Conscription: a modern case of slavery?

By Robin Vroom

Although slavery has been outlawed in all countries, there are modern forms of slavery that still exist to this day. The means through which modern forms of slavery operate differ greatly and do not only come in the obvious form in which one person takes ownership of another. Some forms of modern slavery are: debt bondage, serfdom, forced labour, and human trafficking. Yet one prevalent practise is often disregarded, namely military conscription. With this blog post I address a controversial topic – does conscription as an institution qualify to be labelled as a form of slavery?

The authors of the 1930 Forced Labour Convention – which is ratified by 177 countries - fully realised that military conscription fulfils the characteristics of forced labour. As it defines forced labour as “all work or service, which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily,” but exempted “any work or service exacted in virtue of compulsory military service.”

Now, whether one supports military conscription or not, one cannot argue against its substantial persistence in our current world. More than half of the world’s countries currently employ military conscription in one form or another (see figure 1). These forms of conscription are by definition involuntary servitude and restrict freedom of movement. Cooperation is institutionally enforced with punishments like imprisonment, exile, and in some cases even execution.

The main effect here probably is that the connotation attached to slavery evokes different emotions than conscription. Slavery is often regarded not solely as involuntary servitude, but as low-status involuntary servitude. Conscription on the other hand receives honour and provides a deep pool of manpower in the event of a national emergency. Notwithstanding, one ought to be careful when cost-efficiency compromises individual’s freedom.