Non-military Service

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Finland has conscription for all males between 18 to 60 years of age. Men will be called up in the year they turn 18. The duration of active military service is 6, 9 or 12 months. Non-military service (aka alternative service, civilian service or substitute service) has been a legal option to military service since 1931. In recent years ca. 2,500 young conscripts have chosen to take this alternative.

One can apply for non-military service (NMS) in the call-up or any time after it, also during military service. A special application form must be filled and delivered to the call-up board during the call-up, to the unit commander during military service, or at any other time either to the staff of the military district in whose area one lives or to the non-military service training centre in Lapinjärvi (Siviilipalveluskeskus). The application form is available in all aforementioned places and in the Union of Conscientious Objectors. All applications are approved automatically.

The duration of NMS is 395 days. Any military service carried out before the beginning will be subtracted from the total using certain coefficients. In the beginning of the service there is a four week training period, which will be taken in the training centre in Lapinjärvi.

A NMS applicant must be assigned to begin service during the year the application was approved or the following two calendar years, if he is not relieved or does not apply for postponement. When assigning the beginning date of service, the officials try to comply with the wish the applicant has expressed in the application. The starting date of the training at the centre in Lapinjärvi is determined several months before hand, but due to cancellations it is possible to get to training at a shorter notice.

In principle it is the duty of the public authorities to assign a place of service but in practice almost all alternative servicemen arrange their own place. Finding a service place resembles applying for a job and if one succeeds in finding a working place which qualifies for an alternative service place, one is quite likely to get the post. Any public party such as the state, a state owned business, a public association, a municipality, a joint committee, and a Lutheran or a Greek catholic church can take non-military servicemen. Private non-profit associations can also be accepted, private businesses can not. The most common places of service are institutions in social and health care, as well as public offices, schools, universities, libraries and cultural institutions.

If the CO hasn't found a place of service when he finishes the training period in the beginning of service, he must join the "Legion" in the Lapinjärvi training centre and live and work there while waiting a place to be found. This, however, does not mean that not having a place to do ones service is any hindrance to starting the service, since the time done in the Legion is also counted as active service.

The service place in according to law obliged to provide the CO with accommodation, food, health care, daily allowance and way to get to work (such as a bus ticket). The weekly total time of service may not exceed 40 hours.

Many place of service try to neglect their duties, especially providing accommodation. Nowadays most of them stipulate that the serviceman must not cause any rooming expenses. They may demand the CO to sign an unlawful agreement in which he gives up his right to accommodation paid by the employer, or nominally point him to some kind of housing but wish him to decline from it. Declining will, however, diminish the COs possibilities to get social benefits to cover his rent etc. It is mandatory to stay in the provided accommodation only when it has a material importance in carrying out ones duties as a serviceman.

In recent years several international bodies (for example UN's Human Rights Committee), who are overseeing the implementation of human rights agreements have demanded Finland to take measures to improve its legislation concerning COs , since it has been found out to be discriminatory. Sources of criticism have among other things been the punitive length of the service, the release of conscientious objectors from military duty only during peace time and the negligence in arranging accommodation for the servicemen. Since 1999, Amnesty International has considered Finnish TOs, who have refused to carry out non-military service, as prisoners of conscience, because of the punitive length of NMS.

For more information on non-military service contact the Union of Conscientious Objectors, or the training centre in Lapinjärvi – take a look also at Guide for the Sivari.

The Demands of the Union of COs for Reforming the System of Non-military Service

The Duration of the Service Must Be the Same as the Most Common Length of Military Service – 6 Months (180 Days)

The duration of COs' service (395 days) has not been touched after the new lengths of military service came into force in 1998. Therefore CO's serve over twice as long as most soldiers and over one and a half times longer than conscripts on the average. Such a difference have been considered discrimination, prohibited in human rights conventions which bind Finland. In recent years several international bodies (for example UN's Human Rights Committee), who are overseeing the implementation of human rights agreements binding Finland, have demanded Finland to take measures to improve its legislation concerning COs, since it has been found out to be discriminatory. Since 1999, Amnesty International has considered Finnish TOs, who have refused to carry out non-military service, as prisoners of conscience, because of the punitive length of NMS.

The total duration of service defines the time that a serviceman is outside of his normal life and is therefore the only objective indicator of the difference of total burden between military and non-military service.

COs Must Be Relieved of Military Duty Also Outside of Peace Time

The standing of COs in a time of crisis has not been defined in the law in any way and their treatment during a possible war is entirely in the hands of the general staff. It may be entirely possible that people without any military training will be commanded into arms. Release from military duty in war time would not mean that COs be relieved of all duties should a crisis occur; instead their duties would be determined through defensive preparedness, civil defence and defence condition laws.

The Violations of Alternative Service-men's Legal Rights Must Be Prevented and the Service Place Situation Has to Be Improved

The law on alternative service states that COs have, during their service, the right to costs free accommodation, eating, and health care. The organizing of and paying for these belongs to the service place. Many of them try to neglect this duty, especially when it comes to accommodation. These violations must be stopped by increasing the level of control and transferring the cost of COs' upkeep either fully or partially to be paid by the state.

Because non-military service-men perform a duty dictated by the state as a part of the system of conscription, the state should take responsibility for their upkeep during service. This change in the current practice would not only realize equality between COs and soldiers and lessen the violations of COs' rights but it would most likely increase the number of service places.

The System of Discipline and Punishment Must Be Reformed

The Discipline System for COs is without reasonable steps: After disciplinary punishments, such as being deprived of a days allowance or having to work overtime, the next step is a long, unconditional prison sentence, intended essentially to punish total objectors. At worst this has lead to people who have neglected their duty because of personal problems, e.g. drinking or drug habits or inability to get along in the service place, to be sentenced to several months of imprisonment. The disciplinary system needs to be reformed so that the unconditional prison sentence is not applied in these situations.

A Possibility to Carry out Non-military Service Abroad, for Example in Development Co-operation Tasks, or to Compensate NMS with a Corresponding Service Abroad Needs to Be Implemented

In the explanation of the present NMS law it is stated that the objective of non-military service is, among other things, education of citizens in issues of internationality, peace, and the environment. This considered it would be only natural if the service could be carried out also abroad either in foreign countries' public services or non-governmental organizations. The equivalent is possible in several European countries. It would also be compatible with the idea of an "European non-military service" and the plans of European civilian service troops that have been discussed in the European Parliament.

The Duty of Military Authorities to Inform Conscripts of the Possibility to Apply for Non-military Service Before Any Service Is Carried out, During Military Service and After It Must Be Adjusted

The statute on NMS obliges the staffs of military districts to to give each and every conscript the necessary information about the possibility to apply for non-military service and of the contents of NMS. In practice this does not come true. In call-ups NMS is often only mentioned briefly, sometimes not at all. The information given to conscripts before call-up covers little of NMS.