How to use this guide

The various human rights systems – the UN, the Council of Europe and the other regional systems – are complicated. Different mechanisms have their own processes, requirements, and potential outcomes. In addition, it can be difficult to choose which system might be the most effective, or most promising, to use.

This guide can be read like a book or manual, to get an overview of the different systems available (you can also download a pdf of the guide, see below). However, it is more intended to be used as an interactive guide online at or, to help you choose the most promising avenue.

If you want to use this guide in this way, you should first clarify what you want to achieve. The search function of the website version of the guide will help you with this process.

Starting with the country, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I concerned with an individual case?
  • If yes, am I interested in urgent action?
  • Does the case concern a person under 18 years?
  • If it is not about an individual case, am I interested in changing state laws?
  • Or am I interested in changing state practice?

These questions will help you to narrow down your search, so that you can get an overview of those international human rights mechanisms that can be useful to achieve your objectives.

In addition, you can refine your search using different aspects in relation to conscientious objection. Are you concerned with:

  • the recognition of conscientious objection to military service. This includes the question whether the right to conscientious objection is recognised at all, or only at certain times (e.g. during peacetime), and also whether total objection to military and substitute service is recognised.
  • Length/terms of substitute service. This includes questions relating to the length of substitute service (is it of punitive length? - there are different standards for this in the different systems), or other discriminating terms of substitute service, e.g. payment, working conditions, etc.
  • Time limits for CO applications. Are there time limits for applying for conscientious objection, for example does an application have to be made until a certain time before call-up for military service?
  • Discrimination of conscientious objectors. This refers to discrimination between different conscientious objectors, for example which reasons for conscientious objection are accepted, or whether certain groups – e.g. religious groups, or people who ever had problems with the police – are automatically excluded from the right to conscientious objection.
  • In-service conscientious objection. This refers to whether conscientious objection is allowed also for conscripts who are already serving their military service. It can also apply to professional soldiers who initially joined the Armed Forces voluntarily.
  • Selective conscientious objection. Are only total pacifists recognised as conscientious objectors, who refuse participation in all wars, or is it sufficient to oppose certain wars?
  • Repeated punishment of conscientious objectors. In countries where the right to conscientious objection is not recognised, are conscientious objectors punished more the once?
  • CO to military taxation. Is the right to refuse to pay the proportion of ones tax which is used to fund war recognised? Are there provisions for conscientious objectors to military taxation to make sure that no part of their taxes is used to fund war or weapons?

These different aspects will help you to narrow down the results of your search, and especially relevant jurisprudence or interpretations of international human rights law.

The search function will provide you will a list of applicable mechanisms, and display a summary for each of the mechanisms, to give you some overview. You can click on the title of a mechanism to get a more detailed description, its legal basis, relevant interpretations of the relevant legal basis and/or human rights treaties, and case law, jurisprudence, relevant opinions or reports of the mechanism.

For each of the aspects there are three different levels of recognition:

  • positive or recognised (symbolised by a +)
  • neutral (symbolised by a o)
  • negative or not recognised (symbolised by a -)

The meaning of these levels differs slightly between a legal basis on the one hand, and interpretations and jurisprudence on the other hand.

For a legal basis, if an aspect is marked with a +, it does not necessarily mean that it is explicitly recognised in this legal basis, but that it can be argued that it can be derived from it (as conscientious objection is now recognised as either inherent in or a manifestation of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion). A legal basis which does not in itself guarantee human rights, but merely establishes a mechanism (such as the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) will have all aspects set to neutral, and it is then important to check the relevant human rights treaty.

For interpretations and jurisprudence (which might come under many different names), “recognised” or a + means that there is an explicit reference to this aspect in the interpretation or jurisprudence, recognising this right. “Not recognised” or a means that there is an explicit non-recognition. Should you encounter this, you should first check if there has been a more recent interpretation or jurisprudence overturning this. If this is not the case, it might be advisable to choose a mechanism which offers a better recognition, or – if such a mechanism does not exist – to get in touch with the organisations on this page or use the contact form.

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