PBI-Canada observes International Conscientious Objection Day

Published by Brent Patterson on

May 15th is International Conscientious Objection Day.

It is a day to remember and celebrate the resistance of conscientious objectors who refused to participate in armed conflict or be conscripted into the military. It recognizes those who uphold the right to refuse to kill.

Three of the founders of Peace Brigades International – Charles Walker, Gene Keyes and Lee Stern – were conscientious objectors who had served time in prison prior to their gathering on Grindstone Island in 1981 to launch PBI.

The Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation notes, “Even as a student, Charles Walker abhorred violence and became a conscientious objector to World War II. He was a Board Member of the Central Committee of Conscientious Objectors to War. He was imprisoned for this activity and detached to hospital service.”

On May 15, 1964, Gene Keyes was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. In a telegram to the President and Attorney General, he wrote, “There is no moral validity to any part of any law whose purpose is to train people to kill one another. I hereby reject the order to report for induction.” Keyes was sentenced to six months for contempt and then in 1965 to three years in prison for failing to report for military service.

And this Swarthmore College Peace Collection biography notes, “Lee Stern was a conscientious objector during World War II. He refused to report to Civilian Public Service as ordered, and was imprisoned as a result, in Milan (Michigan) from December 1942 through January 1946. While in prison, he refused to follow rules on racial segregation and sat with black prisoners during meals. His actions, along with those of other conscientious objectors eventually led to integration in the federal prison system.”

It is also notable that while George Willoughby was not able to participate at the founding meeting on Grindstone Island, he was one of the signatories to the invitation to that gathering and was involved in PBI for many years afterwards.

War Resisters International notes, “George Willoughby joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1944 and declared conscientious objector status. He then worked at a Civilian Public Service Camp. In 1966, George and other radical Quakers formed A Quaker Action Group. The organization’s primary purpose was to use nonviolent action campaigns to shorten the Vietnam War.”

In 2004, Peace Brigades International-Canada endorsed the War Resisters Support Campaign. That campaign was founded to assist US military personnel who refused to participate in the Iraq war and came here seeking asylum. It called on the Canadian government to demonstrate its commitment to international law and the treaties to which it is a signatory, by making provision for US war objectors to have sanctuary in this country.

The Principles and Mandate of PBI state, “PBI is convinced that enduring peace and lasting solutions of conflicts between and within nations cannot be achieved by violent means and therefore it rejects violence of any kind and from any source.”

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