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The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections

A report to the WCC Central Committee meeting in 2003, from the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) on the follow-up of the 2001 WCC Central Committee document "The protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence"

02 September 2003

World Council of Churches
Geneva, Switzerland
26 August - 2 September 2003

The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflections

A report to the WCC Central Committee meeting in 2003, from the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) on the follow-up of the 2001 WCC Central Committee document "The protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence"


In February 2001, during its meeting in Potsdam, Germany, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches adopted a document entitled: "The protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence: toward an ecumenical ethical approach" (PEP). In its preamble, the Central Committee requested the CCIA to report back at a later date.

Last June, a meeting of the CCIA extended Officers, who gathered in Versailles, France, received a memorandum from the International Affairs, Peace and Human Security Team on this issue, discussed it, made some recommendations for redrafting and recommended to send the present report to the Central Committee to fulfil its requests.

This report, elaborated by the International Affairs, Peace and Human Security (IAPHS) team after consultation with the CCIA commissioners who attended the Versailles meeting, contains the following points:

1. A recall of the process that led to the PEP document.
2. A summary of the reactions coming from the churches and a reference to other relevant documents related to this topic.
3. Some elements that could be part of the content of a follow-up process.
4. A proposal of next steps for the continuation of the reflection.

I. The process that led to the 2001 Central Committee document

The document entitled "The protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence: toward an ecumenical ethical approach" (PEP), adopted by the WCC Central Committee in Potsdam, February 2001, is the most recent WCC document referring to this issue. In the following paragraphs we will summarize the most relevant previous documents related to the subject.

The document should be seen in the framework of the WCC documents related to war and the use of force, which can be traced up to the WCC first assembly (Amsterdam 1948). The Assembly stated clearly 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".

However, as PEP affirms, "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".

In 1948, no agreement was possible on how to answer this question. The most the Assembly could do was to restate the opposing positions.

"(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."

Although more than fifty years have passed, we could suppose that these opinions are still present in Christianity. Pacifist positions within the churches, and emblematically represented by the Historic Peace Churches, confronted those who assume the theory of "just war".1 The discussion on the use of armed violence as the last resort remained a top issue. However, during the end of the Cold war era, these two positions found more common ground, including a common understanding, that there was no possibility of a just use of nuclear weapons.

After the Cold war period, the massive deployment of military force, under UN Security Council auspices in the Gulf War, showed a deep division among the churches when it was debated in Canberra in 1991 during the WCC seventh assembly. While some justified the USA-led intervention in the Gulf and its attacks on Iraq by the application of the just war criteria, others asked "can war now be an act of justice?".

In 1994, the creation of the Programme to Overcome Violence by the Central Committee, in some way pushed Christians who hold the different perspectives mentioned above, towards a joint action "to counter the rising tide of violence at all levels of contemporary society and promote a global culture of peace".

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 adopted a set of "Criteria for determining the applicability and effectiveness of sanctions".

In September 1999, the Central Committee adopted a "Memorandum and Recommendations on International Security and Response to Armed Conflict" which highlighted the dilemmas around humanitarian intervention, raised especially by the Kosovo experience.

Immediately before the Central Committee’s statement on PEP, in April 2000, an ecumenical seminar took place in Bossey to discuss "The Ethics of Humanitarian Intervention". Six CCIA commissioners, as well as other invited participants and WCC and Lutheran World Federation (LWF) staf, reflected together. Parallel to the WCC process, the LWF Council discussed a paper on "Armed intervention to defend Human Rights" in June 2000.

A specialized CCIA reference group drafted the final document that was presented to the Central Committee for consideration. During the Central Committee meeting in Potsdam, the document was heavily discussed and redrafted and afterwards received and commended to the churches for further study, reflection and use.

As the process developed, it was clear that there was a broad agreement in most of the matters. However, the notion of "humanitarian intervention" was strongly criticized and it was also clear that within the ecumenical movement some differences remain with respect to the use of armed force for the protection of endangered populations in situations of armed violence. Therefore, it was perceived that the most important contribution of the churches was to help re-shape and clarify the terms of the debate.

II. Responses from the Churches and other relevant documents since February 2001.

The Central Committee in Potsdam, as previously stated, commended the document to the churches for further study, reflection and use and requested the churches to share the results of these studies with the CCIA. Very few responses were received by the IAPHS staff coming from the churches on this issue. This doesn’t necessarily mean that churches have not studied the issue. As CCIA commissioners pointed out, in spite of the few responses, the issue remains a high priority for many churches. Given the political developments in Africa, for instance, the responsibility to protect is crucial, but in many cases churches don’t have the appropriate means to respond to the requests coming from the Central Committee. The responses that came are nevertheless very significant ones. There follows below a summary of them.

