Collective Conscientious Objection

December 21, 2004

Conscientious objection, even en masse, is not a new concept. Many of us remember the vitriol directed at us by Jehova’s Witnesses in the mission field criticizing Latter-day Saints for, among other things, being beholden to nation states and participating in their wars. But a very interesting development in Japan has caught my attention and has turned my mind to the Book of Mormon’s own conscientious objectors–the People of Ammon.

With the question of Japan’s participation in the Iraq War looming large, many Japanese are uneasy with the prospect of supporting a military engagement, even if it is the engagement of an ally rather than their own war. This is understandable considering Japan’s Imperial and war-mongering past in the last century. The Japanese constitution–orchestrated by General MacArthur after Japan’s surrender occasioned by the devastation of two atomic bombs on their soil (talk about the fruits of war)–only allows Japan a meager defensive military force and disallows engagements abroad. According to an article in Le Monde, some Japanese are collectively maintaining a stance of conscientious objection based on this past and their now-ingrained commitment to pacifism. In fact, an entire town is seeking the status of conscientious objector, as 18,000 people in the town of Hirakata have supported a petition before the local assembly demanding discussion of their demands: if the municipal council votes for “non-belligerence” then Hirakata will be the first town in Japan to have collectively chosen a course of conscientious objection:

Alors que le gouvernement japonais renforce sa stature militaire en s’écartant de la position strictement défensive de la politique de sécu-rité qui fut la sienne, des municipalités entendent se proclamer “villes ouvertes” en cas de conflit et revendiquer le droit de refuser de participer à une guerre. C’est le cas de Hirakata (400 000 habitants) dans la banlieue d’Osaka dont 18 000 habitants ont déposé une pétition auprès de l’assemblée locale, demandant qu’elle ouvre un débat sur leur demande. Celui-ci a commencé le 9 décembre. Si le conseil municipal vote une déclaration de “non-belligérance”, Hirakata sera la première municipalité du Japon à se proclamer collectivement “objecteur de conscience”.

Not surprisingly, this movement is supported by the social democratic and communist parties in Japan, while the democrats and centrist parties are a little more cautious.

Le mouvement en faveur “de déclarations de zones de non-défense”, lancé en mars, regroupe une quarantaine de municipalités parmi lesquelles un arrondissement de Tokyo dont les habitants ont lancé des campagnes de pétition et ont constitué un réseau national. Cette nouvelle forme de mouvement antiguerre est soutenue par les sociaux-démocrates et les communistes ; le parti centriste Komei et la première formation d’opposition, le Parti démocrate, sont hésitants ; quant à la majorité libérale-démocrate, elle le dédaigne. Alors que la décision de maintenir les troupes japonaises en Irak a fait brutalement chuter la popularité du premier ministre, Junichiro Koizumi, cette campagne pourrait s’étendre.

This move is not wholly philosophical, but also highly practical for the inhabitants of Hirakata. That is because of Article 59 of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Article 59 of the 1977 Protocol defines “non-defended localities” and provides that “[i]t is prohibited for the Parties to the conflict to attack, by any means whatsoever, non-defended localities.” The mayor of Hirakata explains his town’s “simple” motivations in doing this:

“Notre objectif est simple” explique maître Takeo Matsumoto, l’un des initiateurs du mouvement : “Le Japon est en train de renier l’article 9 de sa Constitution par lequel il renonce à la guerre comme moyen de régler les différents internationaux. Or, en tant que citoyens, nous refusons de collaborer à une guerre et nous entendons le faire savoir avant qu’elle ne soit déclenchée.”

Personally, I do not share the radical pacifism that animates this effort, but that is merely because of my belief in the possibility and periodic (unfortunate) necessity of just war. Believe me, I am looking forward to the Millenium when we shall learn war no more as much as any Jehova’s Witness. But right now we live in a telestial world; it is a Hobbesian world by its very nature and pretending to live in a Kantian paradise will only bring destruction because of the other forces at work out there. Hirakata will be able to pursue this pacifistic road (and I applaud them for their efforts and find it a very interesting and brilliant development) because some stable, well-meaning Western countries (i.e. the USA and England) are still cognizant of the fact that this is a Hobbesian and not a Kantian world and are willing to use force to protect themselves and their allies against the telestial elements in such a harsh Hobbesian world. (See Robert Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power (2003) for my source as to this Hobbesian/Kantian dichotomy in views of the international use of force.)

This is indeed reminiscent of the People of Ammon in the Book of Mormon. After this blood-thirsty and war-mongering people coverting to Jesus Christ, they “buried” all their weapons of war, refusing ever to take them up again, even in their own defense. This was not required of them from the outside but rather was something that they chose to do as a sign of their sincere repentance for “the many murders” they had committed. They chose collective conscientious objection, preferring death to the slaying of their enemies by their own swords. Lucky for the People of Ammon, the Nephites in the City of Zarahemla were still willing to take up arms in a just war and defend the People of Ammon so that the latter could remain true to the repentive covenant that they had made. This was even moreso a necessity in a day without the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

I am thankful for the example of the people of Hirakata; equally, I am thankful that someone is out there protecting my freedom. True, I find it unfortunate that the United States is fulfilling this role. This is a truly thankless position to be in, as witnessed by the lack of support from Western Europe in recent years after the United States had spent its blood and treasure for the better part of the twentieth century to protect Western Europe and make it possible for that part of the world to create a socialistic Kantian paradise–a state of things only possible because a pragmatic democratic republic across the ocean was still living in the fallen Hobbesian world. But where much is given, much is required, and the United States has certainly been given much, starting with its heritage of Anglo institutions, rule of law, and free markets, and cemented in its precedential Constitution and Bill of Rights.