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International affairs, peace
and human security


History and overview of WCC relations with the UN


Inspired by the 1937 ecumenical conference on Life and Work, ecumenical bodies, particularly in the USA and Great Britain, and on behalf of the WCC (in process of formation), began after 1943 to discuss how the hoped-for peace would be structured. The League of Nations and its failure to command universal commitment to world order stood in the background. A series of World Order Study Conferences were held in the US to consider how a new United Nations (based on the anti-fascist military alliance of the Western powers, China and Russia) might be structured. They were informed by the missionary movement which began in 1910, one feature of which was to strengthen "indigenous" churches in relation to their governments.

The US churches developed a programme called "Six Pillars for Peace" which offered important correctives to the draft charter for the UN produced at the Dunbarton Oaks Conference in Washington, D.C. There an appeal was made for the incorporation of human rights provisions in the Charter, the revision of the draft to recognize what today would be called "civil society" as a counterbalance to a structure of governmental powers alone, and the democratization of the UN in a way which would recognize the role of the great powers, but give a say to all nations, large and small.

At the last minute, the US government decided to include in its delegation to the San Francisco Conference a non-governmental observer component in which religious groups and labor unions were well represented. At a crucial point, Prof. O. Fredrick Nolde, speaking on behalf of this group, argued successfully for adjustments, which would follow the lines of the "Pillars for Peace".

A post-war meeting of the WCC was held in 1946 which decided that there should be created a Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA). It was set up under the joint sponsorship of the WCC and the International Missionary Council to ensure an effective relationship between the churches and the leadership of the United Nations. In the same year, the CCIA was recognized as one of the first non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to be granted status. Since that time, the CCIA maintains formal consultative relations with the UN on behalf of the WCC. An early consultation developed the aims of the new Commission, which remain to a large degree unaltered in the present by-laws of the CCIA. These included a role of "forming the Christian mind" on pressing world issues, and to assist the churches in promoting peace with justice and freedom. Other aims were the development of international law and of effective international institutions; respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious liberty; efforts for disarmament; the furthering of economic and social justice, the right to self-determination of peoples, and social, cultural, educational and humanitarian enterprises.


In earlier years, the CCIA was instrumental in helping shape the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Status with ECOSOC (CONGO) and of specialized committees in New York and Geneva in such areas as human rights, disarmament and development. For many years it provided leadership to many of these.

The biographer of the first permanent director, Dr. Nolde, notes that the staff of the CCIA were often highly regarded in inner circles of the UN both for their expertise, and for the pastoral role several of them played with diplomats and senior secretariat officials. Indeed, through the regular production of a "pre-Assembly memorandum" which was circulated to all permanent missions at UN Headquarters, CCIA made delegations aware of the positions of the WCC on the growing range of items on the General Assembly agenda. Many of these issues were pursued during the work of the General Assembly and its Committees. For years, through 1968, the staff of the CCIA and some of its officers regularly attended the annual General Assemblies, and were sometimes regarded as fixtures in the meetings (and in the Delegates Lounge). Their advice was often sought, and sometimes followed.

CCIA can rightly claim to have been influential in permanently locating a number of items on the UN agenda. It played a key role in promoting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the creation of the Commission on Human Rights and later of the drafting of the Covenants on Civil and Political, and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. It was influential in such areas as disarmament, decolonization, refugee protection and relief, population, the status of women, women in development, the eradication of poverty, and racism.


Throughout its first twenty years the CCIA was staffed by Americans and West Europeans, and heavily focussed on the North Atlantic agenda. In 1968 a thorough review took place in The Hague, on the eve of the Uppsala Assembly. The results of that, and the influence of General Secretary Eugene Carson Blake, brought the appointment of an Argentine director and shifted the agenda much more in line with the broader Third World perspectives, which were confirmed at the 1968 Fourth WCC Assembly.

From that time, representations to the UN have focussed heavily on an agenda closer to that of the Group of 77. Examples were work on the elimination of racism and of the apartheid regime of South Africa, the African liberation struggle, militarization, human rights abuses under military dictatorships, nuclear disarmament, international economic justice and a new world economic order, the rights of women and of indigenous peoples, and a concern for children and youth.

The original headquarters of CCIA was in New York, where it remained through 1969. Since then, the office there has been renamed the CCIA/WCC United Nations Headquarters Liaison Office in New York. The staff member there, Laurence Konmla Brophleh, carries the title UN Representative. For financial reasons, he is the sole staff of the office, though periodic arrangements are made to engage interns to assist him for certain periods.


Current programme

CCIA/WCC has participated in and often made substantive contributions to most major UN World Conferences held over the years, and helped plan NGO parallel events around many of them. During the 1990s these included the World Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit), the Copenhagen Social Summit, the Beijing World Conference on Women in Development, and the Cairo World Conference on Population and Development.

In 1995, the Central Committee reviewed and revised WCC policy with regard to the UN, asserting for the first time that the WCC considered itself not just as an NGO, but also as a participant in the process of global governance. In so doing it reasserted its earlier position that the UN does not set the ecumenical agenda, but is a means by which that agenda is furthered and applied to international policy-making. With respect to world conferences, it said that the WCC would engage only in those which were a matter of priority for the WCC, and then only if intensive work could be foreseen in both the preparatory and follow-up phases of that work. Thus the WCC has worked especially on the follow-up work of the Commissions on Social Development, the Status of Women, and Sustainable Development, including Climate Change. As an active member of the NGO Coalition for the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), it has worked to further the application of the international rule of law. Ecumenical Delegations have participated in meetings of the Commission and its Subcommission on Human Rights in Geneva.


In the earliest years, it was understood that the CCIA would provide the main means to represent WCC member churches at the UN. Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, however, the UN has opened the doors to consultative status for several hundred NGOs, including WCC member churches, requiring a new approach by the WCC as facilitator of access and a provider of ecumenical coordination. Thus during the past three years, the UN Headquarters Liaison Office in New York has coordinated and facilitated ecumenical teams attending ECOSOC Commission meetings (Women, Social and Sustainable Development). These ecumenical teams have allowed for a more cohesive and effective church presence. Their effectiveness has been enhanced as a result of their broad regional representation, gender balance, and the participation of Indigenous Peoples and youth. In this way, the Council gives expression to the conviction expressed in the Charter that the UN is an instrument of the "peoples".

The CCIA continues to be an active member of several NGO Committees in New York (Social Development, Women, Indigenous Peoples, Children in Armed Conflict, International Criminal Court, and Security Council), though in Geneva its participation has reduced considerably. The dramatic increase in the number of ECOSOC NGOs has impacted on the role of the Conference of NGOs (CONGO), of which CCIA was a founding member. No longer is it the sole interlocutor for ECOSOC NGOs. The increase has also had repercussions with respect to the participation of NGOs in exercise of consultative status, and on access of NGOs to UN facilities, especially in New York. In this regard, CCIA has actively participated in the ongoing discussions with the UN and Member States concerning the rights, responsibilities and privileges of NGOs at the UN.

In our parallel institutional lives, the membership of both the WCC and UN has changed significantly from the founders, who were mostly from the global North, to current membership which is mostly from the global South. Our respective agendas have expanded and for the WCC, important additional issues on our agenda today include: globalization, the international debt crisis, climate change and global warming, HIV/AIDS, women under racism, indigenous peoples and their land struggle, application of sanctions. All these issues currently addressed at the UN. Of programmatic concern is to see how our input into UN debates is prioritized, and how we judge where our efforts can have the maximum impact.








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© 2004 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor
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