In the countries that require military service, those who refuse to serve must either try to explain their exemption or find a creative short-cut to avoid the obligation. Here are some examples.
Military conscription has ebbed and flowed through history, typically depending on national security (wars), economics (jobs) and demography (young men). In recent years, many countries have outright eliminated the draft or replaced it with a civil service requirement. At the same time, other countries have been bringing back obligatory military service to respond to security threats or as a solution to rising high school dropout and unemployment rates. Morocco reinstated conscription in 2018 after 12 years, with a 12-month required military service for all men and women aged 19 to 25.
Amid newfound tensions around the Baltic Sea, the Swedish government also decided to reintroduce military conscription in March 2017, though for a limited number of citizens - 4,000 men and women were selected from a pool of 13,000.
Other countries, like South Korea and Israel, have long held on to the draft because of constant tensions with their respective neighbors. But with the draft inevitably come those who don't want to be drafted, including both conscientious objectors and simply those with, well, other plans. Here are some of the ways out of serving employed in nations with the compulsory military service:
South Korea - Tattoos and K-Pop
Young South Korean draftees in Netflix's drama D.P.
Still technically at war with North Korea and suffering from a declining birthrate that has led to a deficit of voluntary conscripts, South Korea has maintained its compulsory military service of 18 to 21 months for all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 28. Violating the military service act by dodging the draft or deserting once enrolled, leads to prison sentence. That was the fate of a man in his 20s sentenced to one year in jail by the Suwon District Court on Nov. 3 for avoiding conscription by covering his body in tattoos, as reported by The Korean Times.
Judged fit to join the army after physical examination in March 2019, the already tattooed conscript-to-be got additional inks on both arms, calf and belly that made him unfit to serve. Although the accused explained he had no such intention, the court dismissed his claim. The fact that he had previously lied about his mental health back in 2015 to purposefully avoid the draft did not help his case.
Tattoos used to be a reason for exemption in South Korea, but because of the country's low birthrate it was largely discarded this year. Another way to avoid the draft in South Korea? Become a K-Pop star. In December 2020, the National Assembly passed a law enabling those who "excel in popular culture and art" to defer their terms of service until the age of 30. For those counting, that leaves another couple of years before BTS must switch into fatigues.
Eritrea - Getting Pregnant
Eritrean women soldiers attending an AIDS awareness lecture at a military base in 1999
North Korea is infamous for having the longest conscription period in the world, with men serving for 10 years, from age 17, and women for seven. But it is the East African nation of Eritrea that holds the de facto record. On paper, since 1994, the draft is compulsory for 18 months for both men and women between 18 and 40. However, in practice, the length of service is indefinite and conscripts include boys and girls as young as 16. Secondary school has indeed become a preparation for military service and all students are sent to complete their final year at the Warsai Yekalo Secondary School, within the Sawa military camp, located in the west of the country. There, they follow mandatory military training for five months.
To avoid Sawa, some school students go as far as failing exams to stay in lower grades, dropping out of school or even becoming pregnant or marrying early for girls (married women are exempt), Human Rights Watch reported in 2019. For those who are already conscripts, fleeing their country is the preferred option taken by many to avoid what Amnesty International has denounced as "forced labour on a national scale."
Turkey - Being Gay Or Paying Your Way Out
Turkish soldiers holding the Turkish flag during Victory Day military parade on August 30
In 2019, compulsory military service in Turkey was reduced from 12 months to six months for all male citizens after they turn 18 (up until they turn 41). Exemptions were based on family situation (if men are sole earners for their families) and health grounds. However, in 2014, then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced the creation of paying amnesty. Any potential draftee willing and able to pay a fee of 31,000 Turkish liras ($3,150) can obtain an exemption, Hurriyet daily reported. Though they are still required to undergo a one-month-long military training. As a result, the wealthiest can easily be fully exempted, the rest of the population became prey of choice for banks who do not hesitate to target eligible men with consumer loans. Still, thousands of Turkish males would rather be in debt than serve.
Also in Turkey, homosexuality is considered as a mental health disorder and gay men are thus exempted from military service. Up until 2015, openly gay conscripts and men posing as such to avoid the army had to obtain the controversial "Pink Certificate," which meant passing humiliating exams such as rectal examination and submitting photos of them having sex with other men. Under the revised military policy, gay men only have to self-declare but their sexual identity is still grounds for exemption.
Israel - Orthodox and Peaceniks
A Soldier of IDF holds ths Israeli flag at the Israeli Gaza border near Sderot
The draft in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) has existed since 1949, the year after the founding of the modern state of Israel. While Arab citizens of Israel are not required to serve the required 24 to 36 months, conscription also involves a list of exemptions, including religious reasons, mental and physical health and criminal records. The first two have been extensively used and daily Yediot Aharonot reported in 2019 nearly half of Israeli youths failed to enter or complete their mandatory military service in the Israeli Defense Forces.
A special case was long made for ultra-Orthodox men who could file for a deferment of their compulsory army service. This exception could soon disappear as a new bill setting an increasing target of yeshivas students' enlistment, starting this year, was submitted to the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in October. Violent protests to oppose this law, first drafted in 2018, has led to many arrests over the past years.
Bad press about the Israeli draft is getting more and more frequent. Some conscientious objectors recently making the headlines also revived the discussion about the compulsory draft. A 21-year-old Jewish anti-Zionist, who fled Israel in 2017, is pleading his case for asylum in the UK arguing his personal views, including his refusal to join the Israeli army, would expose him to persecution if he was to return to his country. Back in Israel, Shahar Perets opposed her conscription to the IDF for ideological reasons, and has been jailed three times as a result, reports the BBC.
Finland - Jehovah's Witnesses
Finnish policemen and army conscripts stop the traffic and check drivers travel documents at police checkpoint
Despite growing popular and political criticism in recent years, attempts to abolish military or civilian conscription in Finland only led to failure. All Finnish men aged 18 and above must either serve between 165 and 347 days in the Finnish Defense Forces or 12 months at the Civilian Service Center in Lapinjärvi or at any non-profit organization listed by the government.
However, for 30 years, it was possible for Jehovah's Witnesses to avoid military training based on their pacifist reading of the Bible. This right was revoked in February 2019, not after an alarming number of citizens used faith, whether real or fake, as an exemption but after a court case made it to the Finnish Parliament.
A man refusing to serve and facing a prison sentence argued that he was being treated unfairly, given the Jehovah's Witnesses exception, described as a violation of the Constitution's equal treatment provisions, leading to an end to the Jehovah's Witness exemption.