1. A working group of the Commission on International Affairs of the Church of Norway Council on Ecumenical and International Relations, prepared a study during 2000, which was presented in January 2001 and updated, translated into English and published in 2002. The study "Vulnerability and security", deepens the relationships between these two concepts and focuses on the question of humanitarian intervention.2 The document revisits the criteria for "just war" and questions whether they are useful for assessing the ethical legitimacy of humanitarian intervention. The document presents the following criteria as the most important (p. 30-36):
a. Just cause
b. Just intention
c. Rightful authority
d. Current rules for warfare to be complied with (jus in bello)
e. Last resort
f. Proportionality

The document states that although discussions continue on the validity of the criteria, they actually represent an important ethical framework for dealing with the topic (p. 31). On one hand, as the criteria in themselves reject a general ethical legitimization of intervention, it is at the same time necessary to establish that such criteria cannot be sufficient. A more fundamental consideration of the relationship between human vulnerability and security, combined with a broad approach to the security problem, opens the way for a wider perspective (p. 36-37).

The document ends by stating that the answer to the question ‘What can the specific contribution of the churches be in the context of security policy?’, can be summarized in two points: the victim’s perspective and the service of reconciliation (p. 50-52). The victim’s perspective (Matthew 25, 35) reinforces the human security concept for which the document advocates. On the other hand, peace and reconciliation being the very core of the Christian message (2 Corinthians 5, 18), on questions of security policy the churches must be the first to insist on peaceful solutions to confrontation and conflict. Reconciliation processes, however, are complicated. They require respect for truth and justice, remorse, forgiveness and a new beginning.

1. The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) responded officially to the WCC on a letter to the CCIA Director on November 2002, which echoed the previous reflections made by the church, especially in "Steps on the way to peace. Points of reference on ethics and peace policy" (3rd edition 2001) (SWP).

EKD’s study (SWP) relates the issue of humanitarian intervention to the broader perspective of security (defined with human security components). Under this perspective a reliable structure of peace include rule of law, ensuring the protection of freedom, economic balancing, international organizations and international law and a culture of social manners and contact with minorities. Hence it includes conflict prevention, conflict solution and post-conflict reconciliation. The concept of Just Peace (instead of Just War) is presented as the basic idea of Christian Peace Ethics. This means there is a priority of non-military instruments in safeguarding peace. The document calls for the strengthening of the International Peace System as intended and drawn up in the Charter of the United Nations. The universal acceptance and implementation of human rights is an important factor for strengthening the international peace system as a legal system.

The document also stresses that the use of military force should be a last resort (ultima ratio) , and that it must be ensured that it remains a borderline case. It recognizes that the use of military force as ultima ratio has been vehemently criticized in the church internal discussion and therefore it needs to be analyzed more carefully than previously. A number of criteria refer to proportionality and just war principles. Humanitarian intervention is defined as "the military intervention with the reason and aim to contribute to the recognition and implementation of human rights in cases of serious violation of human rights and thus to grant protection and help to the victims of oppression and violence".

The document ends affirming that the dilemma of the use of violence or a radically pacifist position on the level of the fundamental ethical discussion will not and probably cannot be resolved. The defensive war as well as the collective defensive war can never be completely excluded. But in the prime task of peace promotion, policy must be pursued with strategies strengthening the promotion of democracy and economy.

Another contribution of EKD was published later that year, "Guide our feet into the way of peace. Violent conflicts and civil intervention" (2002), focusing especially in the African context.

2. A group of members of the Historic Peace Churches from different countries in the world, met in June 2001 in Bienenberg, Switzerland, for an International Consultation and produced a study paper shared with the WCC: "Just peacemaking: towards an ecumenical ethical approach from the perspective of the historic peace churches". The document expresses their concerns about the PEP document and offers their response in the form of five points:

a. A biblically and theologically grounded pacifism regards seeking God’s justice as central and integral to a nonviolent philosophy of life. To state the issue as if we have to choose between nonviolence and justice is a false dichotomy. The document sets forth a vision of justice that is holistic and social, distinguishing it from the view that emphasises individual autonomy and freedom, the protection of private property and a narrow perspective of human rights, like freedom of speech and association. The biblical tradition of covenant justice, the documents adds, emphasises social solidarity, religious liberty, and comprehensive visions of human rights.
b. We can identify a number of normative practices for seeking justice within the principled pacifism. A list of five available practices is illustrative of this: nonviolent forms of defence and social transformation; citizens corps of observers /interveners/advocates; acknowledging responsibility for violence and injustice and seeking repentance and forgiveness (e.g. the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa); training persons in the use of cooperative conflict methods and strategies; the church’s witness and advocacy on behalf of the marginalized and those whose lives are threatened by injustice (e. g. the campaign to end sanctions in Iraq, etc.)
c. The use of violent force as a "last resort" to secure justice creates conditions that inhibit the achievement of justice. Too often we work under the false assumption that, if we cannot find a nonviolent solution to a conflict, the use of violent force will take care of the problem. Furthermore, the presumed humanitarian intervention may mask egoistic self-interests and the partisan political agendas of the parties who presume to intervene. Implicitly, the church has accepted the assumption that violent force is inevitable, and since it is inevitable, we must support the preparation for that possibility. Last resort thinking cuts short imaginative thinking and creative action to find alternative ways to make peace.
d. We call on the churches to emphasise the distinctive witness to the world that flows from our commitment to the Spirit of Jesus Christ and our identity as the Body of Christ in the World. We are disappointed, the document continues, that the language of the WCC study document is dominated largely by political analysis and prudential calculation about when resort to armed intervention might be justified and what restraints should be placed on it. We question whether the dominant language of the document can really help to develop an ecumenical ethical approach as suggested by the subtitle.
e. Both pacifists and those who reason with ‘just war’ principles should make more modest claims about their ability to guarantee success. Though both traditions seek justice, neither tradition can guarantee that justice will be accomplished. Both traditions involve faith visions about how to "secure" a future in which justice is more likely to be achieved. The pacifist commitment to nonviolence is ultimately grounded in an eschatology of trust in the victory over evil of God revealed in Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection.

Outside the ecumenical movement, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)3 published in December 2002 its report "The responsibility to protect" (also known as Evans-Sahnoun Report) which targets the right of humanitarian intervention. It is not the intention of this report to summarize the considerations of this document, but we would like to affirm that it should be studied in the next steps of the process.

Other institutions have also published interesting materials on this matter, e.g. the US Institute of Peace published in July 2002 "The Ethics of Armed Humanitarian Intervention", by the Australian scholar C.A.H. Coady and the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue published in February 2003 a Report on "Politics and Humanitarianism. Coherence in crisis?".

III. Final considerations and perspectives

After 2001 Central Committee’s document on PEP we can identify three different development processes.

September 11 terrorist attacks and its consequences pushed to a new consideration of the issue. The intervention in East Timor, the war on terrorism and more recently the war against Iraq, which showed a new level of unilateralism of the US in the international arena and raised several questions on the role of International Law and International Institutions like the UN Security Council, and hence the function of humanitarian aid and military intervention, also reshaped the debate.

The second path is related to the churches. Some of them, as those listed above and probably others, have taken the issue seriously and have produced important materials to continue the discussions. Others, as far as we know, although have not commented the PEP document, still consider the issue of high importance.

Thirdly, the few reflection papers outside the ecumenical movement, referred to above, show that the issue is also very important to other actors, at both governmental and non-governmental levels. Other contributions could certainly be searched and included in a possible new study process.

Referring to content, some elements can be highlighted from the documents referred above:
1. Title. The next step of the study would be entitled The responsibility to protect. Ethical and theological reflections. The issue of protection has not only been in the title of PEP, shifting from "humanitarian intervention" to "the protection of endangered populations" but also an important matter in other studies. It is, as we have already mentioned, in the title of the ICISS Report "The responsibility to protect" and in the conclusion of the HD’s Report "The UN and the protection of human life". As the ICISS Report put it, protection includes prevention, reaction and rebuilding. Different aspects of conflict management and peacebuilding can be unfolded. EKD’s study called for effective non-military means for the treatment and solution of conflicts, in the conflict prevention, measures of mediation and the post-conflict reconciliation moments

2. Ethical and theological criteria for discernment. The ethical and theological perspective of the churches should be clearly highlighted. Though criteria developed by the PEP document and others have been rejected by some critiques, the need to further develop this approach is seen as necessary. This means to make explicit the criteria for discernment in these particular cases in which the action to be taken cannot be clearly foreseen. While humanitarian, governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as scholars have produced and are producing quite a lot, some of which is of high quality, only an ethical and theological analysis could show the unique role of the churches in this area.

