World Council of Churches
Potsdam, Germany
29 January - 6 February 2001
Document No. PI 2rev



The Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Potsdam, 29 January -- 6 February 2001:

Notes and conveys to the churches that on the substance of the concern to protect populations caught in situations of armed violence described in the following background document there was broad agreement, but that some differences remain with respect to the use of armed force for the protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence;

Receives and commends the document to the churches for further study, reflection and use -- as they may deem appropriate -- in their continuing dialogues with policy-makers, governments, international organizations, research bodies, groups advocating large-scale non-violent civilian intervention and other peace initiatives and with civil society at large.

Requests the churches to share the results of these studies, reflections and dialogues with the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA); and

Requests the CCIA, in consultation with the Decade to Overcome Violence Reference Group, to report back to the Central Committee at a later date.


At its last meeting, the Central Committee (September 1999) adopted a "Memorandum and Recommendations on International Security and Response to Armed Conflict" that called for new approaches to international peace and security in the post-Cold War world and highlighted some of the dilemmas around "humanitarian intervention" raised especially by the Kosovo experience. The Central Committee called on the WCC General Secretary to:

Facilitate a study, in consultation and cooperation with church-related and other humanitarian agencies, and with competent research institutes, to be presented to the Central Committee on the ethics of so-called "humanitarian intervention," taking into account the legitimate right of states to be free of undue interference in their internal affairs and the moral obligation of the international community to respond when states are unwilling or incapable of guaranteeing respect for human rights and peace within their own borders.

The question of so-called "humanitarian intervention" became a topic of serious international concern in the early 1990’s when access by humanitarian organizations to populations in dire humanitarian need was blocked for political reasons in several places, notably Southern Sudan and northern Iraq, by ruling political authorities. This gave rise to many scholarly studies and to debate in United Nations circles, where a new post of Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs was created.

The issue was highlighted by later military interventions in places like Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and later in Kosovo that were sometimes justified as necessary for "humanitarian reasons."

Church and ecumenical debates on these questions during the last decade of the 20th century risked being divisive of the fellowship, frequently along the lines of theological perspectives about the degree to which Christians can accept the use of armed force in any circumstance. Yet churches were being sought as partners in dialogue by government and international policy-makers seeking accompaniment as they too wrestled with the moral, ethical and even theological questions involved.

These issues are complicated, reflecting the new moral and ethical dilemmas with which the world and the ecumenical movement have increasingly been confronted since the end of the Cold War. The Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), that was charged with carrying out the study requested by the Central Committee, immersed itself in these complexities and produced a draft of the attached document. This was significantly revised by the Central Committee at its meeting in Potsdam, Germany (January-February 2001), where the Decade to Overcome Violence was launched. It understood that efforts to overcome violence are made in a violent world where populations are endangered even as these discussions are going on. The debate on the draft again revealed clearly the different theological perspectives among member churches with respect to violence and non-violence.

Members of the Central Committee were invited to submit this draft to the responsible policy bodies of their churches for further dialogue and reflection before the meeting and to submit their reactions and those of their churches to the Central Committee in the hope that a formulation might be found which could be adopted by consensus.

Such a consensus could not be found, however. The differences of perspectives among Christians with respect to the use of armed force -- described in more detail below -- continue. On the substance of the concern to protect populations caught in situations of armed violence described in the following background document there was broad agreement. The Central Committee reviewed and refined further a set of proposed criteria and guidelines for the protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence. On these, some differences remain.


1. The moral obligation of the international community to protect the lives of civilian populations that are at risk in situations where their government is unable or unwilling to act has long been widely accepted in and beyond the ecumenical movement, and questions of Christian responsibility in humanitarian crises have often been the subject of reflection, discussion, and prayer among churches. However, since the end of the Cold War, the practice of what was called "humanitarian intervention" has given rise to an often-heated international debate. The WCC Eighth Assembly (Harare 1998) affirmed

the emphasis of the Gospel on the value of all human beings in the sight of God, on the atoning and redeeming work of Christ that has given every person true dignity, on love as the motive for action, and on love for one’s neighbors as the practical expression of active faith in Christ. We are members one of another, and when one suffers all are hurt. This is the responsibility Christians bear to ensure the human rights of every person.
2. The Central Committee agreed in 1992 "that active non-violent action be affirmed as a clear emphasis in programmes and projects related to conflict resolution." It called upon the WCC, "through a study and reflection process, (to) clarify to what extent the fellowship (koinonia) of the World Council is called into question when churches fail to categorically condemn any systematic violation of human rights that takes place in their country."

