The first time Jhonatan David Vargas was illegally recruited by the Colombian national army and detained at a military base, he knew nothing about his rights to conscientious objection. What he did know, however, was that he did not want to learn how to kill.
A active churchgoer in his home town of Barrancabermeja, Jhonatan grow up during the years of violent conflict between guerrilla, paramilitary and Colombian state forces in the Magdalena Medio region. He believes, however, that his religion prohibits him from perpetuating that cycle of violence.
“The truth is, I do not see myself learning to kill, and much less in a situation where I am forced to choose between my life and that of another,” he says of his beliefs. “I do not want to participate, either directly or indirectly in war. I do not want my mind turned into a military object.”
More than a year and another detention later, the Constitutional Court has officially upheld Jhonatan’s conscientious objection, declaring that his rights to conscience and to religion were systematically violated by the National Army.
While this decision is an important step in protecting Jhonatan’s right to objection, the ruling must serve as a precedent for further legislation that guarantees the rights of not only Jhonatan, but all other Colombian conscientious objectors as well.
At the age of 18, every Colombian man must define his military status by serving in the Armed Forces for at least one year or receiving a deferral on a medical, educational or other basis.
On March 16, 2013, Jhonatan was forcibly conscripted into the national army and illegally transported to a battalion in the far eastern department of Vichada. Once there, he refused to learn how to fire a weapon or swear allegiance to the Colombian flag, a symbolic moment of incorporation into the military system.
When he was given routine home leave, Jhonatan, together with his family, decided that he would not return to the battalion, but instead continue with his studies. The family saw this act as the only way for Jhonatan to be able to uphold his commitment to nonviolence.
With the help of his mother, Maria Becerra, and the Mennonite organization Justapaz, Jhonatan began a legal battle to receive official recognition as a conscientious objector. At the same time that the Constitutional Court chose to revise his case for possible rights violations, the Armed Forces opened military proceedings against Jhonatan, charging him with going AWOL and issuing a warrant for his arrest.
On September 4, 2014, during a routine document check as Jhonatan left his university campus, the national police arrested him. The army then detained him on military property for two weeks until the Constitutional Court released its ruling, officially declaring him a conscientious objector. The sentence gave the army 48 hours to disincorporate him and expedite his military passbook (libreta militar), thus releasing him from any obligation to perform military service.
While the ruling sets an important precedent, the larger problems surrounding the right to conscientious objection have yet to be addressed. Although objection is a right under Colombia’s constitution, there are no laws or regulations that permit objectors to practically exercise this right. Instead, each objection is dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and it becomes the responsibility of individuals to navigate Colombia’s complex legal channels in the hope of potentially gaining recognition as an objector.
It should not fall on individual citizens to prod their country into enforcing legislation that protects conscientious objectors in one of Latin America’s most militarized nations. Rather, it is the responsibility of the Colombian state to ensure that there is a clear and straightforward route that prevents other objectors from being subjected to an experience like Jhonatan’s.
It’s time for concrete legislation that guarantees the right not to kill.