamental rights in a democratic society.
This milestone decision now places an obligation on three member states of the Council of Europe—Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey—to stop prosecuting and imprisoning individuals whose deeply held religious convictions do not allow them to engage in military service. The 69 Jehovah’s Witnesses who are now imprisoned as conscientious objectors in Armenia await their immediate release from prison. Witnesses view this landmark judgment as a major step forward in the protection of human rights, hoping that countries like South Korea, where there are currently over 800 conscientious objectors in prison, will release imprisoned conscientious objectors in accord with the current international standard upheld by the European Court.
Armenia: Tigran Harutyunyan, tel. +374 93 900 482
Belgium: European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses, tel. +32 2 782 0015
Britain: European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses, tel. +44 7775 833880
United States: David Semonian, Office of Public Information, tel. +1 718 560 5600
Legal Contact: Office of General Counsel, tel. +1 845 306 0711