3. A study document entitled, "Overcoming the Spirit, Logic and Practice of War," responding to this request was presented to the Central Committee at its meeting in Johannesburg, 1994.1 It noted that the 1992 decision that had been reached following a Central Committee debate on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia:

restated one of the oldest concerns of the ecumenical movement, one which has been formulated in different ways according to changing historical contexts. The most often quoted version, is the affirmation by the First Assembly (Amsterdam 1948), which held that
War as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The part which war plays in our present international life is a sin against God and a degradation of man.
A decade earlier, the Oxford Conference on Church, Community and State (1937) had said, on the eve of the Second World War,
If war breaks out, then pre-eminently the Church must manifestly be the Church, still united as the one Body of Christ, though the nations wherein it is planted fight each other, consciously offering the same prayers that God's name be hallowed, His Kingdom come, and His Will be done, in both, or all, the warring nations.
4. The perspectives of Christians on matters of war and the use of armed force differ radically, and have time and again threatened the unity of the Church. The document cited above described the dilemma:
In 1948, no agreement was possible on how to answer this question. The most the Assembly could do was to restate the opposing positions as they had been outlined at Oxford:
(1) There are those who hold that, even though entering a war may be a Christian’s duty in particular circumstances, modern warfare, with its mass destruction, can never be an act of justice.

(2) In the absence of impartial supranational institutions, there are those who hold that military action is the ultimate sanction of the rule of law, and that citizens must be distinctly taught that it is their duty to defend the law by force if necessary.

(3) Others, again, refuse military service of all kinds, convinced that an absolute witness against war and for peace is for them the will of God, and they desire that the Church should speak to the same effect.

The (First) Assembly went on to describe the dilemma in terms which apply to the debate as much today as it they did at the founding of the WCC:
We must frankly acknowledge our deep sense of perplexity in the face of these conflicting opinions, and urge upon all Christians the duty of wrestling continuously with the difficulties they raise and of praying humbly for God’s guidance. We believe there is a special call to theologians to consider the theological problems involved. In the meantime, the churches must continue to hold within their full fellowship all who sincerely profess such viewpoints as those set out above and are prepared to submit themselves to the will of God in the light of such guidance as may be vouchsafed to them.
5. Against this background, the Central Committee created the Program to Overcome Violence in 1994 as a way for Christians and churches with such varied theological views to join together to seek to counter the rising tide of violence at all levels of contemporary society and promote a global culture of peace.

6. During the decade of the 1990’s WCC Assemblies and the Central Committee repeatedly debated the appropriate Christian response to violent conflicts, and they condemned both the use of disproportionate armed force intended to control some such conflicts and the failure of the international community in others, like Rwanda, to protect populations in the face of predictable massive violence. It has drawn attention to the need to respond to emerging crisis at the earliest possible stages when non-violent action can be most effective in addressing the root causes of conflict.

7. In response to questions raised at the Central Committee in 1994 about whether, and under what conditions, the use of coercion is an acceptable tool to enforce human rights and the international rule of law in violent or potentially violent situations, the CCIA prepared for the Central Committee in 1995 a "Memorandum and Recommendations on the Application of Sanctions" and it adopted a set of "Criteria for Determining the Applicability and Effectiveness of Sanctions."

8. In September 1999 the Central Committee adopted a "Memorandum and Recommendations on International Security and Response to Armed Conflict" that called for new approaches to international peace and security in the post-Cold War world and highlighted some of the dilemmas around "humanitarian intervention" raised especially by the Kosovo experience. The Central Committee called on the WCC General Secretary to: Facilitate a study, in consultation and cooperation with church-related and other humanitarian agencies, and with competent research institutes, to be presented to the central committee on the ethics of so-called "humanitarian intervention," taking into account the legitimate right of states to be free of undue interference in their internal affairs and the moral obligation of the international community to respond when states are unwilling or incapable of guaranteeing respect for human rights and peace within their own borders.

9. A study process was initiated to clarify the issues and to develop guidelines to assist the churches. A background paper was prepared and widely circulated for comment. It was discussed by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) in January 2000, and in a revised form it served as the basis for discussions in an ecumenical seminar hosted by the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in April 2000. Participants in the seminar came from all regions and included specialists in humanitarian response, international law, human rights, ethics and theology, including representatives of churches whose countries have been affected in one way or another by recent interventions. Together with staff of the WCC and the Lutheran World Federation, participants reflected from an ethical perspective on the responsibility of the international community to protect populations at risk within the borders of sovereign states. The extensive report of that consultation was again widely circulated for response and comment to member churches and WCC-related agencies. Finally, the document was refined by a specialized CCIA reference group for presentation to the Central Committee for consideration as a companion document to the one adopted on sanctions in 1995.

