Caught People: Silencing Pacifists Rather Than Guns

By Sean Howard, forthcoming in the Cape Breton Spectator, September 16, 2023

Here, then, is the problem which we present to you, stark and dreadful and inescapable: Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war? … We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.
The Russell-Einstein Manifesto, July 9, 1955

But I will not run from my home and my country; if I will be sent to prison for pacifism, I will find a way to be useful for peace-loving Ukraine in prison too, I will think and write and seek ways to contribute to a permanent worldwide dialog on peace…
Yurii Sheliazhenko, August 5, 2023

I see it as a split-screen, caption reading: THURSDAY, AUGUST 3, 2023. On the left, in the Berlin headquarters of the International Peace Bureau (IPB), finishing touches are applied to a press release nominating “three exceptional organizations for the 2024 Nobel Peace Prize: the Russian Movement of Conscientious Objectors, the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, and the Belarusian organization Our House,” in recognition of the “unparalleled excellence and dedication in their efforts as defenders of peace, conscientious objection, and human rights, especially after the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine began on 24 February 2022 and despite the considerable stigmatization each organization has faced since.” On the right, members of the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU, break down the door of the Kyiv apartment of Yurii Sheliazhenko, Executive Secretary of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, seizing his computer, smartphone, and other materials, informing him he is being charged with ‘justifying Russian aggression’.

The basis of the charge, Sheliazhenko was told, was the ‘Peace Agenda for Ukraine and the World’ adopted by the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement on September 21, 2022 – UN International Day of Peace – which indeed makes its position on Russia’s invasion clear:

Condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine, the UN General Assembly called for an immediate peaceful resolution of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and emphasized that parties to the conflict must respect human rights and international humanitarian law. We share this position.

As one would expect from a pacifist movement, the supposedly ‘incriminating’ statement regards all wars as unjustified: “Peace, not war, is the norm of human life. War is an organized mass murder. Our sacred duty is that we shall not kill. Today, when the moral compass is being lost everywhere and self-destructive support for war and the military is on the rise, it is especially important for us to maintain common sense, stay true to our non-violent way of life, build peace and support peace-loving people.” And the statement is clear that practicing these principles means non-violently resisting the invaders, while striving to “end the war by peaceful means and to protect the human right to conscientious objection to military service.”

Sheliazhenko, ordered to surrender for three days of interrogation (August 6-8), issued a video statement on August 5 – in haste, following “two air raid alerts because of the Russian criminal war against Ukraine” – identifying the sentence in the nearly year-old Peace Agenda that, in the hands of the SBU, had suddenly turned into a ‘smoking gun’: “A desire for peace is a natural need of every person, and its expression cannot justify a false association with a mythical enemy.” As the preceding sentence makes clear, what is being claimed as ‘mythical’ here is the demonization of ‘Russia’ as a dragon to be slain: “Wrong and even criminal behavior of any party cannot justify creation of a myth about an enemy with whom it is allegedly impossible to negotiate and who must be destroyed at any cost, including self-destruction.”

In his August 5 statement, Sheliazhenko described the offending passage as a “commonsensical observation” that “nobody will question when we are talking about Putin’s war machine making enemies,” even “foreign agents,” out of “opponents of his criminal militarist regime, denigrating them in propaganda” and “repressing them.” “I never thought,” he conceded, that “this general truth” would be “illustrated by my own example, but here it is, an innocent pacifist treated as an enemy”.

What seems to have happened, Sheliazhenko continued, is that the September 2022 statement “was sent to President [Volodomyr] Zelensky, but his office chose to ask Security Service of Ukraine to persecute me as an enemy instead of considering the Peace Agenda on its merits and giving proper reply, as any democratic leader should treat petitions.” “According to law,” he explained, the SBU “is directly subordinated to President Zelensky and he also is a guarantor of human rights according to the Constitution, so he bears final responsibility for violation of my human rights (and I know for certain that I am not a sole victim).” Yet as soon as the war began, so did that violation, as the SBU “secretly surveilled me, tried to find any links with Russian agents, found nothing,” but were “still convinced I am an enemy because of my advocacy of peace by peaceful means, of ceasefire and peace talks to stop senseless bloodshed and destruction.”

