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Memorandum and Recommendations on Response to Armed Conflict and International Law

Recommendations adopted by the Central Committee and memorandum received and commended to the churches, Geneva, 26 August - 3 September 1999.

03 September 1999

Recommendations adopted by the Central Committee and memorandum received and commended to the churches, Geneva, 26 August - 3 September 1999.

     The nine months since the WCC Harare Assembly have yet again been marked by costly international and internal armed conflicts in virtually all of the regions of the world, and by growing threats to international peace and security. Very many of them have had disastrous consequences for the human rights of affected populations, have resulted in massive loss of life and displacement of populations, and have damaged respect for democracy and the international rule of law. In response to some, major world or regional powers have intervened in the name of international security and humanitarian concern, sometimes with tragic unforeseen consequences. This was especially the case in the response to the Kosovo crisis. Many other conflicts, however, have been substantially ignored by the international media and received little effective attention by the international community.

The nature of the international response, the rationale offered for intervention, and the failure to respond in certain notable crises raise serious questions which require the attention of the churches. They are of particular concern for the ecumenical movement and for the World Council of Churches, which was formed in response to appeals like that made in 1920 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which urged the churches to join together to give a witness to the nations with respect to the need for a just, peaceful world order and effective international institutions to promote and sustain it. Thus, from the earliest beginnings the ecumenical movement's commitments to church unity, human rights, peace and justice, and the international rule of law have been bound together. In these interests, and out of a desire to remain faithful to the Gospel and to make Christian witness and mission credible to the world, the WCC has repeatedly sought to offer constructive critique and guidance to the nations.

Moreover, as the General Secretary has noted in his report to this meeting of the Central Committee, held in Geneva 26 August - 3 September 1999, the Vancouver Assembly's 1983 Statement on Peace with Justice, which said that without justice for all everywhere we shall never have peace anywhere, must be reconsidered in the light of the experience of the last decade. This affirmation is certainly true with respect to the lasting, comprehensive peace Christians receive from God. The Church can be satisfied with nothing less. Yet the conflicts of the past decade have shown that action for peace in the more limited sense of controlling armed conflict becomes an unavoidable priority in the face of today's massive threats to justice and life itself. The churches and the international system need to consider more deeply in the present context how the complementary and interrelated needs of people for both peace and justice can be more effectively related.

Once again, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches feels compelled to address churches and nations in the light of the international response in recent months to armed conflicts in the Balkans, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East which have highlighted trends addressed by the WCC particularly since the Canberra Assembly in 1991:

  • the erosion of the authority and capacity of the United Nations and its institutions created to develop, codify and guarantee respect for the international rule of law;
  • the unwillingness, especially of influential states, especially in the West, to revise appropriately their policies and actions on international peace and security in the light of the new needs and opportunities created by the end of the Cold War;
  • the tension between principles in the United Nations Charter of non-intervention in the affairs of sovereign states, and the obligation of the international community to intervene on humanitarian grounds when states fail to respect the human rights of people within their borders;
  • the complex interrelationship between the need for justice as the essential basis of peace, and the need for peace as essential to the pursuit of justice; and
  • the ever more pressing challenges confronting churches in particular national or international conflicts, and the ecumenical movement as a whole, in efforts to promote non-violent approaches to conflict transformation and resolution, and post-conflict healing and reconciliation.

The erosion of the authority of the United Nations

    As the World Council of Churches has stated on many occasions, the United Nations plays a unique role in the world as the sole body where universally accepted standards of human rights are developed. Churches and other advocates of human rights depend on the impartiality and universality of the United Nations in seeking to hold governments of many different political persuasions accountable to international standards. Thus, a stronger and more effective United Nations is crucial to assure respect for the international rule of law, a measured collective approach to the maintenance of international peace and security, the enforcement of international human rights standards, and the promotion of justice in the world.

The dominant conflict in the period since the Harare Assembly has been the crisis in Kosovo. The decision of NATO powers to intervene there on humanitarian and national security grounds without effective reference to the UN Charter and the Security Council gave rise to heated international debate. The international response to Kosovo is a compelling example of the erosion of the authority of the United Nations and is thus worth examining in some detail. The decision to intervene militarily in Kosovo was defended in different ways by the NATO governments. Overriding considerations of national security were cited yet again by the United States and some other NATO powers to justify intervention in their own national security interests. The intervention was also justified on human rights and humanitarian grounds, with governments maintaining that the urgency of the humanitarian crisis demanded a more rapid response than the Security Council was capable of authorizing. Some governments cited previous decisions of the Security Council as having justified NATO acting on its own within the provisions of the Charter, noting that UN involvement in the Kosovo crisis stopped short - for political reasons - of authorizing force, but that it was moving in that direction.