10. Almost simultaneously with the completion of this document, the report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (popularly known as the "Brahimi Report")2was presented to the UN Security Council and was considered in the 2000 Millennium General Assembly in New York. This landmark study offered not only a serious critique of UN peacekeeping, but made innovative suggestions for improvements that closely paralleled the conclusions of the WCC document. Subsequently, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lloyd Axworthy, took the initiative to form a high-level panel to study further these issues, and invited the WCC to cooperate with it, providing its particular moral and ethical perspectives.

Re-shaping the debate
11. In calling for the present study, the Central Committee expressed its skepticism about the term by referring to "so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’." The consultative process showed that others are equally wary of this term. Many participants in the study process were hesitant to discuss the "ethics of ‘humanitarian intervention’." For them, the most important contribution of the churches was to help re-shape and clarify the terms of the debate in a way that would emphasize the fundamental ethical issues at stake.

12. Historically, and especially since 1991, intervening powers have often used the term humanitarian to characterize their motivations and to justify their actions. In fact, as repeated WCC Central Committee documents have argued, the motives for most interventions are at best mixed and often more in the self-interests of the intervening powers than of the endangered populations they purport to rescue.

13. The decision of Gulf Coalition Forces led by the USA to extend their operations to the Kurdish areas of Northern Iraq for "humanitarian reasons" raised doubts about the distinction between military strategic interests and the legitimate needs of the population at risk. This was followed almost immediately by the "humanitarian intervention" in Somalia that cut short UN-sponsored mediation efforts. The debate became more critical still when the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda was withdrawn in 1994, abandoning the population to the forces of genocide. The often unequal protection offered civilians during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the spectacular NATO intervention in the case of Kosovo added fuel to the fire.

14. The word "humanitarian" has a special place in international humanitarian law which conveys the attributes of universality, independence, impartiality, and humanity. It is important to recall that the evolution of the humanitarian ideal did not happen overnight. In fact, over a hundred years passed between the time Henri Dunant saw the need for an impartial humanitarian response on the battlefields of Solferino and subsequently founded the Red Cross that codified basic principles of humanitarian action. Humanitarian assistance is to be extended to people solely on the basis of need, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, class, nationality or political opinion. Especially in today’s world of highly politicized actions, the idea that meeting humanitarian needs should be a priority is an ideal which needs to be preserved and protected from casual or self-serving usage.

15. The term intervention also has varying connotations. In some contexts when people think of "intervention" they have in mind the actions of international financial institutions, transnational corporations and powerful states that intervene at will in the internal affairs of weaker sovereign nations, often against the interests of the people. Others think of the military "interventions" of dominant foreign powers which overthrow elected governments or interrupt popular democratic processes. In some other contexts, "intervention" has the positive connotation of liberation or national salvation for civilian populations under siege or caught in brutal civil conflicts.

16. Thus for most churches the juxtaposition of the words "humanitarian" and "intervention" provokes unease, since in practice it too often represents a contradiction between humanitarian principles of compassion and the use of lethal military force.

17. What is the appropriate response of the international community to conflict situations in which whole populations are at risk and their governments are either unable or unwilling to protect them? For the churches in the ecumenical movement, the international community has a responsibility for conflict-prevention, peacebuilding, conflict-resolution and reconciliation. The decision to use of armed force to respond to situations in which large numbers of people are endangered very often signals a failure of the international community to take necessary preventive actions in response to early warnings of crisis.

18. Rather than using the term "humanitarian intervention," discussions within the World Council of Churches suggest the alternative: "the protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence."

19. Actions to this end must be planned and carried out as part of a long-range strategy that moves from local conflict transformation efforts to the use of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and the deployment of an international protection force. The "Brahimi Report" represents a significant corrective to much of current peacekeeping practice, highlighting preventive action and peace-building and "a doctrinal shift in the use of civilian police and related rule of law elements in peace operations that emphasizes a team approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights and helping communities coming out of a conflict to achieve national reconciliation; ...disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration programmes." The report identifies the need, however, for a peacekeeping doctrine and well-defined mandates in which the "consent of the local parties, impartiality and the use of force only in self-defence should remain the bedrock principles." The report recommends that forces deployed should "be capable of defending themselves, other mission components and the mission’s mandate. Rules of engagement should be sufficiently robust and not force United Nations contingents to cede the initiative to their attackers."3

20. The protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence often requires "robust" action to stop atrocities and restore the rule of law, but then move beyond this to rehabilitate the physical, political and civil infrastructures of the country; set up peace-building and conflict-resolution mechanisms and make provisions for the reconciliation of society. It must also be understood that different organizations and personnel will be required to implement the different phases of the process.

