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French désertion (1414), Latin dēsertiōn-em, n. of action fromdēserĕre to forsake, abandon, de- prefix + serĕre to join


  • 1. The action of deserting, forsaking, or abandoning, esp. a person or thing that has moral or legal claims to the deserter's support; sometimes simply, abandonment of or departure from a place.
  • 2. Law. The wilful abandonment of an employment or of duty, in violation of a legal or moral obligation; esp. such abandonment of the military or naval service. Also, wilful abandonment of the conjugal society, without reasonable cause, on the part of a husband or wife.
  • 3. a. Deserted condition; desertedness.
b. ‘Spiritual despondency: a sense of the dereliction of God’ (Johnson).


In military terminology, desertion is the abandonment of a "duty" or post without permission and is done with the intention of not returning. "Absence Without Leave" (AWOL) can refer to either desertion or a temporary absence.

International Law

Under international law, ultimate "duty" or "responsibility" is not necessarily always to a "Government" nor to "a superior," as seen in the fourth of the Nuremberg Principles, which states:

"The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

This Nuremberg Principle of "moral choice," "morality," or "conscience" being the higher authority was subsequently formulated into International Law by the United Nations as we see in this quote:

"Under UN General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), paragraph (a), the International Law Commission was directed to 'formulate the principles of international law recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the judgment of the Tribunal.'"

In 1998, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights document called “Conscientious objection to military service, United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution 1998/77” recognized that “persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections” while performing military service.[1]