By Armen Zakarian
The Armenian parliament opened on Wednesday debates on a bill offering male citizens an alternative to compulsory military service which is demanded by the Council of Europe.
The main author of the bill, vice-speaker Vahan Hovannisian, acknowledged that it is markedly different from relevant legislation existing in most other European states where conscientious objectors perform purely civilian duties. “We are not introducing a classical European alternative service, we are introducing an alternative military service without weapons,” Hovannisian told fellow lawmakers.
Under the draft law, those young Armenian men who refuse to serve in the armed forces on religious grounds can avoid carrying weapons, but must spend at least three years inside military units to carry out non-combat tasks. They would also be banned from working for law-enforcement agencies and the judiciary for the rest of their life.
The duration of a regular army duty is only two years. Hovannisian and other Armenian officials argue that unlike combat servicemen, conscientious objectors would not put their life at risk and would have a lighter workload.
These provisions may put Armenia at odds with the Council of Europe. Some officials at the Strasbourg-based organization have previously made it clear that the alternative service, introduction of which is among Armenia’s membership obligations, must have a distinctly civilian character.
Yerevan has for years faced international criticism for prosecuting and jailing members of non-traditional religious groups, notably Jehovah’s Witnesses, that refuse military service. Jehovah’s Witnesses is still denied official registration with the Justice Ministry, a fact denounced by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly in September 2002. As of late 2002, 23 Armenian members of the global sect were serving prison sentences for draft evasion.
Hovannisian’s draft has already been approved by the Armenian government and the Defense Ministry in particular. It is therefore likely to be passed by the National Assembly without major changes.