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International affairs, peace
and human security

  • History
  • Nuclear non-proliferation
  • Small arms & light weapons
  • Decade to Overcome Violence


    The challenge
    During the 1990's the patterns of global conflict and the international communities' responses to them changed tremendously. According to the UN General Secretary, more than 90% of armed conflicts then took place within rather than between states. Violent crime in some industrialized cities in the world increased and the results were similar to a war-torn society. However the year 2001 marked a watershed in the global effort to understand the problems caused by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and to work to create solutions. This was manifested in the 2001 UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (2001 UN conf.doc), an unprecedented high-level effort to achieve international agreement on the nature of the problem and the most important measures to deal with its various dimensions. In the wake of September 11 and the renewed cycle of violence it has spawned, it was more critical than ever for individuals, states and civil society actors to maintain a focus on the small arms problem.

    The consequences associated with the unregulated and unrestrained proliferation of small arms were devastating. Of the fifty or so conflicts started since 1990, small arms were the exclusive weapons of choice in an estimated 90 per cent of those. During that period, an estimated six million civilians were killed in conflict, constituting between 30 and 90 per cent of all conflict-related fatalities. In addition to the loss of human life, and the destruction of physical and social infrastructure that they cause, light weapons also: heightened tensions and insecurities by making recourse to arms more likely; intensified and prolonged conflicts since these arms were in virtually limitless supply; and remained long after hostilities had ceased, undermining conflict resolution and development efforts.

    The proliferation of small arms and light weapons at the local level fueled crime and fosterered a culture of violence. Moreover, the illicit trade in light weapons was often associated with other criminal activities, such as terrorism, money laundering, and the trafficking of drugs and other black-market commodities.

    Churches were often left to deal with the consequences of small arms and light weapons. In both the developed and in the developing world, the churches were often the first point of contact for individuals who had suffered from the (adverse) consequences of light weapons proliferation.

    The Programme to Overcome Violence

    This innovative programme was developed at a time when the ecumenical commitment to a peaceful resolution of conflicts was being put to a severe test. The horrors of war and genocide were haunting the whole world. A "Note on the Contemporary Role of the Church in International Affairs" (Central Committee, 1995) reviewed the painful ecumenical debate among differing Christian attitudes to war and peace, the use of sanctions and whether violence can be justified as a last resort in pursuit of peace.

    The questions asked then are still valid and remain with us today: "What alternatives has the church to offer to violence as a response to conflict? What can the church do to lower or eradicate the incidence of violence in society? How can the churches and Christians strengthen their capacity to remain in dialogue on deeply divisive social and political issues?"

    The Programme to Overcome Violence and the elaboration by the WCC of a set of criteria for determining the applicability and effectiveness of sanctions were attempts to respond to these questions. For five years, the CCIA, within the former Unit III: Justice , Peace and Creation, carried responsibility for shaping this programme. It launched its first global peace campaign "Peace to the City" to ensure that the agenda of peacebuilding and non-violence would remain high on the churches' agenda. This led to the proclamation by the Eighth Assembly (Harare, 1998) of an ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace (2001-2010).

    The founding of the WCC in 1948 was delayed for nine years because of the Second World War. From the beginning, the WCC sought to avoid war, minister to its victims, and rebuild towns and villages destroyed by war. Needless to say, these experiences of war and the fact that the name of God had often been invoked to bless these war efforts shaped the churches', and hence the WCC's, attitude to the use of force and violence.

    Since 1948, many important resolutions have been issued by WCC governing bodies with regard to questions of violence, non-violence, transformation of conflicts and dialogue. In the 1950's the Puidoux conferences led the Third Assembly (New Delhi 1961) to direct the Studies Division to sponsor a consultation on the biblical and theological bases of peace witness. The Fourth WCC Assembly, (Uppsala, 1968) responding to the example of the non-violent struggle for social change of Martin Luther King who had been assassinated shortly before the Assembly, called for a study process on "Violence and Non-Violence in the Struggle for Social Justice". The study report was received by the Central Committee in 1973. It could do little more than to restate the basic ethical dilemma, which has accompanied the wider ecumenical discussion on war and peace since the Oxford Conference in 1937.

    However, the continuing ecumenical discussion on the increasing threat of nuclear destruction, led to the conviction that "the spirit, logic, and practice of nuclear deterrence" not only had to be rejected, but that the very institution of war had to be overcome and de-legitimized for the sake of human survival in a globalizing world. By late 1970's, the CCIA convened a consultation on peaceful resolution of conflicts, seeking viable alternatives to military-dominated systems of national defense. In 1978, a Consultation on Disarmament called for the Cold War to be replaced by "warm peace". Ecumenical thinking gradually moved in the direction of the need for justice as a means of avoiding and resolving conflicts and to the need to eliminate the root causes of war found in economic injustice, oppression, exploitation and violations of human rights.

    When the pace of the arms race escalated dramatically in the early 1980's, there was a remarkable growth of church-based peace movements in Europe and North America. Some churches in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions began to regard the opposition to the nuclear arms race as a question of status confessionis. During the Sixth Assembly (Vancouver 1983) churches reiterated their previous call, emphasizing "their willingness to live without the protection of armaments." In the Assembly Statement on Peace and Justice, they affirmed that " Christians should give witness to their unwillingness to participate in any conflict involving weapons of mass destruction or indiscriminate effect". They went on to endorse the conclusions drawn by the panel at the WCC International Public Hearings on Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament (Amsterdam 1981) that "churches must unequivocally declare that the production and deployment as well as the use of nuclear weapons are a crime against humanity and that such activities must be condemned on ethical and theological grounds."

    The 1990s began with the World Convocation on Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (Seoul , 1990) which affirmed "the full meaning of God's peace," and the calling "to seek every possible means of establishing justice, achieving peace and solving conflicts by active non-violence." It spoke of the need to demilitarize international relations, to promote non-violent forms of defense, to work for banning of war as a legally recognized means of resolving conflicts, and to press governments for the establishment of an international legal order of peacemaking. This commitment was strengthened in an act of covenant "for a culture of active non-violence which is life-producing and is not a withdrawal from situations of violence and oppression, but is a way to work for justice and liberation."

    One year later at the Seventh Assembly (Canberra, 1991), with the Gulf War in the background, churches hesitated to reaffirm this conviction and commitment. The Gulf War had demonstrated the widely differing attitudes of the churches to the just war theory. The subsequent war in the Former Yugoslavia caused the old the East-West division to resurface, and once again churches questioned the right of some others to belonging to this koinonia. In an attempt to take a new form of address to the old pacifist-just war debate, the Central Committee meeting in Johannesburg in 1994 responded enthusiastically to an appeal from a South African Methodist Bishop to launch a new WCC programme to "combat violence," and adopted the Programme to Overcome Violence.

    The ecumenical debate on peace and non-violence

    Throughout this millennium, churches have adopted different positions on war and violence. The Crusades at the beginning of the second millennium used theology to legitimize their actions. The "just war" theory was subsequently developed in an attempt to control war by identifying specific criteria under which the war itself may be justified (jus ad bellum) and certain conditions that are to apply in the midst of war (jus in bello). Through the centuries, Christians of different traditions have adopted theories arising out of their own contexts and realities. Some churches identified closely with the state and blessed its military actions. Others asserted the right to resist unjust rulers. Others still condemned the use of violence under any circumstances. Whatever their position, churches have often found themselves divided by violence and war, and lined up with different sides of a conflict. Even in times of relative peace, different attitudes towards war and violence have also been divisive of the churches. Partly as a result of these factors, the churches have often been able to offer a united witness for many centuries.

    Through the Programme to Overcome Violence, the WCC engaged in a global peace campaign, called Peace to the City! Peace to the City was launched in 1997 in Johannesburg, forming a network of seven symbolic cities, including Belfast, Northern Ireland; Boston, USA; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Durban, South Africa; Kingston, Jamaica; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Suva, Fiji Islands, from around the world doing creative work in peace-building. Rather than seeking to resolve the long-standing debates about non-violence, or trying to specify the relative justice of particular wars or specific issues of violence, the Peace to the City campaign focused on the building or strengthening of 'Jubilee Communities' of justice. The goals were to make these visible, recognize the value of their approaches and methodologies, stimulate sharing and networking, and to give others hope and stimulus to attempt something similar in their own contexts.

    The early campaign process was very intensive and highlighted different peacebuilding efforts around the world. It developed new partnerships and strategies as well as a set of new priorities based on concrete needs. The WCC served as a "switchboard" connecting the communities and acted as a "spotlight" identifying more and more grassroots partners and initiatives. Most important, the campaign demonstrated an emerging new people’s movement, working towards social transformation and shaping a culture of peace for the 21st century.

    To develop a dynamic, global peace network that provided space to explore ideas and share resources a comprehensive communication strategy was designed. This included a Peace to the City Website and Email list-server, individual city homepages all connected to each other, a Peace to the City newsletter giving updates about each city's peacebuilding efforts and experiences, and informative articles about other initiatives, upcoming events and resources. Campaign materials like T-shirts, stickers, posters and a song were also developed. In addition, the campaign developed resources for study and action. These included:

    A video series "Peace to the Cities : Stories of Hope", with locally produced segments as well as a 26-minute compilation, describing the campaign as a whole and each city's imaginative efforts to build bridges between and reconcile communities in conflict.

    A discussion guide to assist groups in using the series for discussion and action.

    A companion book called "Peace in Troubled Cities: Creative Models of Building Community Amidst Urban Violence" recounting stories of creative community by Daphne Sabanes Plou, who accompanied the campaign process and traveled to each of the cities personally.

    A book for the WCC Risk Book series, called "Overcoming Violence : A Challenge to the Churches in All Places" by Bishop Margot Kaessman of Hannover, exploring the opportunities and difficulties linked with the vocation of non-violence.

    A collection of essays on the biblical and theological background for peacemaking, with practical examples from local and global settings on "Transforming Violence : Linking Local and Global Peacemaking" from the Historic Peace Churches and the Fellowship of Reconciliation of North America.Study processes on Microdisarmament (Small Arms - Big Impact: A Challenge to the Churches) in cooperation with Saferworld and Viva Rio and on the Theological Perspectives on Violence and Non-Violence, which was done in cooperation with WCC Unit on Faith and Order.

    All these materials are important tools for the sharing, story-telling and cross-level alliance-building that lay at the heart of Peace to the City, and remained vital elements to the growing network. They were also to be resources for soon-to-be-born the Decade to Overcome Violence.

    One of the most valuable opportunities afforded by this global ecumenical peace network was the unique opportunity it afforded to see the causal links, and the commonalities between diverse contexts. Although many common elements were revealed in our work together, none came forward more frequently or with more urgency than the problem of the proliferation of small arms. In Rio de Janeiro, statistics showed a rapid rise in the use and possession of guns, particularly in the 13-18 age range. Over 4000 youths under the age of eighteen in Rio de Janeiro were killed by firearms over fourteen years, in contrast to less than 500 in the Palestine-Israeli conflict over the same period. In Northern Ireland, the issue of decommissioning became the key stumbling block in implementing the Good Friday Agreement. It was only by unpacking the overlapping social, economic, political, cultural and psychological causes of violence that we could better understand the role of various stakeholders, and therefore develop effective means of dealing with this problem.

    The Decade to Overcome Violence

    The Assembly in Harare marked an important milestone in the WCC's agenda for peace and reconciliation. While it marked a symbolic end to the "Peace to the City" campaign phase, it also gave the churches a renewed opportunity to reflect toward the future, and what the Assembly's commitment to action to build a culture of peace to overcome the spirit, logic and practice of violence meant to them.

    A significant part of this question was answered when suddenly the unexpected happened and the delegates made the courageous proclamation to declare 2001-2010 the Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace. The call for the Decade was an exciting new opportunity to focus on the Christian message of truth-telling, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation that were the underlying themes of the Peace to the City message. The call for the Decade affirmed this growing grassroots peace movement and its message that peace is both possible and practical.

    By declaring the Decade to Overcome Violence, the WCC made a commitment to join together the many programmes throughout the Council which were contribuing to the goal of overcoming violence. The WCC Central Committee stated the goals of the Decade as follows:

    "In order to move peace-building from the periphery to the centre of the life and witness of the church and to build stronger alliances and understanding among churches, networks, and movements which are working toward a culture of peace, the goals of the Decade to Overcome Violence are:

    • Addressing holistically the wide varieties of violence, both direct and structural, in homes, communities, and in international arenas and learning from the local and regional analyses of violence and ways to overcome violence.
    • Challenging the churches to overcome the spirit, logic, and practice of violence; to relinquish any theological justification of violence; and to affirm anew the spirituality of reconciliation and active nonviolence.
    • Creating a new understanding of security in terms of cooperation and community, instead of in terms of domination and competition.
    • Learning from the spirituality and resources for peace-building of other faiths to work with communities of other faiths in the pursuit of peace and to challenge the churches to reflect on the misuse of religious and ethnic identities in pluralistic societies.
    • Challenging the growing militarization of our world, especially the proliferation of small arms and light weapons."
    The Peacebuilding and Disarmament programme including the Peace to the City network were important foci for the Decade, especially challenging the growing militarization of the world and developing a new understanding of human security and strategies for conflict resolution and peacebuilding.

    As an organization in consultative status with the United Nations, the WCC continued to work with partners in UNESCO to explore the vast potential for collaboration presented by our parallel work on building a culture of peace. The year 2000 was proclaimed by the United Nations as the "International Year for the Culture of Peace", and the years 2001-2010 the "International Decade for the promotion of a Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World". UNESCO was designated the coordinating body, and called upon the continuing participation of civil society and NGO's, who have played a fundamental role in the definition of the conceptual framework and the actions developed in favor of the Culture of Peace.

    The Peacebuilding and Disarmament Programme

    This programme, developed and implemented in the context of the Decade to Overcome Violence, seeks to help individuals, families, churches, societies and the international community to live creatively with conflict, which is a normal feature of life in community. It promotes creative approaches to conflict management and transformation through developing and/or highlighting innovative community approaches to overcome violence. Special emphasis is placed on urban violence and armed conflict, human insecurity and advocacy for the effective control and reduction of conventional weapons, the elimination of nuclear weapons and non-military approaches to peace and security.

    The Peacebuilding and Disarmament Programme works in the following areas:

    • Research, analysis and reflection for understanding and policy development on nuclear and microdisarmament;
    • Training and capacity-building for conflict resolution and post-confli ct peacebuilding, (including mediation, early warning, prevention, intervention);
    • Networking and Advocacy to influence policy globally, regionally and nationally;
    • Communicating, sharing information and awareness building to address challenges to human security and peacebuilding;
    • Resource sharing for peace and disarmament work; Mobilizing international campaigns and coordinating practical peacebuilding actions of the network.
    • To encourage and support initiatives aiming at overcoming violence.
    • To assist and build the capacity the churches in mediation and negotiation, peacebuilding, active non-violence, transformation of conflicts and reconciliation.
    • To maintain and strengthen the Peace to the City Network as one of the dynamic ecumenical networks within the Decade to Overcome Violence.
    • To reformulate the concept of global security, focussing on the safety and well-being of persons (human security) based on justice.
    • To develop ecumenical policy on small arms and light weapons and develop national and regional ecumenical networks as part of the global campaign against small arms and light weapons.
    • To advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
    • To explore and deepen relationships and forge new alliances between the formal and non-formal sectors; traditional and new partners; social scientists; theologians and other civil society actors.
    • To seek creative new ways for people in local situations to question and learn from one another and to explore new methodologies of cross cultural, contextual peacebuilding.
    Initially, staff focused specially on enlarging a peace and disarmament network through the Peace to the City and the Ecumenical Network against Small Arms, and reaching out to WCC member churches by providing training and relevant resources and reformulating the concept of global security, focussing on the safety and well-being of persons (human security) based on justice. There was special emphasis on incorporating the agenda for the protection, rights and well-being of children and youth in violent situations and wars in all activities.

    As one of the many programmes in the WCC contributing to the coming decade, these activities and networks provided a framework within which churches, religious communities, peace and justice organizations, gun control and disarmament groups, and individuals engaged in peacebuilding all over the world could support and learn from each other. The world-wide web was used as a means of communication, sharing information, training, networking and advocacy.

    Apart from creative uses of the Web for networking, the programme explored the possibility of further expanding the functional role of the Internet to include on-line mediation training to churches and ecumenical partners. Yearly face-to-face training seminars continued to be organized, initially with a focus on urban violence, which included street ministry, court advocacy, community policing, mediation, counseling and conflict resolution.

    Inter-regional (city to city) exchanges and visits were encouraged to allow partners to gain first-hand experience of the local situations faced by other partners and learn how they address the conflicts they face. Annual meetings of the Peace to the City network were organized around specific campaigns, highlighting peacebuilding initiatives. The meetings were also aimed at offering a common platform to share their experiences, make recommendations for action and advocacy.

    In addition, staff continued to play an active role in advocacy with UN and other inter-governmental and international bodies. In this respect, staff and commissioners continued to play a leadership role within IANSA, working with other secular organizations to tackle the different aspects of gun proliferation and misuse, NGO groups such as Small Arms and Light Weapons Working Group of the Steering Committee on Humanitarian Response (SCHR), APRODEV Working Group on Small Arms and the Special NGO Committee on Disarmament.








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