As the proud owner of a brand new office in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), Dr. Andrew Bennett has a hefty job to do.
Appointed in February as Canada’s very first Ambassador of Religious Freedom, he now has the rather sizeable (and, might I say, unenviable?) task of operationalizing the Conservative government’s 2011 election promise.
With a modest annual budget of $5 million and a mandate to respond to issues of religious discrimination and persecution around the world, Ambassador Bennett is now coordinating the work of the recently-opened Office of Religious Freedom (ORF).
Perhaps it’s the Mennonite roots talking, but I hope that when he is prioritizing his lengthy to-do list—protecting religious minorities under threat, opposing religious hatred and intolerance, and promoting pluralism abroad—conscientious objection doesn’t get stuck at the bottom. It is, after all, one of the internationally-recognized elements of freedom of religion or belief.
My hope for such a focus comes not only from the fact that conscientious objection has been a significant chapter in Mennonite history, but that struggling for these rights is a current reality for some of MCC’s global partners.
Mandatory military service in Colombia
For two weeks in March, I had the opportunity to travel to Colombia along with seven Mennonite Brethren (MB) church leaders from across Canada. As part of Menno Colombia 2013—a learning tour jointly organized by MCC’s teams in Colombia and Ottawa—we had the privilege of meeting with local Colombian MB leaders, learning about the work of MCC partners Mencoldes and Justapaz, and experiencing the warmth of Colombian hospitality.
Our journey took us through the geographical diversity of Bogotá and Chocó, and along the winding streets of Colombia’s complex socio-economic, political, and religious realities.
In a country scarred by a nearly 50-year long civil war—a context still rife with tensions between multiple insurgent groups (some with socialist-orientations and others defending large economic interests), paramilitaries, and government forces—military service is not voluntary, but obligatory.
From the age of 18, all Colombian males are required to serve in the national army. While there are, technically-speaking, exemptions for indigenous peoples (very narrowly defined), victims of displacement, young men with dependents, and those with severe physical disabilities, such exemptions are, in practice, routinely ignored.
In fact, as our delegation heard first-hand from MCC’s partner Justapaz—the justice and peace organization of the Mennonite church in Colombia—not only do Colombian youth face recruitment by the country’s various armed groups, but they are victimized by the illegal and irregular enlistment practices of the Colombian military.
Justapaz works tirelessly to tackle such problems. With a focus on transformative advocacy, staff not only diligently document individual stories of Colombians victimized by violence and human rights abuses, and fight for land illegally seized by armed groups, but they help conscientious objectors navigate their obligatory military service requirements.
Given the widespread and serious human rights violations that have resulted from forcible military recruitment, this advocacy work is critical.
Justapaz staff told us mind-boggling stories of what have become all-too-familiar scenes: young males rounded up by the military at bus stations or on public streets. In these moments, those who cannot show proper “military service” cards are hauled away on trucks, taken to an army base, and put in uniform.
It all happens so quickly. Most don’t even have the chance to tell their families where they’ve gone.
Some brave individuals might choose to protest, risking fines or even jail time. Others, attempting to avoid this scenario altogether, might purchase forged military service documents (a tactic available only to those who can afford them). Understandably, this seems less risky than standing up to authorities during these illegal street round ups (or “batidas”), and certainly easier than doing time.
Conscientious objectors are also “sentenced” in other ways, saddled with layers of legal discrimination. According to Colombian law, those who cannot prove they have fulfilled their obligatory military service cannot be formally employed, graduate from university, or assume any public office.
While a 2009 Constitutional Court ruling recognized conscientious objection to military service as a fundamental right (according to Article 18 of the Colombian Constitution), this has not been codified into law. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be much political appetite for making this happen.
As such, conscientious objectors remain unprotected—unrecognized by military and civilian authorities—and the risk of forcible recruitment or arrest continues on as a dark cloud looming overhead.
In the face of these gritty realities, Justapaz staff are pushing Congress to legislate the right to resist mandatory military service while also providing Colombian churches and communities with the tools to help them exercise their rights against illegal recruitment practices.
This, of course, is neither safe nor simple work. Break-ins at the Justapaz office and theft of computers containing sensitive documentation on human rights abuses have been a reality. Even when we were visiting last month, staff suspected their offices were being monitored because of this highly-charged work.
Over to you, Ambassador Bennett
Surely, there are many challenges (and potential minefields) Ambassador Bennett will face as the work of Canada’s ORF takes shape. Many in the ecumenical community—and well beyond!—have already cautioned that for this work to be done effectively, it will require intensive diplomacy (actions beyond merely naming and shaming the violators of religious freedom), solid engagement with international civil society actors, even-handedness, and sensitivity in dealing with the complex intersection between religious freedom and other human rights.
But this office may also offer significant opportunities for our partners in Colombia, and, indeed, in other parts of the world, who must navigate their deepest moral, political, or religious convictions in the face of such issues as obligatory military service.
Here’s to hoping…
By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst