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Vulnerable Populations at Risk - the Responsibility to Protect

23 February 2006

Statement of the WCC 9th Assembly, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 14-23 February, 2006


In January, 2001, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC)
received the document "The protection of endangered populations in situations
of armed violence: toward an ecumenical ethical approach". The document, which
requested the churches to further study the issue, was also the beginning of a
study and consultation process within the WCC, carried out by the Commission
of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA). A deeper reflection on ethical
and theological aspects of the Responsibility to Protect is not only of concern to
the churches. In a meeting in New York City in 1999, UN Secretary General Kofi
Annan asked the WCC General Secretary, Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, to contribute
to the international debate on "humanitarian intervention" by bringing a theological
and ethical perspective on the issue of intervention for humanitarian purposes.

The use of force for humanitarian purposes is a controversial issue in most intellectual
and political spheres. While some believe that the resort to force must not
be avoided when it can alleviate or stop large-scale human rights violations, others
can only support intervention by creative, non-violent means. Others again
give a very high priority to territorial integrity and sovereignty. Churches too
have necessarily entered this debate and the current dilemma among the WCC's
constituencies has prevailed since the very beginnings of the ecumenical movement.

During the 1948 WCC First Assembly in Amsterdam, the Assembly restated
the opposing positions:

"a) 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.

In the absence of impartial supra-national 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.

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."

In history, some churches have been among those legitimizing military interventions,
leading to disastrous wars. In many cases, the churches have admitted their
guilt later on. During the 20th century churches have become more aware of their
calling to a ministry of healing and reconciliation, beyond national boundaries.

The creation of the WCC can be interpreted as one result of this rediscovery. In
the New Testament, Jesus calls us to go beyond loving the neighbour to loving
the enemy as well. This is based on the loving character of God, revealed supremely
in the death of Jesus Christ for all, absorbing their hostility, and exercising
mercy rather than retribution (Rom. 5:10; Luke 6:36). The prohibition against
killing is at the heart of Christian ethics (Matt. 5:21-22). But the biblical witness
also informs us about an anthropology that takes the human capacity to do
evil in the light of the fallen nature of humankind (Gen. 4). The challenge for
Christians is to pursue peace in the midst of violence.

The member churches of the World Council confess together the primacy of nonviolence
on the grounds of their belief that every human being is created in the
image of God and shares the human nature assumed by Jesus Christ in his incarnation.

This resonates with the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights. The WCC has therefore initiated an ecumenical "Decade to Overcome
Violence 2001-2010: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace" parallel to the

United Nations "Decade for the Culture of Peace, 2001-2010". It is in those who
are most vulnerable that Christ becomes visible for us (Matt. 25:40). The responsibility
to protect the vulnerable reaches far beyond the boundaries of nations and
faith-traditions. It is an ecumenical responsibility, conceiving the world as one
household of God, who is the creator of all. The churches honour the strong witness
of many individuals who have recognized the responsibility to protect those
who are weak, poor and vulnerable through non-violence, sometimes paying with
their lives.

From "humanitarian intervention" to the "responsibility to protect"
The concept of Responsibility to Protect was developed by the International
Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in its December 2001
report. It shifted the debate from the viewpoint of the interveners to that of the
people in need of assistance, thus redefining sovereignty as a duty-bearer status,
rather than as an absolute power. This innovative concept focuses on the needs
and rights of the civilian population and on the responsibilities of sovereignty,
not only on the rights of sovereignty. Hence, the shift from intervention to protection
places citizens at the centre of the debate. States can no longer hide behind
the pretext of sovereignty to perpetrate human rights violations against their citizens
and live in total impunity.

The churches are in support of the emerging international norm of the responsibility
to protect. This norm holds that national governments clearly bear the primary
and sovereign responsibility to provide for the safety of their people. Indeed,
the responsibility to protect and serve the welfare of its people is central to a state's
sovereignty. When there is failure to carry out that responsibility, whether by
neglect, lack of capacity, or direct assaults on the population, the international
community has the duty to assist peoples and states, and in extreme situations,
to intervene in the internal affairs of the state in the interests and safety of the

Our primary concern: Prevention

To be faithful to that responsibility to protect people means above all prevention
- prevention of the kinds of catastrophic assaults on individuals and communities
that the world has witnessed in Burundi, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda,
the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other instances and locations of humanmade
crises. WCC studies showed that although churches have different views
on the use of force for human protection purposes, they agree on the essential role
of preventive efforts to avoid and, if possible, tackle the crisis before it reaches
serious stages. Protection becomes necessary when prevention has failed. Hence,
churches emphasize the need to concentrate on prevention. While external intervention
- by the use of force or non-violently - may seem unavoidable in some
situations, churches should nevertheless be engaged in increasing the capacity of
the local people to be able to intervene themselves by strengthening structures
of the civil society and modern public-private partnerships, in terms of preven-
tion as well as protection. Churches are called to offer their moral authority for
mediation between differently powerful actors.

The prevention of catastrophic human insecurity requires attention to the root
causes of insecurity as well as to more immediate or direct causes of insecurity.

Broadly stated, the long-term agenda is to pursue human security and the transformation
of life according to the vision of God's Kingdom. The key elements of
human security are economic development (meeting basic needs), universal education,
respect for human rights, good governance, political inclusion and powersharing,
fair trade, control over the instruments of violence (small arms in particular),
the rule of law through law-biding and accountable security institutions,
and promoting confidence in public institutions. On the other hand, the more
immediate preventive attention to emerging security crises must include specific
measures designed to mitigate immediate insecurities and to instil the reliable
hope that national institutions and mechanisms, with the support of an attentive
international community, will remain committed to averting a crisis of human

At the national level, governments should undertake self-monitoring to become
aware of emerging threats, establish mechanisms for alerting authorities and agencies
to such emerging threats, engage civil society and churches in assessing conditions
of human security and insecurity, initiate national dialogues, including
dialogue with non-state actors, to acknowledge emerging problems and to engage
the people in the search for solutions, and develop national action plans.

Prevention requires action to address conditions of insecurity as they emerge,
before they precipitate crisis, which in turn requires specific prevention capacities
such as early warning or identification of emerging threats or conditions of
insecurity, and the political will to act before a crisis occurs. To act before a crisis
is present requires a special sensitivity to and understanding of the conditions
and needs of people, which in turn requires the active cooperation of civil society,
and especially faith communities which are rooted in the daily spiritual and
physical realities of people. Faith communities are playing a major role in trustbuilding
and truth-finding processes in many contexts of crisis, such as truth and
reconciliation commissions, trauma-healing centres, providing safe meeting places
for adversarial groups, etc.

Forming the ecumenical mind on the dilemmas of the use of force
It is necessary to distinguish prevention from intervention. From the church and
ecumenical perspectives, if intervention occurs, it is because prevention has failed.

The responsibility to protect is first and foremost about protecting civilians and
preventing any harmful human rights crisis. The international community's
responsibility is basically a non-military preventive action through such measures
as the deployment of humanitarian relief personnel and special envoys, through
capacity-building and the enhancement of sustainable local infrastructure, and
the imposition of economic sanctions and embargoes on arms, etc. The interna-
tional community has a duty to join the pursuit of human security before situations
in troubled states degenerate to catastrophic proportions. This is the duty
of protection through prevention of assaults on the safety, rights, and well-being
of people in their homes and communities and on the well-being of the environment
in which they live.

In calling on the international community to come to the aid of vulnerable people
in extraordinary suffering and peril, the fellowship of churches is not prepared
to say that it is never appropriate or never necessary to resort to the use of force
for the protection of the vulnerable. This refusal in principle to preclude the use
of force is not based on a naïve belief that force can be relied on to solve intractable
problems. Rather, it is based on the certain knowledge that the objective must
be the welfare of people, especially those in situations of extreme vulnerability
and who are utterly abandoned to the whims and prerogatives of their tormentors.

It is a tragic reality that civilians, especially women and children, are the
primary victims in situations of extreme insecurity and war.

The resort to force is first and foremost the result of the failure to prevent what
could have been prevented with appropriate foresight and actions, but having
failed, and having acknowledged such failure, the world needs to do what it can
to limit the burden and peril that is experienced by people as a consequence. This
force can be legitimized only to stop the use of armed force in order to reinstate
civil means, strictly respecting the proportionality of means. It needs to be controlled
by international law in accordance to the UN Charter and can only be
taken into consideration by those who themselves follow international law strictly.

This is an imperative condition. The breach of law cannot be accepted even
when this, at times, seems to lead - under military aspects - to a disadvantage or
to hamper the efficiency of the intervention in the short term. Just as individuals
and communities in stable and affluent societies are able in emergencies to
call on armed police to come to their aid when they experience unusual or extraordinary
threats of violence, churches recognize that people in much more perilous
circumstances should have the right to call for and have access to protection.

Churches may acknowledge that the resort to force for protection purposes in
some circumstances will be an option that cannot guarantee success but that must
be tried because the world has failed to find, and continues to be at a loss to find,
any other means of coming to the aid of those in desperate situations. It should
be noted that some within the churches refuse the use of force in all circumstances.

Their form of responsibility is to persist in preventative engagement and, whatever
the cost - as a last resort - to risk non-violent intervention during the use
of force. Either of these approaches may fail too, but they both need to be respected
as expressions of Christian responsibility.

The limits of the use of force

The churches do not, however, believe in the exercise of lethal force to bring in a
new order of peace and safety. By limiting the resort to force quite specifically to
immediate protection objectives, the churches insist that the kinds of long-term
solutions that are required - that is, the restoration of societies to conditions in
which people are, for the most part physically safe, in which basic economic, social,
and health needs are met, where fundamental rights and freedoms are respected,
where the instruments of violence are controlled, and in which the dignity and
worth of all people are affirmed - cannot be delivered by force. Indeed, the limiting
of legitimate force to protection operations is the recognition that the distresses
of deeply troubled societies cannot be quickly alleviated by either military
means or diplomacy; and that in the long and painstakingly slow process of
rebuilding the conditions for sustainable peace, those that are most vulnerable
are entitled to protection from at least the most egregious of threats.

The use of force for humanitarian purposes can never be an attempt to find military
solutions to social and political problems, to militarily engineer new social
and political realities. Rather, it is intended to mitigate imminent threats and to
alleviate immediate suffering while long-term solutions are sought by other means.

The use of force for humanitarian purposes must therefore be carried out in the
context of a broad spectrum of economic, social, political, and diplomatic efforts
to address the direct and long-term conditions that underlie the crisis. In the long
run, international police forces should be educated and trained for this particular
task, bound to international law. Interventions should be accompanied by
strictly separate humanitarian relief efforts and should include the resources and
the will to stay with people in peril until essential order and public safety are
restored and there is a demonstrated local capacity to continue to build conditions
of durable peace.

The force that is to be deployed and used for humanitarian purposes must also
be distinguished from military war-fighting methods and objectives. The military
operation is not a war to defeat a state but an operation to protect populations
in peril from being harassed, persecuted or killed. It is more related to just
policing - though not necessarily in the level of force required - in the sense
that the armed forces are not employed in order to "win" a conflict or defeat a
regime. They are there only to protect people in peril and to maintain some level
of public safety while other authorities and institutions pursue solutions to underlying

It is the case, therefore, that there may be circumstances in which affected churches
actively call for protective intervention for humanitarian purposes. These calls
will always aim at the international community and pre-suppose a discerning
and decision-making process in compliance with the international community,
strictly bound to international law. These are likely to be reluctant calls, because
churches, like other institutions and individuals, will always know that the current
situation of peril could have been, and should have been, avoided. The
churches in such circumstances should find it appropriate to recognize their own
collective culpability in failing to prevent the crises that have put people in such


The Ninth Assembly, meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, 14-23 February, 2006:

a) Adopts the statement on the Responsibility to Protect and expresses thanks
to all member churches and individuals involved in the study and consultation
process on "The Responsibility to Protect: Ethical and Theological Reflection"
and asks the Central Committee to consider further developing guidelines for the
member churches, based on the principles in this report.

b) Fosters prevention as the key tool and concern of the churches, in relation to
the Responsibility to Protect. Because churches and other faith communities and
their leadership are rooted in the daily spiritual and physical realities of people,
they have both a special responsibility and opportunity to participate in the development
of national and multilateral protection and war prevention systems. Churches
and other faith communities have a particular responsibility to contribute to the
early detection of conditions of insecurity, including economic, social and political
exclusion. Prevention is the only reliable means of protection, and early detection
of a deteriorating security situation requires the constant attention of those
who work most closely with, and have the trust of, affected populations.

c) Joins with other Christians around the world in repenting for our collective
failure to live justly and to promote justice. Such a stance in the world is empowered
by acknowledging that the Lordship of Christ is higher than any other loyalty
and by the work of the Holy Spirit. Critical solidarity with the victims of
violence and advocacy against all the oppressive forces must also inform our theological
endeavours towards being a more faithful church. The church's ministry
with, and accompaniment of, people in need of protection is grounded in a holistic
sojourning with humanity throughout all of life, in good times and in bad.

d) Reaffirms the churches' ministry of reconciliation and healing as an important
role in advancing national and political dialogue to unity and trust. A unifying
vision of a state is one in which all parts of the population feel they have a
stake in the future of the country. Churches should make a particular point of
emphasizing the understanding of sovereignty as responsibility. Under the sovereignty
of God we understand it to be the duty of humanity to care for one another
and all of creation. The sovereignty exercised by human institutions rests on
the exercise of the Responsibility to Protect one another and all of creation.

e) Calls upon the international community and the individual national governments
to strengthen their capability in preventive strategies, and violence-reducing
intervention skills together with institutions of the civil society, to contribute
to and develop further the international law, based on human rights, and to support
the development of policing strategies that can address gross human rights

f) Urges the United Nations Security Council, in situations where prevention
has failed and where national governments cannot or will not provide the protec-
tion to which people are entitled, to take timely and effective action, in cooperation
with regional organizations as appropriate, to protect civilians in extreme
peril and foster emergency responses designed to restore sustainable safety and
well-being with rigorous respect for the rights, integrity and dignity of the local

g) Further calls upon the international community and individual national governments
to invest much greater resources and training for non-violent intervention
and accompaniment of vulnerable peoples.

h) Asks the Central Committee to consider a study process engaging all member
churches and ecumenical organizations in order to develop an extensive ecumenical
declaration on peace, firmly rooted in an articulated theology. This should
deal with topics such as just peace, the Responsibility to Protect, the role and the
legal status of non-state combatants, the conflict of values (for example: territorial
integrity and human life). It should be adopted at the conclusion of the
Decade to Overcome Violence in 2010.