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International Congress on the Human Right to Peace

Address at the opening of the International Congress on the Human Right to Peace in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 09 December 2010, by the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches

09 December 2010

Santiago de Compostela, Spain 
09 December 2010

By the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches

Dialogue among civilizations, tolerance and culture of peace

We read in Christ’s sermon of the mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). We are gathered here today, representatives of civil society, political and religious leaders, academics and UN officials, to speak about something that is in the hearts and minds of all peace-loving people. It is a great privilege to stand before you today at the opening of this event and act as an advocate for the human right to peace. I am speaking as the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, a fellowship of 349 member churches of Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and some Pentecostal churches from around the world, representing more than 500 million members. We cooperate closely with the Roman Catholic Church and are strongly involved in inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Together with me is my colleague Ms Christina Papazoglou who has been actively participating in the planning of this conference.

Together with our partners, we affirm the faith-based conviction that there is no peace without justice and no justice without peace. As churches, we believe that all human beings have the same value, and therefore the same right to live in peace, as we are all created in the image of God. We also believe that all human beings are called to protect our brothers and sisters, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. This includes also those neighbours in the global village who live in cultures and civilizations other than our own.

The quest for peace inspires the World Council of Churches. The WCC was founded in 1948, at about the same time as the United Nations, as a sign of hope after the terror and destruction of the Second World War. Churches stood united in their witness for peace and justice. We share with you the understanding that peace is foundational for human rights.

Our position on peace, the rule of law and international order has roots as far back as 1920 when the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople urged the churches to join together in order to bear witness to the nations with respect to the need for a just, peaceful world order and effective international institutions to promote and sustain it.

Prior to and during the Second World War, churches in the nations of Europe and North America developed principles for a future world order centred on the need for a “just and durable peace”. Amid the ruins of that conflict, these precepts served as the basis for Christian participation and ecumenical contributions in the process of shaping the Charter of the United Nations as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The challenge of stopping future wars was the first and greatest public issue on our ecumenical agenda.

In that landmark year of 1948 the First Assembly of the WCC, in Amsterdam, held up the hope for a more just and peaceful world order as inherent to God’s design for humankind. Over the decades, through interaction and advocacy with governments and intergovernmental bodies, this concern grew into a comprehensive commitment to the international rule of law and the need to set in place the elements of an international order of peace. From the outset, church concerns have had much in common with the broader international public concern for human rights and peace.

In 1966 the WCC’s commitment to the United Nations as a central locus of international law and the cornerstone of an international order of peace was affirmed in terms that remain valid today. As part of its commitment, the WCC called upon “the churches of the world to defend it against all attacks which would weaken or destroy [the UN] and to seek out and advocate ways in which it can be transformed into an instrument fully capable of ensuring the peace and guaranteeing justice on a worldwide scale.”

Today, more than ever, this is imperative. We see its importance, for example, in the Middle East and in negotiations aimed at strengthening international agreements on carbon emissions.

However, we should be mindful of the fact that this meeting for peace takes place not only against the background of violent conflicts in different parts of the world, but also in an environment of an ongoing financial, food, energy and environmental crisis. These circumstances threaten to aggravate already existing social, cultural, political and religious divisions in societies. We live in an interdependent world. Our member churches of the WCC live – as many others live – in contexts marked by violent conflicts, increasing numbers of refugees, internally displaced people and migrants, rising levels of poverty and alarming increase of arms, along with limited progress as regards commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. Therefore, the fellowship of churches in the WCC calls for solidarity and international cooperation.

This is of vital importance in effectively confronting global challenges. It is essential that we work together to promote and cultivate a genuine dialogue among civilizations, cultures and people. A dialogue, based on mutual respect and understanding of different cultures, on tolerance and respect for the human dignity, and fundamental rights and freedoms of all people in the world, is the only approach for bringing peace to communities and to the people.

