Military Service and the Militarization of Society
In Belarus, military service is compulsory for all citizens assigned male at birth between the ages of 18 and 27. The right to conscientious objection has existed since 1994, but it does not apply to those who have already completed their military service, nor to reservists or soldiers.
In Belarus, military service is compulsory for all persons who are assigned male at birth. Since we want to point out that this also includes persons who are not male or do not identify as such, we use gender-neutral language.
In Belarus, military service is compulsory for all citizens assigned male at birth between the ages of 18 and 27. The usual length is 18 months, for university graduates, the military service obligation is reduced to 12 months, and for graduates of officer training at military faculties to 6 months; thereafter, they can be called up for an annual reserve exercise. Call-ups happen twice a year, in spring and fall. As of 2019, military replacement offices have the authority to designate military conscripts below the age of 27 as “conscientious objectors without legal cause” in case they have not completed military service. These individuals cannot work in the security forces.
The right to conscientious objection has existed since 1994, but it does not apply to those who have already completed their military service, nor to reservists or soldiers. Since 2016, military service conscripts have been able to apply for alternative service. This alternative service is twice as long as military service (36 months in general, 24 months for university graduates), and the work is paid less. The right to conscientious objection applies on religious, pacifist grounds, but not to those who base their conscientious objection on a non-religious pacifist belief. In May of this year, however, it became known that Dzmitry Malets, a Catholic priest from Navagrudak, was called up for troop transport less than a month before the expiration of his military service obligation. The conscription of a priest was a novelty.
According to the human rights organization Nash Dom, only 6,000 of the more than 43,000 conscripted military conscripts reported back to the spring call-up in February 2022, so the following fall call-up was scheduled for an earlier date. Moreover, the Belarusian regime recorded and counted the entire recruitable population, so that not only military conscripts with “personal” draft notices had to appear at the draft and recruitment offices, but the entire male population aged 18 to 65.
Military service is one of the most common repressive practices of the Belarusian regime against young activists. Nash Dom describes the Belarusian army as a place of imprisonment, where young people are detained for one to one and a half years and deprived of all means of communication. They are subjected to propaganda, torture, and bans, and rarely receive family visits. If a cell phone was found on a soldier, he would be punished with 15 days of solitary confinement. This prison-like atmosphere, humiliation, and mistreatment repeatedly led to suicide. In addition, there are extrajudicial executions by the Belarusian army.
In this context, it is also worth mentioning the strong militarization of Belarusian society, especially through military training programs, vacation camps, and more than 50 military-patriotic clubs for children and young people between 7 and 16 years of age. In addition, there are 755 “interest associations” of military-patriotic nature associated with military units and various security structures. In the summer of 2022 alone, more than 18,000 children aged 6 and older received military “training” and instruction in the use of firearms at such summer camps. In 2023, this number increased to 20,000. These camps are sponsored by the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
Although, in September 2022, it was declared that there would be no mobilization in Belarus, the government announced that Belarus was participating in a “special operation” and starting joint activities with the Russian military. So far, the Belarusian military is not (officially) participating in the fighting in Ukraine, but Belarusian military conscripts, soldiers, and reservists are feeling the effects of the war, especially with increasing repression and tightening of military law. For example, all citizens assigned male at birth between 18 and 58 have been ordered to report to the relevant military authorities.
In October 2022, the Belarusian Parliament passed a law that, among other things, updated the grounds for granting the right to defer military service and reduced the number of people who receive it.
In February 2023, a joint decision of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Public Health came into force, reducing the requirements for the health of citizens subject to military service. Since then, individuals with myopia, second-degree obesity, and certain other medical conditions have been eligible to be mustered as “fit for military service”.
Military service could previously be deferred through study. However, a new law was passed in May 2023 that restricts the regulations on deferment for students abroad. Those affected are now forced to either return to Belarus to complete military service or apply for asylum in another country as conscientious objectors. The new law does not apply to those studying abroad under state programs related to state administration institutions. In all likelihood, this means students at Russian universities.
