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Churches and the International Arms Trade Treaty: Limitations and Possibilities

Opening remarks for the Side Event at the Church Centre for the United Nations, New York, 21 October 2011.

21 October 2011

Opening remarks

Side Event at the Church Center for the United Nations

21 October 2011

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit
General secretary
World Council of Churches

On behalf of the WCC, a fellowship of 349 churches, in 110 countries, I welcome all of you.

Whether we represent a UN Member State, a church body or civil society, we are all here to connect the needs of ordinary people in our communities with an agenda for a robust control of weapons that threaten their daily life and peace. This agenda of protection and safety allows us to make a connection between our Christian faith and the call for human rights.  If we then consider how to bridge the gap between human rights and the ATT, I am sure that none of us come today with empty hands. I hope you will find much that you share in this, whatever your background.

First, the “human” in human rights.

The point of departure, a fundamental premise of Christian faith and basic orientation toward the problem of armaments, is sanctity of human life and of all life. We believe humankind is created in nothing less than the image of God. To be created in the image of God means that we all must treat this image manifest with dignity and respect, as God asks us to protect and love one another. Armed violence and illicit weapons that kill and maim people is not some unfortunate by-product of a lucrative commerce in arms. In the larger scheme of life, protecting this sanctity and dignity of life is a central standard for judging the legitimacy of that commerce and human rights law makes such judgements possible.

The WCC was founded immediately after WWII, which was largely fought with conventional arms; the basis for that advocacy also serves to address the threats pose by other armaments and by militarism itself. Therefore, churches in the ecumenical movement strive to put humanity first. We are a fellowship of churches striving for peace.  To ‘live without resort to arms’ is a spiritual, a practical and implies also a political position.

To live without the threat of arms, resonates both within the vision of peace contained in sacred texts of all major religions, as well as with the principles of customary law that prohibits the threat or use of force in international relations.

Our collective vision for peace speaks to individual citizens and to each community about what behaviours are life-affirming and respectful of others. Legitimate governments appreciate such guidance within civil society.

It also speaks to governments themselves, which we believe are responsible for establishing frameworks of security, and therefore regulations for what is allowed and what is not – in service of the common good, under the rule of law. For us, the rule of law includes the rules-based resolution of conflict and control of all weapons which may be used in conflict. Governments have this unique role – within their societies as well as together, among the nations. Under these high standards and clear constraints, many of our churches recognize a government monopoly on the use of force. In extreme circumstances when the use of force is judged to be lawful, it is for the body that represents the need for protection of all citizens to act. No one else. And the ‘human’ in human rights retains its precedence during that use of force.

Second, the “rights” in human rights.

There is a broad and unshakeable basis for including the ‘rights’ of human rights in the ATT as well as the responsibilities that go with those rights. International human rights have the distinction now, after 50 years of development and application, of becoming what one scholar calls “the only political-moral idea that has received universal acceptance.”  These ‘rights’ express the moral responsibility given in Holy Scriptures to protect the life of our sisters and brothers and to love our neighbour as ourselves. The UN Charter, nine universal human rights treaties and 100 other international treaties attest to that judgement. 192 UN Member States have accepted that human rights law applies to state activities. State activity includes the authorization of arms transfers. In who else’s hands could that function as lawfully reside? In the patchwork of regional and other existing arms transfer control agreements which the ATT is intended to repair, expand and affirm, the majority contain human rights standards. The votes during development of the ATT tell the same story.

Morality expressed in international human rights law protects those who need it most. In this is an insight useful for deliberation on how to bridge these rights into a strong and effective ATT. When it comes to rights, the voice of a representative majority is crucial. The voice of the less powerful, less wealthy, less dominant states will be the surest guide for bringing the rights of human rights into the ATT. Again, people whose hearts are open to others as their equals will not be surprised. From the Christian tradition, it is the least among us, the marginalized, the impoverished, those seen not to have power – they are the ones to be heard, the voice of what justice and mercy require of us all.

Third, the communities safeguarded by a solid human rights standard in the ATT.

Churches of the WCC are present at the community level in most of the countries which will benefit or suffer from the quality of the ATT. The strength of the churches in working for arms controls – yes, even in a trade treaty – is to seek unity among themselves and with other parts of society, and to put that unity to work for the common good. If minorities within civil society speak, change will not come. However, when majorities across society unite – women’s groups, youth groups, elected officials, police, parliamentarians – their unity makes a difference. When the churches add their voice to civil society and speak in unity it makes a difference too.

Member churches and national councils of churches have the benefit of 60 years of WCC policy as a dynamic platform for promoting arms control and disarmament. The scope and the depth of an arms treat treaty will provide for further progress in reducing unlawful uses of illicit arms. We say this from decades of presence in the disarmament capital of the world, a city of success, of deadlock and of failure in this field.

Now is the time to bring more security through the control of arms to prevent violence experienced by people in communities throughout the world, which is ultimately an implicit threat to us all. The negative connections between conflict and development is well documented, not least by the World Bank and UN agencies, so now is the time to control the movement of arms and to invest in sustainable development – to promote the rights and dignity of all.

If we lose sight of how weapons are actually used and abused in our world we will not meet the needs of our sisters and brothers who most require such protection.