In retrospect, many have felt that political and geopolitical interests of major powers prevailed over the intention of the Charter that all member states have equal rights under and obligations to international law. NATO decisions and actions with respect to Kosovo sidelined and undercut the authority of the United Nations, its Security Council and its specialized agencies, which have been constituted with the mandate to guide and conduct humanitarian operations, and led to violations of fundamental principles of international humanitarian law, especially with respect to the treatment of refugees. They effectively barred the Secretary-General from exercising his impartial mediating role, and blocked him from pursuing negotiations for a non-violent resolution. He and the UN as a whole were virtually excluded from the NATO-led Rambouillet negotiations held under the imminent threat of military intervention. Moreover, questions have been raised about the precedents set in Kosovo for the further development of a new NATO strategy and role in the world.

In the process, NATO powers subjected themselves to the charge of having applied a double-standard in assessing and responding to humanitarian needs. Few denied the legitimacy of the urgent humanitarian need created by increasing acts of ethnic cleansing against the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, but many raised serious questions about the failure of the same nations to respond with similar energy and decisiveness to crises in Africa and elsewhere, whose humanitarian dimensions were equally serious and often more dramatic in terms of the threats they posed to the life, peace and security of masses of people. It is hard to avoid the impression that racist attitudes have influenced such decisions.

The need for new approaches to international peace and security

    The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and the brief period of global entente which occurred after 1991, created new opportunities within the framework of the United Nations for powers from East and West to join together to help resolve a series of long-standing conflicts in parts of the world where they had previously confronted one another in proxy wars. Many held out the hope that this new-found cooperation would lead to rapid reductions of nuclear and conventional arsenals built up during decades of military stand-off between the two great military alliances. They expected this would lead to a thorough-going review of approaches to international security based on military alliances, building on the experience of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). Ecumenical bodies and others in North America and Europe, whose nations were parties to the CSCE Final Act, sought to help shape the new Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The hope was to strengthen international security within this regional sphere through adopting a more comprehensive approach to addressing the underlying causes of conflict and to create new, non-military regional and sub-regional alliances for peace based on respect for human rights.

The churches have supported the development of such regional civilian alliances as constructive alternatives to a Cold War ideology which divided reality into opposing enemy camps associated with good and evil, right and wrong, and which proved incapable of addressing the more complex historical, cultural, political and economic realities revealed by the conflicts which broke out in the immediate post-Cold War period.

The decision of the UN Security Council to invite the OSCE to deploy a large, unarmed civilian observation contingent in Kosovo was therefore welcomed in many quarters as a constructive, non-military approach to the protection of threatened civilian populations and to addressing the causes of the conflict through inter-ethnic dialogue. Alone, the OSCE might not have been able to achieve the desired goals, but combined with UN-led negotiations it might have had a chance to succeed. Opinions differ. Some hold that this form of intervention came too late to reverse the course of events, and that the only remaining option was strong, decisive military action. Others believe that the persistent threats and apparent determination of NATO powers to pursue armed intervention cut short this innovative alternative approach.

Developments in Kosovo have underscored the fact that the OSCE, like other regional bodies, is far from realizing its potential as an alternative approach to international security within Europe. While much work remains to be done to make the OSCE a credible alternative to military alliances, the churches should continue to support the vision of civilian-based regional alliances seeking peace based on respect for human rights.

Principles related to humanitarian intervention   

     The tension between the principle of national sovereignty, on which the present international system is based, and the moral obligation members of the international community may feel to intervene in urgent situations of humanitarian emergency, was intensified in the early 1990s around such African crises as Somalia, Rwanda and Sudan. This tension has been exacerbated by the changing nature of warfare.

Today's conflicts are characterized by an increasing number of civilian casualties and are fuelled by an arms trade of unprecedented proportions. In fact, far from being the unintended victims of warfare, civilian populations have increasingly become the targets of military action. As UN Under-Secretary-General Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflicts, has reminded this Central Committee, in conflicts in which enemies are demonized, villages and entire populations have become the targets of military action in which children and women suffer disproportionately. Millions of children have been killed, maimed, uprooted, sexually abused and traumatized by today's wars. The UN Security Council Resolution 1261 (1999) of 25 August demonstrated that the international community is becoming aware of the tremendous impact of war on children and concrete suggestions have been made on ways to reduce the damage inflicted on them. But these measures need the support of churches, non-governmental organizations, governments and inter-governmental organizations. Concrete initiatives are needed to address the needs of children and women particularly in conflict situations; the issue of the protection of children must be placed on the agenda during peace negotiations; and the needs of children in post-conflict situations must be addressed. Children represent the future of their countries and our world. The international community needs to demonstrate flexibility and creativity to ensure that their needs are met and, most of all, that the conflicts which wreak havoc with their lives are prevented or resolved quickly.