The responsibility of the international community for prevention of violent conflict
21. First and foremost, the international community (governments, intergovernmental organizations, international financial institutions, transnational corporations, the mass media and civil society) has a responsibility to address the causes which lead to violent conflict. It must take timely, effective action when conflicts do emerge in order to prevent their escalation. Churches are often particularly well-placed to read the danger signals in their communities and to call for appropriate action before conflicts become violent. In some cases, these early warnings lead to effective preventive action by the churches or the broader international community. Too often, however, the international community - and the churches - fail to take effective action during the period in which conflicts are most susceptible to transformation through non-violent means. Churches often speak therefore of kairos - the recognition that a particular historical moment has come when faith compels Christians to action.

22. Through the World Council of Churches’ Program to Overcome Violence, churches have developed a greater awareness that conflict-prevention goes hand in hand with building cultures of peace in which metanoia - a change of heart - and reconciliation efforts contribute to conflict transformation, the Christian’s preferred alternative to the lex talionis - an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This approach involves long-term commitments to things like community-building, peace education, civic education, election monitoring, inter-faith dialogue and human rights awareness-raising where the churches can and must play a particularly active role.

Impunity, Truth and Reconciliation
23. Post-conflict responsibilities of the international community include efforts to prevent the resurgence of conflicts and to ensure peace and stability in countries which have experienced the trauma of war. Again here, churches are often well-placed to monitor the implementation of peace accords and to alert the wider international community when problems arise.

24. In the post-conflict period, the challenge remains of overcoming impunity by bringing perpetrators of violence to justice. Not only is there a need to hold individual leaders accountable, but also to develop structures, such as the International Criminal Court, to uphold the principle and practice of accountability. The churches, together with other members of civil society, can play major roles in this complex and often painful process, as shown by the pioneering work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and efforts to hold Chilean General Augusto Pinochet accountable for the crimes committed under his leadership. The churches have a pastoral responsibility to help the healing processes in their communities by encouraging people to share their memories, by working to build a collective history of a conflict and by preaching forgiveness and reconciliation. WCC studies in recent years have shown how essential this work is to the process leading to reconciliation. This is reflected in the priority the Central Committee has given to the role of the churches in reconciliation in making it one of the major emphases of the Decade to Overcome Violence.

25. Once a peace agreement has been signed and once the television cameras have moved on to other crises, there is a tendency for the international community - and the churches - to pay less attention to post-conflict situations. Yet, peace is a fragile process which requires sustained attention and nurturing to flourish and grow. When there are inequities in the implementation of peace accords and when genuine reconciliation does not take place, the seeds of future conflicts are sown. Reconciliation is thus both a means of preventing further violence and the basis for the construction of societies in which only non-violent means are used to resolve the inevitable conflicts which arise between social groups.

When prevention fails
26. However, in a sinful world with a propensity to violence, even the best efforts of the churches and the international community are likely to be inadequate to prevent some violent crises. In such cases, a range of non-violent responses to armed conflict are available and need to be tried:

fact-finding missions, diplomacy and offering their good offices; provision of humanitarian assistance in a way that can build confidence between parties; protection of human rights through a variety of mechanisms including the appointment of special rapporteurs and the provision of technical services;

pastoral delegations, information sharing from the affected regions, public statements to clarify the nature of the conflict, maintaining an international presence to help protect populations at risk, advocating at various levels for peaceful resolution, and bringing churches and other religious communities from different sides of a conflict together to provide a common witness for peace.

27. When a government rejects all efforts of help to assist in the resolution of a conflict or refuses to comply with decisions of the competent international bodies like the UN Security Council, sanctions may be appropriately applied under Art. 41 of the United Nations Charter that "may include complete or partial interruption of economic relations and of rail, sea, air, postal, telegraphic, radio and other means of communication, and the severance of diplomatic relations." In its 1995 document on sanctions to which reference was made above, the Central Committee said:
Sanctions are a valuable tool available to enforce international law and to bring about the peaceful resolution of disputes...

(D)iplomatic sanctions (have) a long tradition in the history of international relations.

They include the recognition or non-recognition of another sovereign state, or the suspension of such diplomatic relations as a means of expressing displeasure with the behavior of the other.

Diplomatic measures may include a strong inducement for a state to correct its behavior through the offer of recognition or the extension of greater privileges...

Economic sanctions are generally taken to include such things as restrictions on international travel and communication; trade, commerce, foreign investment, and other areas of finance; restrictions on access to certain goods, like arms and strategic materials; and cultural exchange. Diplomatic sanctions themselves also frequently have an economic effect.

