Over 50 conscientious objectors are sentenced to long (often 197 days) unconditional prison sentences in Finland every year. Their "crime" is that they have refused to serve in the military or in punitive non-military service. At the moment civilian service lasts 395 days, whereas the basic length of military service is only 180 days. In addition conscientious objectors are exempted from military service only in peacetime. Many international human rights bodies have recently taken notice of the fact that Finland discriminates conscientious objectors in its legislation.
The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations gave its concluding observations on civil and political rights in Finland on 4th of November 2004. The Committees function is to supervise the signatory state´s compliance with the UN´s treaty on civil and political rights. The treaty obliges Finland. The Committee stated that Finland should guarantee the right to conscientious objection also in wartime, reduce the duration of alternative civilian service and extend the preferential treatment accorded to Jehovah's Witnesses to other groups of conscientious objectors.
The European Committee of Social Rights stated in its conclusions on Finland on 2004 that the civilian service period which is more than twice the length of the compulsory military service performed by the majority of conscripts violates the Article 1§2 of the European Social Charter. According to the committee the long duration of civilian service "constitutes a disproportionate restriction of workers right to earn their living in an occupation freely entered upon".
The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, mr. Alvaro Gil-Robles, stated on his report on Finland in September 2001, that the duration of civilian service should not be punitive by comparison with the duration of military service. In addition he considered it important to seek other methods than the formalistically determined prison sentence to total objectors. In his follow up report published on 29th of March 2006 he regretted the lack of progress made in resolving the long-standing problems faced by conscientious objectors and therefore reiterated his recommendations made in the 2001.
The International Human Rights Organisation Amnesty International has acknowledged 61 Finnish total objectors as prisoners of conscience since November 1999, because it considers the length of civilian service as punitive.
How this recurrent critic has affected the Finnish legislation? So far not at all. The cabinet led by Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen decided on June 2005 that it won´t present a Government bill including a shortening of civilian service period to the Parliament of that time. It is not included in a civilian service law proposal currently discussed in Ministry of Labour, either. However, the human rights oblige also Finland. The Union of Conscientious Objectors expects that the state of Finland at long last takes notice of this recurrent criticism and reforms its legislation on conscientious objection in accordance of its international engagements. AKL's opinion (pdf) about the law proposal.