On August 11, criminal proceedings were formally opened against the ‘enemy’ on – in the outraged words of the Brussels-based European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO) – the “pretext of the ‘anti-Ukrainian character’ of his human rights defending activities”; and on August 15, he was placed under night house arrest. But as early as August 3, an ‘Open Letter – Urgent’ from EBCO, addressed to Zelensky and Minister of Internal Affairs Ihor Klymenko, protested “the harassment of…Sheliazhenko today” and “all attempts of intimidation against…the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, as well as all forced recruitments and all prosecutions of conscientious objectors in Ukraine (as in all countries).” The letter, from the Bureau’s President Alexia Tsouni (who met with Sheliazhenko on August 5), drills down to the dry legal – and basic human –  heart of the matter:

We would like to remind you that the right to conscientious objection to military service is inherent in the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which is guaranteed, amongst others, under Article 9 of the European Convention, as well as under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which is non-derogable even in a time of public emergency, as stated in Article 4(2) of ICCPR.

‘Non-derogable’ means inviolable, rights that no circumstances can justify suspending. And no national law can violate rights enshrined as non-derogable in international law binding on that nation: meaning, as EBCO argues, that as a signatory to the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Ukraine’s martial law provision barring all males from 18 to 60 from leaving the country, in order to render them liable for military service, is illegal. Total mobilization, of course, is a practical and political impossibility; but while the state gives Itself the right to grant limited exemptions, even ‘permitting’ a few of those millions of men to travel, their human right to refuse to fight is denied.

Tsouni’s letter closes with a request (ignored) for “an urgent meeting” on August 7 “to discuss our concerns,” and an appeal for Zelensky and Klymenko to read the “relevant section” of EBCO’s annual report for 2022/23 on ‘Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Europe’. It’s a grim read, sometimes as harrowing as the ‘relevant section’ on Russia, where in 2022 President Vladimir Putin managed to choose UN International Day of Peace – the September 21 release date of the ‘Peace Agenda for Ukraine and the World’  – to announce the start of a ‘partial mobilization’ of 300,000 reservists, roughly 200,000 of whom promptly mobilized themselves to leave the country.

The same month, Russia introduced jail terms of up to 15 years for a wide range of, in EBCO’s summary, “wartime acts” including “surrendering and desertion,” while the “tendency to label” groups and individuals as ‘foreign agents’ and ‘undesirable’ also “intensified, both “designations…strategically employed to stifle civil society and anti-war protests.”  Illustratively, on July 26 this year, a week before Sheliazhenko was charged with ‘justifying Russian aggression,’ veteran Russian anti-war dissident Boris Kagarlitsky – declared a “foreign agent” in 2022 – was remanded in custody on charges of ‘justifying terrorism’ by Ukraine in Crimea. Conviction in his September show trial could lead to a 7-year sentence for a peaceful activist previously jailed by one Soviet (Brezhnev) and two Russian (Yeltsin and Putin) leaders.

Within Russia – under the surface of autocratic calm – the impacts of Putin’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine are profoundly scarring, most tragically the dead (100,000+) and wounded (200,000+), but also the scale of the exodus of young men (and others) fleeing the reign of recruitment terror sketched in the EBCO report: “Journalists and human-rights activists reported that police officers have stopped and questioned men, collected their data, and handed them draft letters.”; “Moscow authorities demanded that hotel and hostel operators hand over information on male guests.”; “The police are extensively used to hunt down potential recruits in the streets, and in the practice of raids and arbitrary detentions.”; “Caught people are threatened with criminal prosecution if they refuse to go to the military unit.” Yet despite all this, the report concludes, myriad acts of refusal and resistance – by both military personnel and conscientious objectors (COs) and their supporters – serve as “stark reminders” of both “the personal stakes involved and the strength of the human spirit.”

Not so long ago, though it seems an Age – 2012 – compulsory military service in Ukraine was suspended, reintroduced following the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and an armed uprising by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region. For the next eight years a comparatively ‘low-grade’ conflict (14,000 dead!) dragged on, with Ukraine refusing to hold a referendum on autonomy in the Donbas – the core provision of the 2015 Minsk II agreement between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany – and with thousands forced to fight against their will, or punished for resisting.