3. Human security. The shift from security understood as something related only to states, to human security, has been an important process in the last decade. Human Security includes the security of people, this is, their physical safety, their economic and social well-being, respect for their dignity and worth as human beings, and the protection of their human rights and fundamental freedoms. Human security as a framework to consider the different implications of protection and intervention also needs ethical and theological considerations. Most of the research papers, coming from ecumenical, governmental and non-governmental bodies reject the terminology of humanitarian intervention. However, as most have done, it is important to clearly state why it is rejected and to place the discussion under the umbrella of human security. In the present world circumstances the question on what is the determining authority to decide intervention remains crucial.

4. Sovereignty, Human Rights and International law. The conflict, between on one part the respect to the state sovereignty and on the other the protection of Human Rights violated in a country, is at the core of the discussion on intervention and human security. The international system was built on the principle of national sovereignty, considered as its cornerstone. The principle of non-intervention, on the other hand, although included in the United Nations Charter, has been broken several times justifying intervention based on the argument of serious human rights violations committed by a state against its own citizens as a threat to peace.

5. Issues of protection cannot be separated from the respect and promotion of Human Rights and the strengthening of democracy. As many documents stated, measures to reinforce civil and political, economic, social and cultural rights as well as a strong democracy are strategies perceived as central in prevention, mediation and reconciliation processes.

6. Taking into account that international law is not static, but in a constant process of evolution, the new configuration of the world requires continuous reflection. The recent war against Iraq brought some issues into consideration: multilateralism and unilateralism, the role of the UN Security Council, the relationships between military intervention and humanitarian assistance. Besides ethical criteria, legal and political criteria should be considered to go beyond the present situation. The specific roles of the International Court of Justice and the recently established International Criminal Court in the pursuing of justice should also be included in the reflection.

7. Just peace and the use of military force as last resort (ultima ratio). PEP and other ecumenical documents stressed the importance of developing the concept of just peace and just peacemaking. All the ecumenical documents emphatically underlined the priority of non-military instruments in safeguarding peace and related the prior option of freedom from violence to the roots of the Decade to Overcome Violence. In the responses coming from the churches divergence in opinion is again clearly perceived. While some try to precise the criteria for the use of military force as last resort, the document from the Historic Peace Churches criticized directly this option. Recent discussions on just war and pre-emptive war should be included in a future study.

IV. Proposal to the Central Committee

Having received a memorandum from the IAPHS staff and having discussed the issue at its extended officers meeting June 2003, the CCIA would like to propose the following to the Central Committee:

1. To receive the present report as background information and as fulfilment of its request in Potsdam in 2001, to report back to the Central Committee.
2. To ask the International Affairs, Peace and Human Security team staff to follow up the study, within the DOV spirit, as "The responsibility to protect. Ethical and theological reflections" taking into account the new world scenario . A report should be shared at the next WCC Assembly. The study process should be done in close collaboration with one or more ecumenical institutions that are already working on this issue. Academic institutions, especially from the South, should be involved - sharing with them the process already done and asking them to deepen the study. A short summary of two or three pages should be produced to sum up the issues and make it available for a wider distribution and work among member churches and partners in the regions.

Geneva, July 2003

1. Just war criteria are divided into those by which it is determined that it is just to resort to war (jus ad bellum):

1. there must be a just cause;
2. the aims of the war must follow a just intent, i.e. the pursuit of a just peace;
3. war must be a last resort;
4. war can be made only by legitimate authority, i.e. a sovereign government or competent international body;
5. there must be a reasonable prospect of success; and those applicable to decisions taken in midst of war (jus in bello):
6. war must honour the principle of discrimination, requiring non-combatant or civilian immunity, and avoiding massacres, atrocities, looting or wanton violence;

violence applied in war must be restrained by the principle of proportionality. Cf. “Overcoming violence: WCC statements and actions 1994-2000”, S. Eskidjian – S. Estabrooks (ed.); WCC, Geneva 2001, p. 13-14.
2. The document defines humanitarian intervention as “the international use of force on the territory of other states and without their consent with the aim of (re-)establishing elementary human security when it has been grossly and persistently violated” (p. 29)

3. The International Commission was established by the Government of Canada with a group of major foundations and presented to the UN General Assembly in September 2000.