28. Consistently applied, this range of non-violent actions moving from the least intrusive to the most coercive should be sufficient to deal with most situations which threaten the lives or well being of the civilian population. In practice, however, the international community has seldom been capable of such consistency. Early warning indicators sometimes fail to convey the urgency of the situation, but more often, early warning signs are either ignored or unheeded by an international community already over-burdened by an unprecedented number of complex internal conflicts. Many governments refuse to engage in negotiations to end a conflict and are unwilling to allow the international community to assist populations at risk within their borders. In a growing number of cases, states have collapsed and are no longer capable of offering protection. Too often, a failure to reconcile differences in post-conflict situations leads to renewed outbreaks of violence. In such cases, the international community has a right - or even a duty - to to take decided steps to protect and assist people at risk.

Sovereignty and International Law
29. This may require intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. Basic principles of international law and human rights strictly limit this.

30. The principle of national sovereignty has been the cornerstone of the international system since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Nevertheless, there is a long history of military powers justifying their military intervention in the internal affairs of other countries on the grounds of "humanitarian" concern. Conscious of this and against the background of two devastating world wars, the framers of the United Nations Charter sought to protect weaker states from aggression by including the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Newly independent states jealously guarded this principle as a safeguard to reduce the possibilities of further interventions by former colonial or neo-colonial powers.

31. Article 2 (7) of the Charter precludes any intervention by the United Nations "in matters which are essentially within the jurisdiction of any state." The only exceptions are the one included in Article 51 which allows for the use of force in individual or collective self-defense, and those listed under Chapter VII that allow the use of force under strictly limited conditions to maintain or restore international peace and security.

32. The ecumenical movement has consistently defended these principles over the years, believing that the integrity of states and their territory is essential to peace and security. The fundamental right of states to preserve their integrity and defend themselves is an essential bedrock of the international legal system which must be preserved. This right is being challenged today by one of the negative impacts of globalization, namely the weakening of the capacity of many states to resist undue external intervention in the internal affairs of their peoples.

33. There have been several cases in the past decade where the UN Security Council has justified intervention based on the argument that serious breaches of human rights committed by a state against its own citizens constituted a threat to peace (Res 688/91). In Resolution 794 of 3 December 1992, it held that "the magnitude of the human tragedy caused by the conflict" in Somalia constituted a threat to peace within the meaning of Article 39 of the Charter. Again in Resolution 841 of 16 June 1993 the Security Council ruled in the case of Haiti that a form of government irreconcilable with democratic principles represented a threat to peace under Article 39.

34. Though the Security Council twice found that the situation in Kosovo constituted a threat to peace, it did not authorize military action. Nevertheless, NATO used military force against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 and justified its use on "humanitarian" grounds as necessary to protect the rights of threatened minorities in the province of Kosovo. The WCC and many of its member churches and related Christian World Communion bodies vigorously protested these actions that they regarded to be in violation of the intention of the UN Charter.

35. Recent responses to humanitarian crises - both action and inaction -- raise many questions, both for international law and for the broader moral imperative. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan underlined this central dilemma, using concrete examples, in his address to the UN General Assembly in September 1999:

To those for whom the greatest threat to the future of international order is the use of force in the absence of a Security Council mandate, one might ask - not in the context of Kosovo, but in the context of Rwanda: If, in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of States had been prepared to act in defense of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt Council authorization, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold? To those for whom the Kosovo action heralded a new era when States and groups of States can take military action outside the established mechanisms for enforcing international law, one might ask: Is there not a danger of such interventions undermining the imperfect, yet resilient, security system created after the Second World War, and of setting dangerous precedents for future interventions without a clear criterion to decide who might invoke these precedents, and in what circumstances?4
36. While the UN Charter severely limits the ability of the organization to intervene unless there is a breach of international peace and security, the Charter also affirms the universality of human rights. Legal scholars point out that international law is not static, but in a constant process of evolution. Some of these developments could shed new light on the absolute character of the principle of non-intervention. Indeed, the evolution of human rights law and thinking over the past century has been marked by development and acceptance of universal standards of human rights, even if procedures to hold governments accountable for such violations have not yet been universally accepted. In its 2000 Human Development Report, the United Nations Development Program says that "Human rights - in an integrated world - requires global justice. The state-centered model of accountability must be extended to the obligations of non-state actors and to the state obligations beyond national borders."5

37. The churches have a long history of engagement in the development of these international human rights standards. As the Statement on Human Rights, adopted by the WCC Eighth Assembly in Harare, Zimbabwe in December 1998, says:

We reaffirm the universality of human rights as enunciated in the International Bill of Human Rights, and the duty of all states, irrespective of national culture or economic and political system, to promote and defend them. These rights are rooted in the histories of cultures, religions, and traditions, not just those whose role in the UN was dominant when the Universal Declaration was adopted. We recognize that this Declaration was accepted as a "standard of achievement," and the application of its principles needs to take into account different historical, cultural, and economic interests. At the same time we reject any attempt by states, national or ethnic groups, to justify the abrogation of, or derogation from, the full range of human rights on the basis of culture, religion, tradition, special socio-economic or security interests.

