After 25 years, tide begins to turn for conscientious objectors in Colombia

Bogotá, Colombia - “Pray, pray fervently that God will bring his favour, and that my case will become a door that many young people can walk through as well,” Colombian Reinaldo Aguirre pleaded to the church throughout his three years of administrative limbo.  A conscientious objector to Colombia’s obligatory military service, the young man from the outskirts of Bogota had decided that as a Christian he could not kill.

Reinaldo declared himself as an objector at his local military base, where he was told that the base was not equipped to deal with his claim. Without his military passbook, which serves as proof of service or exemption, it was impossible for Reinaldo to get a job or to graduate from university. Everyday, he faced the risk of being arbitrarily detained by the Colombia Army. After Reinaldo had made over seven requests for CO status, without response over a period of three years, he decided to take his case to the Court.

The 20 year old, who attends a Pentecostal church, learnt about conscientious objection through a series workshops with the Mennonite Church. Reinaldo maintains that “from the Christian tradition, we oppose military or armed service because it is incompatible with the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ. Those of us who have accepted the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives owe him absolute loyalty, not to a nation, nor a state, nor government, but to the Son of God who teaches us to love our enemies, to do good to those who mistreat us, and to pray for those who wish to do us harm.”

At the end of January 2015, the door opened for Reinaldo. In an historical ruling, the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered the military to issue Reinaldo’s passbook within 48 hours, arguing that his rights to work, education and worship were violated by the lack of response to application for CO status.

“This court ruling also contains new and important elements for conscientious objectors,” reflects Jenny Neme, director of Justapaz, on the historical decision. “The Court orders the army to direct those in charge of recruitment to process requests for conscientious objection and to not deny exemption requests. It also establishes a strict timeline for the army to resolve said applications. “

Throughout every step of Reinaldo’s journey, Justapaz was there, providing legal advice and letting the young man know that he was not alone. This accompaniment is now second nature for the organization. According to Jack Suderman, secretary of the Mennonite World Conference Peace Commission, “This (court ruling) is the fruit of 26 years of sustained, budgeted, planned, dogged, tenacious institutional commitment on behalf of the Colombian Mennonite Church and its institutions.”

“It is necessary, however, to continue on in the defense of these rights.” says Jenny, expressing Justapaz’s continued commitment to conscientious objection, “The very fact that the army is responsible to resolve requests for conscientious objection must be revised. Ethically, a military body cannot approve or disapprove the decision of a person, who by conscience, does not hold to military logic.  We must continue insisting that the Congress of the Republic legislate these rights and eliminate all barriers for its recognition. Finally, the Colombian state must revise the pertinence of its military structure within a country that is nearing a post-conflict stage. “

As for Reinaldo, he is hopeful. “I want to give thanks to God for this joyful court ruling, not only for me, but for the many young men in Colombia who believe in peace and are committed to conscientious objection. This is a door that is opening for many. We are going to walk through, and are already walking through.”

Article by Anna Vogt