May 15th will be marked this year by a simple ceremony in Tavistock Square. People will gather to remember those who for reasons of Conscientious Objection refused conscription into the armed services in the First World War.
In 1916, the new Military Service Act was introduced in the UK. It required all men aged 18-41 to register for military service unless they could produce a certificate of exemption. To obtain that certificate, men could apply to a tribunal where their Conscientious Objection would be scrutinised.
This took tremendous courage - those who objected to war, many on Christian pacifist grounds were victim to terrible abuse and accusations of cowardice - some were even sentenced to death. Some objectors did so for other ethical reasons - one petitioning that war wasn't compatible with his "socialist conscience". The tribunal chairman allegedly stated that, as a socialist, he couldn't possibly have a conscience. He later successfully appealed the decision.
Britain has had a long and troubled relationship with its armed services personnel. Serving British soldiers now suffer from record levels of alcohol abuse and will be investigated by the ICC for allegedly committing war crimes in Iraq. Despite increasing levels of war weariness among the British public, the human cost of conflict continues to escalate. Although we no longer have conscription we are effectively forced to fund armed conflict through payment of our taxes - and for those who continue to object to armed conflict this is not good enough.
The International Conscientious Objectors day ceremony will be held minutes from Friends house - the spiritual home of the UK Quakers. Quakers have a long history of being COs and War Tax resisters dating back over 400 years. Cyrus Pringle a US Quaker who resisted the draft into the union army in the American Civil War was imprisoned and forced to go on long marches carrying backpacks full of weapons as punishment for his "refusal to bear arms".
Conscientious Objectors should be remembered as those who fought to protect their principles against an oppressive state that would force them to kill. Britain may no longer have Conscription laws but many countries still do - Turkey and Israel still have full conscription and Germany still had a form of conscription until 2011. We shouldn't have to live in a world where the government can force you to murder.
2014 will be a year to commemorate the war dead of the First World War. As we remember those who sacrificed their lives on the battlefield I hope you will spare a thought for those who were beaten, insulted, locked up, and threatened with execution to protect their conscience. The freedom that they fought to protect will mean nothing if it does not include the right to refuse to kill.
Descendants of First World War conscientious objectors will be taking part in this year's International Conscientious Objectors' Day commemoration in Tavistock Square, London, on 15 May meeting at 12 noon at the commemorative stone.