Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö’s comments at the opening of the National Defence Training session on Monday raised eyebrows, especially among members of the Union of Conscientious Objectors.
Niinistö fretted about reservists who opted to swap from military to civil service when refresher training came around, saying that the practice undermined the system of armed service.
Union secretary Kaj Raninen said that reservist objection to armed service was a question of opinion and freedom of conscience, and is protected in Finnish laws as well as international human rights agreements.
"This also includes the right to change one’s opinion. From the get-go the fact that he calls reservists deserters for refusing shows poor taste at the very least," Raninen said.
The union spokesman said that it was no surprise that the subject aroused strong feelings on both sides.
"There are many people in Finland for whom the military service system is cherished and important. Actions that are seen to counter it stir up feelings, and this is not the first time," Raninen remarked.
Spike in refusals after NATO host nation pact signed
According to Raninen the union constantly received queries from reservists about leaving. He said that heightened tensions in Europe had put a damper on reservists' appetite for armed service.
He noted that the situation has caused people to think about the meaningfulness and effectiveness of armed national defence. He said increasing access to information also played its part in the development.
"Finnish foreign policy, for example closer relations with NATO has affected many. When Finland signed the NATO host nation support agreement, there was a clear spike [in objectors]."
A reservist can apply for civilian service as part of the programme of refresher or supplementary training. The Defence Forces cannot deny such applications.
In 2015, nearly 1,000 people applied to change their form of service. In 2016, there were 700 applications for civilian refresher service, up from just a few hundred every year.