UN General Assembly resolution 53/22 of 1998 proclaimed the year 2001 as the “United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations”. This significant resolution was a collective, global understanding that tolerance and respect for diversity facilitate universal promotion and protection of human rights and constitute a sound foundation for civil society, social harmony and peace. It also recognized the significant role of dialogue as a means to reach understanding, remove threats to peace and strengthen interaction and exchange among civilizations. Dialogue can contribute to a better understanding of common ethical standards and universal human values. Building on shared values, such as respect for human dignity and solidarity, can help us overcome differences related to our diversity and eventually overcome obstacles to peace. This recognition is important, but what is more important is that it is put into action.

We must engage in a dialogue for the advancement of international cooperation in order to fight against economic injustices and achieve sustainable development and a culture of peace.

We believe that we are one humanity and should receive one another as such. Therefore, and according to the United Nations Millennium Declaration of 8 September 2000, tolerance is one of the fundamental values essential to international relations in the twenty-first century. We should actively promote a culture of peace and dialogue among civilizations. This requires that human beings respect one another in all the diversity of their beliefs, cultures and languages, neither fearing nor repressing differences within and between societies but cherishing them as a precious asset of humanity. This was reiterated in the General Assembly Resolution 56/6 on a “Global Agenda for Dialogue among Civilizations” which emphasized that a common humanity unites all civilizations and that their achievements constitute the collective heritage of humankind. Such an understanding resonates with much religious teaching.

It is the belief of the Christian church that we share a common dignity because all people were created by God and in the image of God. This is inherent in every human being irrespective of ethnicity, race, culture or religion. A constructive dialogue among civilizations, mindful and respectful of the diversity but also of the richness and wisdom of other civilizations and cultures, is therefore in deep accord with our faith.

Being one humanity is not a matter of faith alone. If there is one thing that is becoming more and more obvious through the various crises we are facing today (financial, food, energy, environmental), it is how inter-connected we are and how the impact of these crises is felt globally. We can no longer claim that these are the problems of the “other”. These are becoming “our” problems, too. The fear of the unknown, “the other”, can cause intolerance, denial and rejection. These are some of the consequences of a lack of constructive dialogue, and they raise a serious challenge to be addressed.

We as churches believe that circumstances can change for the better. We do believe that “another world is possible” here on Earth. Throughout history, civilizations and societies have progressed through interaction and dialogue. There is a need to enhance our mutual understanding so as to address the numerous challenges that pose a threat to peace and to commonly shared values such as justice, respect for human dignity and human rights. In his message in celebration of the “World Day of Peace” on 1 January 2001, the late Pope John Paul II mentioned among other things that “dialogue leads to a recognition of diversity and opens the mind to the mutual acceptance and genuine collaboration demanded by the human family's basic vocation to unity. As such, dialogue is a privileged means for building ‘the civilization of love and peace’.

Promoting a dialogue among civilizations entails the involvement of governments, political and religious leaders, civil society and the United Nations system. Speaking as a religious leader, I think that we should be aware of the particular moral responsibility we have to be the voice of the voiceless, to heal divisions, to speak out against violence and war and to advocate for justice, tolerance and respect for human dignity, fundamental human rights and freedoms. Religious leaders have a pivotal role to play in encouraging and promoting a wider inter-religious dialogue in order to prevent or mitigate the destructive results of intolerance, violence and war, and to promote a culture of peace.

The traditional values need to be refreshed and made operative. The “Declaration on the Role of Religion in the Promotion of a Culture of Peace”, issued during a meeting organized by UNESCO and the Centro UNESCO de Catalunya, in Barcelona in 1994, stated, “Peace implies that love, compassion, human dignity and justice are fully preserved. We are all individually and collectively responsible for the common good, including the well-being of future generations.”

To this extent, education for peace and human rights is of vital importance. We owe it to future generations to overcome our divisions, build on our shared values and through a constructive dialogue work together for the promotion of a culture of peace. Quite often we find that the young people, the children of God, understand very well what is needed for the alternate future envisioned in the possibility of “another world”. Blessed are the peacemakers!