38. Even here, however, there are no absolute principles. Governments in some regions, notably Asia, have questioned the concept of the universality of human rights, arguing that they are based on Western concepts of individual rights rather than on peoples’ rights. Some within the Orthodox tradition of Christianity question the exclusive concern for earthly life as the supreme value, emphasizing the primacy of salvation. While all life is sacred, they argue, holy places, objects of adoration and even land are also considered by the community of faith to be sacred, and their protection may take precedence in some situations. There are also questions about what kinds of human rights violations are so grave as to justify intervention. Is action by the international community to be used only in response to violations of civil and political rights? Or do violations of economic, social, and cultural rights also call for an international response?

39. The Convention on Genocide is a specific case where the international community has recognized that there are limits on national sovereignty and that the international community has a responsibility to act to prevent genocide. The question of intervention thus stands at the nexus between national sovereignty and evolving understandings of the global nature of human rights. It is important to underline that these are not only questions of international law; they are also moral issues in which the churches’ theological perspectives have much to contribute.

Just Peacemaking: A Christian Approach
40. Before considering some of the ethical dimensions of actions to protect endangered populations in situations of armed violence, it is worth recalling the biblical imperatives of just peacemaking, along the lines expressed in the Central Committee Memorandum and Recommendations on the Application of Sanctions.

41. Christian imperatives of justice and peace are especially grounded in the prophetic heritage of the scriptures and the ministry of reconciliation in Jesus Christ.

42. The vision of a world of justice and peace is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While the perfecting of a just peace is beyond the possibility of human achievement, it is within the power of the Sovereign God of Love who has created one whole, indivisible human family in a covenant of peace. Before our Sovereign God, the nations rise and fall; but the promise of shalom, of love binding peace with justice, is eternal.

43. Every member of God's family bears God's sacred image and is entitled to an abundant life of freedom, security and well being. To be so endowed is to enjoy God-given dignity from which flow principles of human rights which it is the responsibility of all persons and governments to respect and protect. The ultimate justification for intervention must be such a concept of justice for the sake of authentic peace and security.

44. God has set our common life in human communities which have in turn established institutions necessary to govern them. Governments are responsible not only for justice and peace within their borders, and for security against aggression and other threats to their people. They are rightly called to policies of initiative and cooperation in the quest for a just peace among all nations. The indivisibility of political liberty, common security, civil equity, economic welfare and ecological integrity requires effective instruments of global governance and transnational action. Such instruments must promote the development of peoples, the resolution of conflicts, and the overcoming of violence.

45. The policies and actions of all human institutions, including government, must guarantee the protection of the innocent, the poor, the weak, the minorities and the oppressed; not only within domestic societies, but within any other society affected by these policies and actions.

46. Under the sovereignty of God, no nation or group of nations is entitled to prosecute vengeance against another. Nor is any nation entitled to make unilateral judgments and take unilateral actions that lead to the devastation of another nation and the massive suffering of its people. Whenever aggression or massive and flagrant abuses of human rights by one nation call for preventive or punitive action under international law, a concerted multilateral response authorized by the United Nations or other competent international body is most likely to meet the requirements of just peacemaking.

47. Recent international military engagements undertaken in some situations in the name of "humanitarian intervention" and the failure to intervene in others have raised serious moral and ethical questions: How can the international community come to the aid of people in crisis in a proportionate and consistent manner which gives equal value to all human life?

48. That it is ever necessary to consider the use of armed force in international relations is a reflection of the failure of the international community to have responded in a timely and appropriate fashion to prevent a conflict or to resolve a conflict during its early stages. An inadequate or inconsistent response to human suffering compounds the moral failure. Recent decisions to intervene with massive armed force have often been influenced by globalized public media that tend to report crises in a selective way, exaggerating some and ignoring others where equal or greater numbers of people were at imminent risk. For example, while the crisis in Kosovo was reported to be escalating to dangerous proportions, simultaneous crises in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East that continued to claim far higher numbers of lives received comparatively little media coverage in the North. Media have also often exaggerated the losses and suffering of some ethnic groups and almost ignored those of other groups. Some critics have charged that such media selectivity is rooted in racial, ethnic or political bias and that this has contributed to the situation in which the international community responds with disproportionate armed force in situations where some Europeans suffer, while refusing to intervene to save others, and ignores altogether many crises in the South where much larger populations are in clear danger.

