Conscience and conscripts

What is - and what should be - the price of refusing to put on the military uniform of one's country? In Turkey it now can be a death sentence. In Czechoslovakia 10 years in jail. In the United States five years and a $10,000 fine (for violating the present law requiring simply draft registration). The United Nations is studying such disparities as it inches toward developing an international code on conscientious objectors.

A new UN report on the subject comes in the context of such figures as 54,000 West Germans applying for exemption from military service (1980 statistics); 3, 000 South Africans not reporting for duty (1978); and some 674,000 young Americans currently failing to register, about 8 percent of those supposed to do so.

The first man convicted for violating the US registration law received not the maximum sentence but three years on probation and 250 hours of community work. The judge warned that continued failure to register could bring harsher punishment. But the violator, Enten Eller, said that to register now would make a farce out of his earlier stand, which he based on his religious convictions.

Here is the kind of case that ought to figure in the UN's deliberations. The world body is seeking to reach eventual agreement on how to identify and defend authentic conscientious objectors. The new study notes a trend toward tighter international law restrictions on the use of armed force. It is now prohibited for aggression, expansion, and gross violations of human rights. Such developments cannot help influencing the conscience of the individual, says the document.

Yet only some 25 countries officially permit exemption from combat service on the basis of moral, political, or religious scruples. Going back to Nazi times, world opinion has judged that there is some point at which individuals must place conscience above orders that they believe to violate it. The question is how to draw the lines and define the point for purposes of administering justice. Should the price of resisting military service on the basis of conscience be the same as for escaping it for selfish reasons?

The age has advanced since America's first national conscription laws, during the Civil War, when a draftee could pay to send a substitute. There was nothing so obvious during the Vietnam war, though in effect young men who could not afford college and deferred status, for example, were substitutes for those who could. Any new draft law would have to be demonstrably fairer than in the past.

Now it is argued that registrants are simply providing information in the event of a draft - and they would have the right to claim conscientious objector status at that time. For Mr. Eller, a member of a pacifist church, that is not good enough. Conscience does not permit cooperating with what it regards as wrong right now. He is paying the price.

Whatever one thinks of the need for or effectiveness of registration in the absence of a draft, it is a law judged to be constitutional, and it should be obeyed. But will the United States convey an image of justice as it singles out a handful of violators to prosecute? Will it manifest a fairness providing a credible example for any draft law to come?

The answers to such questions depend on the most thoughtful handling by the authorities. They would in any country. The challenge could be eased by some agreement in the international community on where the answers lie. Though the effort toward a conscientious objection code in the United Nations may have to go slowly, it should not be allowed to go awry.

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