A conscientious objector is someone who opposes war for religious, moral, or ethical reasons. Many nations recognize conscientious objectors and have enacted measures to deal with them in times of war, by providing alternate ways to serve the national good. In nations which require nationalized registration of service, a conscientious objector must make his or her beliefs clear at the time of registration, so that the case can be reviewed. If the reviewing board determines that the claim of conscientious objection is valid, the individual is excused from military service.
The conscientious objector tradition has existed for hundreds of years. Many Christian sects reject violence and war. The Society of Friends and Mennonites were two such sects which pushed for changes in the 1600s and 1700s. As a result of the conscientious objection of members of these religions, their governments began to recognize the need for a formal processing system. Many national governments include conscientious objectors in their military service systems, and make arrangements to accommodate their beliefs.
There are two types of conscientious objection. The first type of conscientious objector does not want to serve in a combatant position. In this instance, if the individual is required to serve, he or she will be assigned a non-combat support position. In other cases, a conscientious objector rejects any type of military service, because he or she does not want to contribute to warfare, even indirectly. Depending on the nation, this conscientious objector may face prison time as a result of his or her beliefs. However, it is more common to ask these individuals to serve in positions which benefit their communities, such as work crews, assistants to the elderly, and the medical professions.
Absolute pacifism is not necessarily required or expected of a conscientious objector. Many conscientious objectors are perfectly willing to defend themselves in times of need, for example. However, conscientious objectors do believe that war is not an acceptable human behavior, or that war will not solve societal problems.
During a review of the case of a conscientious objector, he or she will typically be asked about religious, social, and political affiliations. The government wants to ensure that the person's claim is valid, and that the request for conscientious objector status is not being made in response to political opposition to a particular war or self interest. The examination will determine whether or not the individual lives a lifestyle which is in line with a claim of conscientious objection to military service.