W. Germany tries new tactic to ease process of conscientious objection

The country with what is possibly the highest percentage of conscientious objectors in the world is changing its law on conscientious objection.

The aim is to get rid of the sometimes demeaning oral cross-examination of applicants - and to require a longer term in alternative than in military service.

With the first reading of its bill in the Bundestag Nov. 26, the center-right Bonn government hopes to end years of controversy.

The right of conscientious objection was considered so crucial in post-Hitler West Germany that it was written into the Constitution. To date more than 400, 000 draft-age men have exercised this right, with roughly three-quarters of those applying being granted exemption from military duty. (Some 5,000 of those not accepted have subsequently been jailed for desertion from the armed forces.) The current backlog of C.O. applicants is at a record high of almost 100,000.

The previous practice in conscientious exemption has been attacked from both flanks.

On the one hand, civil-rights critics find oral interrogation of applicants an intrusion into an area of conscience that can never be ascertained by another. They also consider it unfair to less-educated applicants, who might not be articulate in presenting their views. And they challenge such decisions as the famous court-upheld ruling in which an applicant was denied C.O. status because he didn't renounce his driver's license even though he might kill someone while driving.

On the other hand, law-and-order critics have felt that conscientious objection rules have been all too permissive in allowing not only those with moral convictions but also just plain slackers to avoid military service. And they have felt their reservations stiffened by the concern that the 1960s drop in births will mean a shortage of recruits from 1987 on.

In trying to meet these conflicting claims - and also to rebut pre-March election suspicions that it will be negligent in civil rights - the government has decided to abolish the standard oral defense currently required of conscientious objectors. According to its bill, in a test period from 1984 through mid-1986 applicants would have to substantiate their grounds of conscience only by a written explanation, except in cases of factual doubt.

At the same time, the bill would increase the term of alternative social service in hospitals, old people's homes, or the like from the present 16 to 20 months. Specifically, it calls for a term of alternative service one-third longer than military conscription. If the draft period is extended from its present 15 to 18 months (as is widely discussed), then social service would last 24 months.

(The Constitution prohibits setting a longer term for alternative than for military service, but this has been interpreted by the constitutional court as including exercise and reserve time in addition to basic duty.)

The object would be to show greater respect for genuine conscientious objectors - while discouraging less serious applicants. Those who are primarily interested in leading an easier life would be dissuaded, it is argued, not only by the length of alternative service, but also by the increased age of obligation. With the present backlog of C.O. applications, many (some 10 percent of the current list) do not get acted on until the applicant is over the draft ceiling of 28. Under the new law, however, candidates would be eligible for social service for an additional four years, to the age of 32.

The alternative service itself varies greatly, from arduous physical and mental work (in hospitals, for example) to light jobs such as telephone receptionists or social directors for foreign students. Some new posts in environmental protection will be added to the existing 50,000 civilian-service slots.

The presumption is that the government bill will pass, given the clear majority of the coalition conservatives and Liberals. It is encountering opposition from the Social Democrats, however, and a conspicuous silence from the conservatives' own defense minister.

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