Zurich — Switzerland will continue to jail its conscientious objectors. On Sunday, a nationwide referendum overwhelmingly rejected a people's initiative in favor of allowing young men who refuse to do military service to compensate with work in hospitals, old people's and invalid homes, or mountain farms. Some 64 percent of the voters rejected the proposal.
At present even those who can prove without doubt that their position is based on religion or conscience are imprisoned for up to six months. If the judge is not convinced that conscience plays a role, a youth can be jailed for up to three years.
No other Western democracy treats its conscientious objectors as harshly as Switzerland.
The number of youths sentenced has grown rapidly through the last decade, from 175 in 1970 to 745 last year.
How is it that a country such as Switzerland, which has built its envied stability on understanding for minorities, takes such a hard line on conscientious objectors? Two factors stand out: fear and the military's role as educator.
The fear is illustrated through the following court exchange with a 21 -year-old technical draftsman sentenced this month to one year in jail.
Judge: ''The Nazis would have marched into Switzerland like they did into Austria if we had not had an army.''
Accused: ''I will not use violence to prevent violence.''
Judge: ''The Army is there to stop violence. That is the reason we are not attacked.''
Switzerland's neutrality is ''armed neutrality.'' Every able-bodied male up to age 50 serves in the 650,000-strong army. He begins with four months of basic training at age 20, then serves periodically over the next 30 years for a total of 364 days.
A small country, strategically vulnerable through centuries of European conflict, Switzerland fears any weakening of its military forces.
Based on a belief that ''conscience'' is impossible to judge, the rejected people's initiative would virtually have given young men a free choice between military or civilian service. Motives would have remained unexamined. Moral conviction was to be tested through the young men's willingness to serve one and a half times longer than the country's soldiers do.
Given such a possibility, would the army be weakened by an unacceptable drop in the number of recruits? The Swiss people decided not to take the risk.
Swiss Justice Minister Kurt Furgler expressed what was uppermost in many minds when he called on television for the people to vote against the initiative: ''Unfortunately, the world is a long way from peace.''
Commonly referred to as the ''school of the nation,'' the army is still thought by many to be the place where sons become men. In the bargain, it plays a role somewhat like the English public school. Success there often means success in civilian life.
Isn't the military where sons learn to lead, plan strategy, and make those useful contacts? What would happen to Switzerland's famous efficiency without military discipline?
There is also a strong feeling that working in hospitals cannot be as hard as serving in the military. In this view, conscientious objectors would not only avoiding their national duty, but also getting off lighter.
This is the second time in six years that the Swiss have rejected more lenient treatment of their conscientious objectors. Meanwhile, a growing number carry the burden of a criminal record.