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Civilian service fights to survive

Working in an old people's home is part of the civilian service

(Keystone)

Switzerland's civilian service is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a falling number of conscripts, a trend that is threatening its existence, a committee says.

The Swiss Committee for Civilian Service has proposed a series of reforms, including admitting women and foreigners, to try to stop the trend.

The committee says that since a new system of army recruitment was introduced in 2004, almost 40 per cent of Swiss young men are discharged for medical reasons, compared with 15-20 per cent previously.

Switzerland was in 2004 one of the last countries in western Europe to introduce a civilian service for conscientious objectors.

To opt for civilian service on the grounds of conscience, a young man has to be fit to do military service in Switzerland's militia army. If declared unfit, he is exempt from civilian service.

The committee fears that this is demotivating for young men who might otherwise be useful to the community by doing civilian service.

It argues that those involved in such service play a useful role, whether in social and health fields, by farming in the mountains or in disaster relief.

Information campaign

The defenders of civilian service have launched an information campaign including a website to show its impact on society, on the promotion of peace and non-violent resolution of conflicts.

At a news conference in Bern, the committee said the number of applications to do civilian service had fallen by 20 per cent between 2002 and 2005. It is calling on the government for a "strong signal" to help the situation.

"Civilian service is necessary and its success over the past ten years in the field proves this," commented committee member Jérôme Strobel.

"It is not simply a replacement service for conscientious objectors but a useful tool in the service of society."

The committee said one suggestion would be to open the service up to anyone who wanted to do it, including women and foreigners.

Another suggestion was to abolish the exam testing conscience objection. A person who agreed to serve one and a half times longer than normal military service proved that it was his conscience that prevented him from joining the army.

Members of the committee pointed out that such exams cost SFr6.6 million ($5.3 million) in 2003, with 95 per cent of cases accepted as being genuine.

The government's view is that doing civilian service should not involve free choice. It is a substitute for military service.

Until the early 1990s, anyone refusing to do military service in Switzerland was jailed. As early as 1903 left-wing parties and pacifists had called for a civilian service for conscientious objectors

Voters rejected two people's initiatives (1977 and 1984) calling for a civilian service by a majority of more than 60 per cent.

But the situation changed in the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The electorate voted in favour of such a service in 1992 and legislation on it came into force on October 1, 2006.

Parliament is due to discuss reforms of the civilian service during the autumn session.

swissinfo with agencies

Militia army

The Swiss army functions according to a militia principle. All men liable to do military service undergo basic training and broaden their ...

In brief

Civilian service is one and a half times longer than military service at 390 days. This can be carried out in one go or in several stages, one of which has to be at least 180 days long.

The person who does civilian service works in public institutions or those recognised as being useful to the public in the health, social, environmental, humanitarian aid or development fields (including abroad).

During his service, he receives 80% of his salary, like soldiers, and a SFr5 per day pay allowance.

Over the past ten years, about 15,000 young Swiss have carried out such duties, which amounts to a total of two million days of service.

end of infobox

Civilian service

The law on civilian service came into force in Switzerland on October 1, 1996.

Civilian service is not considered a free choice. It is interpreted as a particular form of fulfilling military obligation.

A person wishing to do civilian service must be declared fit to do military service before he can make a request.

He has to go before a committee that decides on the credibility of his motives.

end of infobox


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