For more information on the legal situation of conscientious objection in Belarus, see the 2022/23 Annual Report of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO).
Conscientious Objection by Military Draft and Desertion
In February 2023, the Lukashenko-controlled parliament passed far-reaching amendments to the Criminal Code, introducing the possibility of the death penalty for “high treason” by military personnel. Since desertion from the Belarusian military is legally considered “high treason,” deserters can now be sentenced to the death penalty. In addition, law enforcement authorities have the right to arrest persons suspected of conspiracy, espionage, agent activity, and terrorist acts. Thus, this bill also targets human rights defenders in exile and is intended to have a deterrent effect. In addition, support for deserters has been criminalized and can be punished with up to 5 years imprisonment (Article 375(2)). For example, in August 2022, criminal proceedings were initiated against two women in Vitebsk who were trying to protect their son and nephew from military service. They were arrested and faced up to seven years in prison; we are not yet aware of the judgment in this case.
The penalties for draft evasion vary, including fines and imprisonment of up to 6 months, which can be extended to 5 years in the case of additional document forgery. Media reports indicate that between July 2022 and July 2023, there have been 19 court cases against military draftees and at least 88 conscientious objectors. Between August and December 2022, six convictions for draft evasion are known. The sentences vary from fines of 2,240 BYN (about 907 EUR) to imprisonment of up to 6 months, as in the case of a draft evader who went to Poland and was arrested upon his return to Belarus. He was sentenced to two months in prison.
In Belarus, more than 5,000 people evade military service each year, according to military commissariats. As Nash Dom reported, criminal proceedings were initiated in more than 400 cases in 2022.
Many Belarusians seeking protection in the European Union fled to neighboring Lithuania. However, diplomatic relations between the Lithuanian government and the Belarusian regime are strained. As a result of the increase in border crossings by fugitives (“third-country nationals”) from Belarus to Lithuania and Belarus’s involvement in the Russian war in Ukraine, cooperation at the border has ceased and diplomatic relations on both sides have been reduced to a minimum. Since then, asylum applications from Belarusian conscientious objectors in Lithuania have been increasingly rejected, and Belarusian activists and human rights defenders have faced increasing repression, as the case of activist and opposition activist Olga Karatch shows.
Asylum in Germany
The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), which is responsible for assessing asylum applications in Germany, recognizes conscientious objection and desertion as worthy of protection in only two cases: If a) the persecution of affected persons is considered a political act or b) there is “excessive punishment.”
It will have to be considered whether the classification of desertion under political criminal law in Belarus (“high treason”) could be assessed as relevant in terms of refugee protection. In this case, soldiers who can prove their desertion would possibly have a reason for protection in Germany under the Geneva Refugee Convention.
Draft evasion, on the other hand, is currently not relevant to refugee law; instead, the act of persecution, i.e. the “excessive” punishment, will be assessed. It could be examined whether the cumulation of draft evasion and flight abroad leads to “excessive punishment” and whether protection could therefore be granted to those affected. In the case of persons who have been publicly politically active in Belarus, it may also be reviewed whether they are eligible for protection as politically persecuted persons.
Residence permits are only issued in specific cases but could be granted unbureaucratically, e.g. for family reunification or study, training, and employment purposes. These residence titles must be applied for before entry. Lower Saxony and Thuringia have opened this possibility for Belarusian citizens in March and April 2022, other federal states have not yet done so. Currently, no humanitarian visas are issued.
At present, there are hardly any known cases of military draftees and deserters from Belarus who have applied for asylum in the Federal Republic of Germany. Therefore, there is no “automatism” of the evaluation; instead, cases are examined individually. Should the facts change, this situation must be reassessed.
It must also be noted that numerous asylum applications are rejected based on the Dublin III Regulation. This states that those seeking protection must apply for asylum in the EU member state in which they entered the EU; otherwise, they will be sent back there. Thus, it is only in rare cases that the Federal Republic of Germany is responsible for the asylum application.
Marah Frech: Country report Belarus – Military Service and the Militarization of Society. October 8, 2023