49. For Christians, just peacemaking must always be shaped by our commitment to the ministry and message of reconciliation. The Gospel's promise of reconciliation is based on our faith in the triune God, incarnate in Jesus Christ who is our peace, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, making us one new humanity. Such a faith obliges us to love even our enemies. Just peacemaking requires that Christians not endorse any coercive policy, whether economic or military, before seeking positive incentives to promote peace among aggrieved adversaries. For Christians, the aim must always be the building or restoration of just, peaceful and humane relationships.

50. Just peacemaking also calls Christians to consider fundamental moral, ethical and theological questions in a world full of ambiguities. The question arises whether, from an ecumenical Christian perspective, the international community should refrain from taking up arms even to protect endangered populations in situations of armed violence or to defend those deployed by competent international authority for this purpose. Here competing moral and ethical values must be considered. Some Christians say no, believing that the teachings of Jesus require us to oppose any use of armed force. Others say no, considering that the protection of human life may require in extreme situations, and recognizing that any decision should be approached with great humility. In either case, responsibility for unintended consequences must be accepted both by those who choose to use armed force and by those who do not.

51. Against this background, and conscious of the fact that Christians must cooperate with peoples of other faiths and convictions in pursuit of answers to these complex questions, the Central Committee believes that in the context of the Decade to Overcome Violence the following considerations and criteria deserve further study and dialogue in and among the churches and with those currently engaged in efforts to establish clear and effective international frameworks within which masses of peoples in today’s conflictive world can be provided with timely and essential protection to save lives and enable them to contribute to the building of truly just and peaceful societies.


1. Considerations

1.1 Intervention to protect endangered populations in situations of armed violence risks provoking additional violence that could inflict additional suffering on affected populations.

1.2 The failure to take prompt and timely action, however, including the use of arms in self-defense in certain serious crises may also result in the further massive loss of human life and irreparable injury.

1.3 Even for the protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence, overriding the principles of sovereignty is a very serious action that should be undertaken only in the most grave and extraordinary circumstances. It is not a practice to be used in cases where human rights are routinely violated. There, the international community has a wide range of human rights instruments available under which to act, short of physical intervention that should be used only in the most grave and extraordinary circumstances when it is necessary to rescue and protect people in grave peril.

1.4 Actions to protect endangered populations must be applied within the framework of international law. The World Council of Churches has repeatedly reaffirmed its support for the principle of the international rule of law and for the United Nations Charter as the essential framework for its defense and further development.

1.5 According to the Charter, "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or independence of any state;" (Art. 2.4) however the Security Council may decide to ask member states to take actions involving the use of armed force to obtain compliance with its decisions. Intervention needs to be clearly restricted in order to protect nations and peoples from undue interference, and decisions to intervene must be consistent with need wherever it occurs without distinction and consistent with the Charter.

1.6 The Charter also holds, however, that "universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all" is essential for international peace. (Art. 55.c)

1.7 In practice, the Security Council - given its present structure that gives veto power to its permanent members - has only rarely authorized a state, group of states or "regional agencies" to intervene, and this has given rise to intervention by regional bodies or groups of states in violation or on the margins of the requirements of the Charter.

1.8 While some of these armed interventions have brought effective relief to endangered populations, others have led to disproportionate destruction and questionable results.

1.9 Various proposals have been made for Security Council reform to make it more responsive to the changing character of threats to international peace and security, and taking into account the evolution of international law. It is clearly necessary today to develop a more effective basis for Security Council action, and/or to create additional mechanisms within the framework of the Charter that would have the agreement of the General Assembly and, in so far as possible, remove decisions on the protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence from partisan political debate, and provide for timely and rapid intervention in the interest of populations at risk of massive loss of human life.

1.10 Given the present limitations of the international system and the reality of intervention, and in anticipation of the creation of new, more effective mechanisms, the following criteria could guide this aspect of UN reform and be respected in the interim whenever armed intervention for humanitarian purposes is undertaken.

2. Criteria

2.1 When may action to protect endangered populations in situations of armed violence be authorized?

The protection of endangered populations that involves intervention in the territory of a sovereign state should be limited to situations in which:

2.1.1 There are well-attested immediate or long-standing threats to life to a level amounting to crimes against humanity, carried out by governmental authorities or other organized forces, or with their connivance and support, or because of the inability or unwillingness of authorities to impede such atrocities.

2.1.2 Crimes against humanity result from anarchy in a sovereign state whose government or authorities are incapable of putting an end to such crimes and refuse to call upon or refuse offers by the international community to assist in doing so.

2.1.3 The more urgent and massive the threat or open atrocities, the more intensive and immediate may be the need for intervention. Conversely, intervention would not be warranted in the case of a slowly unfolding crisis in which non-violent resolution methods can be effective.