During this time, one can also say that a ‘low-grade’ form of martial law was in effect, leading, as the EBCO report notes, to “harsh stopping and arrests of conscripts on the streets,” as “their abduction and arbitrary detention became usual and even [a] partially legalized practice”. And since February 2022 this ‘other war’ – state coercion v. individual conscience – has been ever more ruthlessly waged and courageously resisted.

First, there is the size – and claustrophobia – of the conscription net itself. Not only are males 18-60 not free to leave the country, they can’t change their “place of residence without permission of the local military commissar”. The “military registration” of this vast pool of potential conscripts, the EBCO report explains –

includes medical examination of fitness for service, and in absence of reasons for deferral, especially when personnel is needed because of loses on frontline, anybody could be conscripted immediately when declared fit to serve. In a number of cases, military medics scandalously failed to find unfit seriously disabled and seriously ill people. For these reasons many people fear to undergo military registration even when served with a summons, and failure to appear could entail a significant fine. To coerce people for military registration, regulations regarding proofs of it in many spheres of civilian life are introduced. For example, military ID is usually asked for mandatory registration of place of residence, to access education, employment, marriage, social security benefits and other state benefits.

From 2014-2022 it was possible to apply for ‘alternative service’ (though not all requests were granted); under martial law, this ‘loophole’ has been closed, and “evasion of conscription” is punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment. On February 23, 2023, 46-year old Christian pacifist Vitaly Alekseenko became the first CO to be jailed, for one year, since the Russian invasion. Refusing to ‘repent’ of his ‘crime’ in return for a suspended sentence, Alekseenko stated: “How could I do that when I am not guilty? I told the court I agree that I have broken the law of Ukraine, but I am not guilty under the law of God. I want to be honest to myself.”

Alekseenko is a member of the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement. As his friend was taken to jail, Sheliazhenko commented: “Conscientious objection to military service is not a crime, it is a human right, and this human right should not be denied even in time of war. In fact, it is especially precious in times of war and historically emerged exactly because of that, because the challenges of modern militarised economies became unbearable to the conscience of a growing number of people.”

On April 17 Alexia Tsouni visited Alekseenko in ‘Kolomyiska Correctional Colony (No. 41)’ – Ukraine has 81 such camps (two for ‘juveniles’) – describing it as “outrageous and against European values and human rights standards” to see him “behind bars; he is clearly a prisoner of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally”. Tsouni delivered messages of support and solidarity from across Europe, plus photos of protests outside Ukrainian Embassies in Europe and beyond.

At a February 24 war-anniversary IPB webinar to mark ‘365 Days of War in Ukraine’ and ponder ‘Prospects Towards Peace in 2023,’ Sheliazhenko described Alekseenko as “a very brave man” who “courageously went to suffer for his faith without any attempt to escape or evade prison, because clear conscience gives him a feeling of security,” a moral courage alien to the caricature of the CO – the unpatriotic, probably pro-Russian, coward – presented in state-censored coverage of the war. “But such sort of believers are rare,” Sheliazhenko added, “because most people think about security in pragmatic terms.” He also praised the equally exceptional example of 34-year-old Andrii Vyshnevetsky, sent to the frontline against his will and detained for refusing to fight, saying when “the police took him to prison for his refusal to kill: ‘I will read New Testament in Ukrainian, and I will pray for God’s mercy, peace, and justice for my country.’”

The EBCO reports cites numerous other cases, e.g., 40-year-old Mykhailo Yavorsky, “a Christian conscientious objector who stated that he cannot pick up a weapon, wear a military uniform and kill people given his faith and relationship with God,” jailed for one year on April 6. But Sheliazhenko is right: such self-sacrificial defiance of a war state is unlikely ever to become a mass movement. It is also important to acknowledge, as I have done before, that some pre-war Ukrainian pacifists dropped their opposition to all war when war brutally visited them; and it is surely true that many men and women volunteered sincerely, eagerly, and bravely to help repel the invaders. However – and from the outset, not just as murderous stalemate set in – it is also true that compulsion and coercion on an epic scale has been integral to the state’s response, and a crucial driver of its decision to seek a military solution.

