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Finland: Parliament Revokes Law Exempting Jehovah’s Witnesses from Mandatory Military Service

(Apr. 18, 2019) On February 27, 2019, the Finnish Parliament voted to amend its mandatory military service law by revoking a more than thirty-year-old exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses from basic military training. (Item in the Minutes PR 166/2018 rd, Government Bill for Parliament with Proposed Laws on Revoking the Act Exempting Jehovah’s Witnesses from Performing Mandatory Military Service, Finnish Parliament website (all sources cited are in Swedish unless otherwise noted).) The Government had proposed the change on September 20, 2018. (Government Bill RP 139/2018 rd, Finnish Parliament website.)

Mandatory Military Service Legislation 

In accordance with the Finnish Constitution, all Finnish citizens must participate in defending the motherland or assisting in its defense in the manner determined by law. (127 § 1 para. FINNISH CONSTITUTION, Finlex website.) The Finnish Mandatory Military Service Act mandates that all Finnish citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 be subject to Mandatory Military Service in the form of basic military training. (2 and 13 §§ Mandatory Military Service Act, FINLANDS FÖRFATTNINGSSAMLING [FFS] [FINNISH GAZETTE] 2007/1438, Finlex website.)

Males who have turned 18 are summoned for testing between August 15 and December 15 to determine if they will undergo basic military training. (Id. 13 §.) While technically all are required to complete the training, only a small number of Finnish youth—approximately 20,000—actually undergo the training annually. (RP 139/2018 rd.) The length of the training ranges from 165 days for soldiers to 347 days for officers. (37 § Mandatory Military Service Act.) Such service includes education and training in skill sets needed in case of war, such as weapons training. (Id. 38 §.)

Persons may be found to be ineligible to perform mandatory service because they lack the necessary physical or mental capabilities (id. 10 §) or excused from military service for financial or personal reasons such as studies (31 § Mandatory Military Service Act).

Persons who do not wish to perform military service may elect to perform civil service (without handling weapons) as described in the Civil Service Act. (Civil Service Act, FFS 28.12.2007/1446), Finlex website; Act Amending the Act Exempting Jehovah’s Witnesses from Performing Mandatory Military Service in Certain Cases, FFS 1992/1261, Finlex website.) The civil service requirement lasts for 347 days and can be completed at a government ministry or agency, municipal agency, religious affiliation, or private company that provides public services. (Id. 4 and 8 §§.) For example, one common venue for performing civil service is at schools.

Refusal to perform civil service instead of military service (totalvägran) is punishable by imprisonment, the duration of which should be half of the remaining assigned service period. (74 § Civil Service Act.)

Since 1987, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been explicitly excused from performing both mandatory military service and civil service. (9 § Act Exempting Jehovah’s Witnesses from Performing Mandatory Military Service in Certain Cases (FFS 645/1985), Finlex website; see also FFS 1992/1261 and FFS 2013/512.)

When the exception was proposed in 1985, almost all religious exceptions to military service were requested by Jehovah’s Witnesses. (1985 Parliament, Documents, A1 Government Bills 1–60 [1985 rd RP nr 7], Parliament website.)

The exception was thus based on the religious conviction of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as on their very small number. (1985 rd RP nr 7 at 2.) The Government at that time also specifically noted that, in accordance with Jehovah’s Witness rules on membership (as described when the Jehovah’s Witnesses registered as a faith-based society in Finland), a member could be expelled for “acting in violation of the community’s bylaws or against the leadership’s rules.” (Id.) Performing even civil service in lieu of military service violated the covenants of Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Id. at 3.) Under the rules then in force, Jehovah’s Witnesses could forgo military service by applying for a three-year deferral, which was likely to be granted, every three years until they reached 28 years of age. (Id.) By granting members of Jehovah’s Witnesses a blanket exception, the Finnish Government thus made the exception application procedure easier for its members. (Id.)

Military Service Figures

Today, some 20,000 Finnish citizens undergo mandatory military training each year. Annually between 70 and 130 Jehovah’s Witnesses are excused. According to the 2018 Government Bill, approximately 3,300 Jehovah’s Witnesses have been excused from performing military service since the exemption was introduced. (RP 139/2018 rd.) In addition, approximately 30 to 50 persons who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to serve at all and, under current law, are subject to legal punishments in the form of prison sentences.

Reason for Revoking the Exception

The decision to revoke the exemption for members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and subject them to imprisonment for not performing civil service even though such acts violate their religious convictions is based on the legal precedent of a recent Helsinki Appeals Court case. The Court found that sentencing someone who was not a Jehovah Witness to prison in light of the Jehovah’s Witness exception was unconstitutional and violated the Constitution’s equal treatment provisions. (Helsinki Court of Appeals, HelHO 2018:4, R 16/738 Feb. 23, 2018 (in Finnish).) The case was appealed by the prosecutor to the Finnish Supreme Court, but leave for appeal was not granted. (Sarah Lang & Ann-Lis Fredriksson, Supreme Court Gives Finnish Man Right to Refuse to Perform Civil Service – Professor: Signal That Those Totally Refusing Service Can No Longer Be Sentenced to Imprisonment, YLE (Nov. 13, 2018).)

Legal Fallout

Because the Finnish Supreme Court refused to hear the case, the Finnish Parliament was left to determine whether only some who refused to perform civil service would face imprisonment or all who refused would face punishment. With the amendment to the Mandatory Military Service Act, Parliament has now chosen the latter course, making Jehovah’s Witnesses subject to the same sanctions as any other Finnish citizen. The Finnish Government argued that although there is an internationally recognized religious right to refuse military service that includes weapons training, there is no international right to refuse civil service in defense of one’s country. (RP 139/2018, para. 3.2.)