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Inspiring online ceremony marks International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Latest from our Education Worker, Karen Robinson

Every year on 15 May we remember those who have established, and are maintaining, the right to refuse to kill. Hundreds of people across the world are imprisoned, or forced to flee their home countries, for refusing to join the armed forces. On 15 May we stand in solidarity with them, as well as celebrating the memory of all those throughout history who have resisted conscription“. - CO Day website

15 May 2020 - It was very moving sitting in front of my laptop in my room in Worthing welcoming people from all over the country to the national online ceremony to mark International Conscientious Objectors’ Day.

As Campaign Worker for Conscience: Taxes For Peace Not War, I had been attending meetings with representatives from eleven other organisations to plan the day (Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Humanists UK, Movement for the Abolition of War, Network for Peace, Pax Christi, Peace News, Peace Pledge Union, Quaker Peace and Social Witness, Right to Refuse to Kill, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom).

It was a real joy being part of the group, getting to know other members, learning from their rich and varied experience in the peace movement, and seeing plans for the day take shape.

We were gathering together online at a very painful time. 33,614 people had died from Covid-19 in the UK alone, and many countries in the world were still to face the peak of the virus.

We would normally have gathered next to the Conscientious Objectors’ Commemorative Stone in Tavistock Square in London to mark the day.

This year we couldn’t. However, a member of the Peace Pledge Union was able to place flowers at the stone that morning on our behalf.

It is likely that having the ceremony online meant that more people were able to attend than if it had been a solely physical ceremony. 165 people attended the online event, and a total of 550 people watched the video at some point in the day. We were delighted that one of the people able to attend the online ceremony was Donald Saunders. Donald is 95 and was a conscientious objector in the Second World War. Donald is currently self-isolating at home and regularly promotes peace campaigns on social media.

In recent years the annual ceremony has focused especially on conscientious objectors during the First World War. This year the planning group decided to focus on conscientious objection during the Second World War and to seek an international speaker who could tell us about conscientious objection to conscription in their country today.

Michael Mears, an actor and wonderful friend of the peace movement, produced a performance piece especially for the online ceremony.

In this extraordinary piece, based on testimonies from Second World War conscientious objectors, Michael took on individual roles from lockdown in his house.

In the picture (left) he is sharing the words of John Radford, a conscientious objector at Dingle Vale Detention Centre near Liverpool during the Second World War.

You can see more of Michael Mears in his ‘lockdown movie version’ of ‘This Evil Thing’, a play about conscientious objectors.

Later in the ceremony Niat Chefena Hailemariam from the Network of Eritrean Women, spoke very movingly to us about military service in Eritrea, which is compulsory for both men and women.

It is a country where everyone from the age of 16 is in mandatory military service. There are many Eritreans who, for moral or religious reasons, have refused to join the military. Their objection has caused them to flee, and some of them have been imprisoned indefinitely, for years and years. Many have died, and some have developed respiratory and skin disorders. Some have missed their birthdays, graduations, weddings. They have friends and family who miss them dearly. Today, and many other days, we remember conscientious objectors all over the world.

During the ceremony there were three very powerful and inspiring songs; ‘The Ones Who Said No‘ written by Sue Gilmurray and sung with her colleagues from the Movement for the Abolition of War, ‘If There’s A War On Don’t You Go‘ written by John Murphy of the Woodpickers and sung by Paul Steele, and ‘Road to Peace‘ written and sung by Sue Gilmurray.

You can download a programme and view a video of the whole ceremony, including the songs, here.

And there were the names of conscientious objectors through the centuries. Names and names, person after person. From so many different countries, so many different backgrounds. Individuals separated by time and geography who had arrived at the same core decision: they could not participate in killing their fellow human beings. It is so rare to hear their names, hear of their existence. And so, so important. Many thanks to Bill Hetherington, Sheila Triggs and Paul Steele for reading the names, and to Bill Hetherington for the meticulous research behind the list.

The ceremony was also very moving to me on a personal level. My grandfather, an insurance agent working for the Co-op in south London, was a conscientious objector in the Second World War. During the war he worked on the land. My father, a young boy at the time, remembers his father coming home unusually tanned from working outside.

This is a photo of my grandfather, and father as a little boy, shortly before the war.

As a young man, after the war, my father was a conscientious objector to national service. He and my mother were youth workers with the Quakers in the East End of London as part of his alternative service.

I have known the term ‘conscientious objector’ since I was very young; my grandfather and father’s decisions and experiences have been a core part of our family history. And yet I have never been part of a public gathering which validated their decisions. Personal, individual decisions made a long time ago, which were part of a much wider movement then, and still are.

Further Resources

We now have a new webpage for International Conscientious Objectors’ Day, where you will find a wealth of resources on conscientious objection, including a section on the history of International Conscientious Objectors’ Day. These resources have been suggested and contributed by organisations in the planning group.

Many thanks to Geoff Tibbs at the Peace Pledge Union for developing this webpage.

Technical support:

Many thanks too to John Cooper from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Geoff Tibbs from the Peace Pledge Union for arranging the technical side of the ceremony.

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