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Civilian service is a Swiss institution, created in 1996 as an alternative to military service.

Any man who is unable to do compulsory military service for reasons of conscience can submit an application to be allowed to do substitute civilian service instead. The applicant is then forced to attend a hearing where he is to explain his reasons for refusal. After this hearing, the application is approved should the applicant be found to be unable to be a member of a military service due to the demands of his conscience. In most cases (85-90%), assignment to the civilian service is granted. If one is unfit to serve in the military because of physical or psychological impairments, he is also deemed unfit for civilian service, even if the impairments do not render the individual unable to fulfill a specific task related to the civilian service. This is true, for example, for a disabled person in a wheelchair who is perfectly able to work in the administration of a nursing home. Unless they have a very severe handicap, men excused or declared unfit to serve in the military are forced to pay a substitute fee of about 3% of their yearly income until the age of 42, when military service men are normally released from further service.

In 2005, the Swiss parliament (see Swiss politics) began to discuss if the "state of conscience hearings" should be abolished and if the willingness to serve a longer time (see below) should be the only criteria, citing the large administrative costs for judging the cases of just a few thousand applicants per year.

Once part of the civilian service program, one has to work 50% longer than the total normal cumulative military service period. Full cumulative military service for normal soldiers is currently 260 days, while full civilian service is 390 days. Many non-profit organizations are licensed to employ civilian service workers. Unlike the Civilian Service in Germany, where the servants do their work mainly in hospitals and healthcare sites, Swiss ones can apply for work in a broad variety of opportunities:

  • health care
  • welfare
  • environmental protection
  • agriculture (small or alpine farms)
  • research projects
  • development assistance abroad

Civilian service men must have the appropriate skills for each type of assignment - for example, because there are only very few job vacancies in development aid.

A big difference between civilian and military service is that civilian service participant can greatly profit from his substitute service - in terms of work experience - to achieve a better position after the service, although it is formally not allowed to do civilian service with, for example, the goal of passing an exam in mind. So, during civilian service in a research institute one must not write personal academic papers to be submitted at a later time.

There are still issues with how to handle Swiss living abroad who have already passed recruitment and are already members of the Swiss militia army. In this case they are not exempt from military service or civilian service, and every step of the application process requires their presence in Switzerland.

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