2.2. Even when there is a well-founded and massive threat to human life, the decision to use arms in self-defense requires careful deliberation and balanced reflection. In particular, the following essential questions must be carefully considered by decision-makers:
2.2.1. who decides that their use is needed? 2.2.2. who provides the forces? 2.2.3. who oversees compliance?, 2.2.4. what are the appropriate means, type, and conduct of forces? 2.2.5. what are the foreseeable side-effects?
2.3. Who may intervene?
2.3.1. Actions to protect endangered populations in situations of armed violence should in principle be taken by an appropriate UN body or by a group of states authorized to act on its behalf and all such actions should be under the strict oversight of the Security Council or other multilateral international instance agreed to by the UN General Assembly.

2.3.2. Intervening protection forces should be clearly neutral with respect to the state in which intervention occurs and a decision to intervene should in no event serve as the pretext for the pursuit of narrow self-interests of foreign powers.

2.4. What forms of intervention are justified?
2.4.1. The specific aims and limits of intervention should be mutually agreed and clearly stated by the competent authorizing body before action is taken, and clear indications given of what is required for these aims to be met and forces withdrawn.

2.4.2. Actions to protect endangered populations in situations of armed violence must be viewed as part of a multi-faceted approach and of a continuum of actions related to a given crisis situation including: the restoration of the rule of law and respect for basic human rights, rehabilitation and reconstruction, and post-conflict peace-building and reconciliation to be carried out by civilian organizations. Thus planning and monitoring should be not just for an immediate emergency, but should have longer-range goals and contemplate the mobilization of resources needed to meet them.

2.4.3. Since action to protect endangered populations in situations of armed violence is distinct from war, specific training in new concepts and techniques related to the concept of "human security" should be undertaken for police and military forces at both national and international levels. This should include training in non-violent intervention techniques that take full advantage of the organizational, logistical and command skills of the military.

2.4.4. While intervention is by definition coercive, only that defensive force may be applied that is proportionate to the aims and is required to protect endangered populations and to equip and/or oblige the state concerned to fulfill its own responsibilities in their regard.

2.4.5. The deployment of armed police forces is often sufficient to offer the required protection. If the use of the military is deemed necessary to accomplish the aims, its role should be restricted to only that absolutely required to restore order or to provide safe humanitarian space.

2.4.6. The rules of engagement of forces to protect endangered populations must be consistent with international humanitarian law, respecting the immunity of non-combatants and the obligation to protect them.

2.4.7. When protection is required to guarantee the security of recognized intergovernmental and non-governmental humanitarian agencies’ personnel engaged in the delivery of essential supplies to endangered populations clear distinctions need to be made between the roles of civilians in delivering humanitarian aid and the support roles of police or the military. Each must have clearly defined and agreed functions and command and management roles, and the police or military component should be removed as soon as conditions are established for the effective functioning of the strictly humanitarian component. Humanitarian agencies, including those related to the churches, should adhere strictly to established international codes of conduct.

2.5. Who oversees compliance?

Action to protect endangered populations should in principle be under UN auspices and overseen by the Security Council with the support of the Secretary-General. This oversight involves the conduct of operations, evaluation of progress toward stated goals, and the determination of the duration of phases and when operations should either be terminated or moved into longer-term programmatic involvement. The International Court of Justice (World Court) and other mechanisms of international jurisprudence could consider and rule upon the legitimacy of intervention and its compliance with international law.

3. The role of the Churches

3.1. In the continuum of actions related to actions to protect endangered populations in situations of armed violence the churches have essential roles to play in all phases from early warning of potential danger to civilian populations, as agents of peace and reconciliation in efforts to avoid crises through mediation, as bodies to be consulted in decisions related to the rules of engagement in pastoral accompaniment of endangered women, men and children, in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and in the post-conflict tasks of rehabilitation, reconstruction, peace-building and continuing reassessment of these criteria with all parties involved.

3.2. Churches within the situation are the key partners and should be consulted by churches and church-related agencies abroad at all stages in determining what ecumenical advocacy actions are necessary and as principal agents in the delivery of humanitarian assistance and post-conflict efforts.

3.3. Broad international ecumenical solidarity actions are essential to efforts to limit the use of force and to monitor it when it is necessary.

3.4. In all these efforts every opportunity should be pursued to maintain contact among the churches, both nationally, regionally and globally, and to ensure wherever appropriate and possible cooperation with other communities of faith and civil society actors caught up with Christian communities in situations of crisis with respect to actions to be taken.


  1. Doc. C-11, Unit III Committee, WCC Central Committee, Johannesburg, 1994
  2. Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, United Nations, Doc. A/55/305 or S/2000/809
  3. Brahimi report, p.x
  4. UN Press Release SG/SM/7136 GA/9596, 20 September 1999
  5. Human Development Report 2000, United Nations Development Program, New York, Oxford Press, p 9

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