And what has emerged is an effective dictatorship. As early as March 2022, eleven ‘pro-Russian’ political parties were banned (were they really all ‘tools of the Kremlin’?). In December 2022, the government granted itself sweeping powers to ‘regulate’ all media  – and one story consequently left under- or misreported was, to quote Sheliazhenko’s war anniversary statement, the “cruel hunting for draftees on the streets, in transport, in hotels and even in churches”. Hyperbole? Here is the Guardian’s description of some daily scenes from August 2023:

Crews of mobilisation officers roam the streets and sometimes go door to door to hand out notices. Viral videos show officers bundling men into vans to deposit them at enlistment offices. … In Odesa, like in most Ukrainian cities, a Telegram chat group serves as a forum for people to share anonymised data about where recruitment officers, known informally as “olives” due to the colour of their uniforms, can be found on any given day. The group has more than 30,000 members. … Other people simply stay at home. A factory owner in eastern Ukraine said the threat of being grabbed by conscription officers on the morning commute meant some workers were too scared to go to work.

The critical problem for the state is that, despite all this human fuel, its war engine is badly misfiring, failing to realize the fantasy – a decisive ‘Glory to Ukraine’ victory routing and permanently weakening Russia – cynically overpromised by Kyiv and its NATO allies. It’s bad enough when a ‘winning’ game  needs not just ‘weapons, weapons, weapons,’ but ‘bodies, bodies, bodies’: but with Ukraine’s disastrous spring offensive – based on a ‘strategy’ described by the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardner on August 18 as “military madness” – creating hellish ‘warscapes’ on a par with WW1, there are predictable signs more and more Ukrainians are refusing to be ‘caught’ in the net: are starting to ‘think about security in pragmatic terms’ in a radically different way.

The government’s telling refusal to fully tally its military war dead – according to US estimates, around 70,000, with over 100,000 injured – is only helping expand an already sprawling “shadow market extorting bribes from evaders, selling corruption services such as fraudulent exemptions and cross border smuggling.” The quote is from the EBCO report, which adds: “Choice in favor of black market is understandable, because the war is breaking lives; one student prohibited from leaving Ukraine threatened to commit suicide, other students organized regular protests at Shegyni checkpoint and were beaten by the border guards.”

It may not be a sign of desperation, but on August 11 Zelensky sacked “all the heads of Ukraine’s regional military recruitment centres after officials,” the Guardian reported, “were accused of taking bribes from those seeking to avoid the frontlines” at “a time when the country’s army is in need of new recruits. In a sternly parental video statement, Zelensky declared:

This system should be run by people who know exactly what war is and why cynicism and bribery during war is treason. Instead, soldiers who have experienced the front or who cannot be in the trenches because they have lost their health, lost their limbs, but have preserved their dignity and do not have cynicism, are the ones who can be entrusted with this system of recruitment.

Unfortunately, there is every reason for people to ‘have cynicism’ about – and seek, in however undignified a manner, to survive – a slaughter destroying not just lives and the land but what’s left of Ukrainian democracy: a conflict Ukraine did not start, absolutely did not deserve, but which it could have worked harder to prevent, and must now accept will end in compromise creating space for recovery and reconciliation, a platform (however shaky) for the kind of deeply peaceful future personified by Vitaly Alekseenko, Andrii Vyshnevetsky, Mykhailo Yavorsky, Yurii Sheliazhenko, and other pacifists in Ukraine and Russia who have miraculously ‘preserved their dignity’ – remembered their humanity – amid the dishonesty and treachery of war.



On September 15, an emergency message from World BEYOND War announced “we’ve just learned that the office of the prosecutor and the ‘security service’ of Ukraine have published press releases claiming to have put a stop to the activities of the ‘vicious Russian propagandist Yurii Sheliazhenko,’” and that next week, Yurii will face prosecution in Kyiv”.

On August 23, Olga Karatch, founder and director of the ‘Our House’ organization opposing compulsory military service in Belarus, was denied political asylum in Lithuania, ludicrously designated as a “person who represents a threat to the national security of the Republic of Lithuania”. Karatch left Belarus after being labelled a ‘terrorist’; if forced to return, she will face decades in prison and potentially the death penalty. Under pressure from human rights groups, the authorities granted Karatch temporary residency for one year, though this can be rescinded at any time.

Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and Campaign Coordinator for Peace Quest Cape Breton.

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