Norway and the Prisoners of Peace

F. J. Riopelle in Agni:

Imagine a country, I used to tell my students of Norwegian at Harvard, of beautiful fjords and impressive coastal scenery, of extensive petroleum reserves, natural gas, minerals, lumber, seafood and fresh water, with universal health care, subsidized higher education, a comprehensive social security system and very low unemployment rate. Imagine the world’s most well-functioning and stable country, where parents have forty-seven weeks of paid parental leave and prison cells look like budget hotel rooms. And—as a final flight of Lennonesque imagination—imagine all the people, or at least some, living life in peace in these cells—because they are pacifists.

That broke the spell, didn’t it? Norway’s great international reputation is well deserved, but a student of its language and culture should also learn about the embarrassments lurking behind this utopian image of Norway. There is, for instance, a curious lack of statistics for the number of convicted pacifists in Norway—the country that administers the Nobel Peace Prize, presumably because Alfred Nobel found it even more peaceful than Sweden—a curious lack of information, on Wikipedia and elsewhere, but I know, as John Lennon says in one of his protest songs, that I’m not the only one.

According to European Bureau for Conscientious Objection’s 2011 report, Norway is one of three European countries that “prosecute conscientious objectors repeatedly for their continued refusal to serve in the army” (the other countries are Greece and Turkey). “Each year, between one-hundred and two-hundred conscripts refuse to perform both military and substitute service,” and they are thereby penalized.

I am one of them—a conscientious objector, not only to the military service, but also to the substitute civilian service. In a report of 2002, researchers in Norway’s Ministry of Defense acknowledged that the civilian service, which is labor typically performed in healthcare institutions, retirement homes, kindergartens and schools, is little more than a “sanction of men who refuse to perform military service.” It “costs about 230 million Norwegian kroner per year,” and is “obviously unprofitable based on socio-economic considerations.”

Civilian service is thus a disguised penalty for pacifism; it exists in order to make it more difficult to refuse military service.

More here.

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