By: Ellen Teague
More than 100 people attended the London commemoration of International Conscientious Objectors Day on Sunday 15 May. Among them were members of Pax Christi, Columban JPIC, Westminster Justice and Peace, Movement for the Abolition of War and Quaker Peace and Social Witness.
The lives of specific conscientious objectors during WW1 were highlighted by their relatives. Particularly poignant was Siw Wood's story about her uncle Walter Roberts from Stockport, who died from pneumonia in 1916, at the age of 20, after languishing in appalling and damp conditions at Dyce labour camp in Scotland. He had refused military service saying, "I have been taught from my mother's knee that to hate and to kill is contrary to the teaching of Christ".
Then, in the sunshine, white carnations were laid on the Conscientious Objectors Memorial in Tavistock Square. It was unveiled on 15 May 1994 by Sir Michael Tippett, Peace Pledge Union President and a one time conscientious objector and it reads: 'To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill'. Names of conscientious objectors internationally were read out and Hannah Brock from War Resisters' International gave an overview of the situation today. She reported, for example, that over 700 conscientious objectors are imprisoned in South Korea. The right to refuse to kill is recognised as part of the right to thought, conscience and religion, but many states ignore this.
Holly Wallis from the organisation Conscience talked about the Taxes For Peace Bill being presented in Parliament to allow conscientious objection to military taxes. She described campaigning for a progressive increase in the amount of UK tax spent on peacebuilding, and a corresponding decrease in the amount spent on war and preparation for war.
An organiser of the commemoration, Valerie Flessati, said: "Today's ceremony was moving and sobering. It was inspiring to hear about the courageous spirit of men who were ready to die for their beliefs in 1916. Yet one hundred years later people are still punished and imprisoned in many countries where the right to refuse military service is not recognised. Even now conscientious objection remains an urgent and live issue."
This year marks the centenary of the Military Service Act of 2016 which made unmarried British men between the ages of 18 and 41 liable to conscription. The Bill also recognised the right to conscientious objection for the first time. Other events at the weekend took place around the country, with commemorations in Sheffield, Edinburgh, Manchester, Penzance, Rochdale, Milton Keynes and Cambridge.