The tension between the perceived need for the international community to take action to stem a tide of civilian deaths and the principle of non-intervention was brought into sharp focus by the discussions around humanitarian intervention in Kosovo.

We note that there is as yet no consensus among the churches about either the meaning of the term humanitarian intervention or about its justification in certain cases. For some, humanitarian intervention refers to a range of actions, short of the use of armed military force, which the international community can take to respond to situations where there are massive violations of human rights. For others, humanitarian intervention involves the use of force. For some churches, the use of military force can never be justified while others believe that in certain situations, when other non-military means have been exhausted, military action may be justifiable.

In recent years, Chapter VII of the UN Charter (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace and Acts of Aggression) has often been cited as a justification for intervention in Iraq by the Gulf War coalition forces, in Somalia by the United States and some of its allies, and now again in Kosovo by NATO. It is necessary to recall that the clear preference of the Charter, in general, is for pacific resolution of disputes, and in Chapter VII, in particular, the preference is for measures not involving the use of armed force. Only when the Security Council considers such actions to be inadequate, or when these actions have proved to be inadequate, may other measures be taken to maintain or restore international peace and security by military or other forms of coercion (Art. 42). In such a case, a special agreement is required with the Security Council, including specification of the numbers and types of forces, ...and the nature of the facilities and assistance to be provided (Art 43).

The NATO intervention took another direction. Not only did it ignore these provisions of the Charter, it used levels of force equivalent to those used in war. Since no declaration of war was issued, it could be argued that NATO powers also placed themselves outside the framework of international humanitarian law applicable in war. The UN Charter remains essentially silent with respect to intervention on humanitarian grounds, though the debate on this issue has included arguments that massive violations of the rights of citizens within a sovereign state constitute a threat to international peace and security, and thus fall within the terms of Chapter VII. Even in this case, no single power, nor a group of powers is authorized to take action outside specific decisions of and regular consultation with the Security Council. Laws are established both in the national and international sphere not primarily to authorize the use of force, but to limit it.

The moral obligation of the international community to protect groups and individuals when their rights are massively violated by the state, or when the state refuses or fails to protect them, still remains. It may well be that new standards of international conduct need to be established in this respect. In this debate, the churches need to be involved, seeking answers to such questions as: Have all other avenues of non-violent action been exhausted before military intervention is considered? Who determines that the violation of human rights has reached a level to warrant armed intervention? How can people be protected from mass violations of human rights? How are sovereign nations to be protected against politically-motivated intervention? What measures are necessary to prevent individual powers or groups of nations from taking the law into their own hands and engaging in actions guided less by international law than by their own particular interpretations of peace, democracy and human rights? If the legitimate international authority were to take a decision to intervene on humanitarian grounds as a last resort, what limits need to be placed on the use of armed force? Who sets the long-range goals and strategies to ensure that an effective long-term solution is achieved through intervention? How is the expertise of competent UN humanitarian agencies to be drawn upon in the setting and implementation of such goals? How can the roles of military and civilian components of such intervention forces be distinguished in a way which increases confidence in their impartiality and effectiveness? As the intervention in Kosovo and Yugoslavia as a whole showed, failure to have clear guidelines on these questions can lead to flagrant violations of basic international standards related to the protection of refugees, and of established international norms with respect to access and the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

The role of the churches and the ecumenical movement in times of conflict

     Throughout history those who choose to go to war have sought religious support and justification for their actions. Conflicts during the past decade especially have often been cloaked in religious garb. It is also true that religious groups, including the churches, have for their own reasons increasingly complicated or reinforced national, ethnic and other tensions which underlie and sustain conflict. The Eighth Assembly has renewed the call for churches to build new, more effective interfaith alliances to transform and mediate conflict. This is especially urgent today when so many groups in society who feel marginalized or discriminated against seek to reaffirm their particular identities and have them recognized. Debates within the WCC in recent years have also shown the degree to which conflict, and the perceived role of churches within it, can be divisive of the ecumenical fellowship. The international approach to the conflict in Kosovo has highlighted this tension and revealed new dimensions of the historical, cultural, theological and ecclesiological questions involved. The Council began to address aspects of this more intensively through activities related to the Programme to Overcome Violence. Programmes on ecclesiology and ethics, the role of the churches in situations of ethnic and national tensions, and theological approaches to violence in society continue now within the context of the Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence.

Because of their shared commitment to Christ the peacemaker and to the universality of the Gospel, the churches are called to be agents of reconciliation in a troubled world. Reconciliation is not an easy task, particularly after many lives have been lost, people have been maimed or injured and lost their property and livelihood. Nor is reconciliation accomplished overnight; rather the steady, sustained commitment of religious communities is needed to heal the wounds of war and create conditions where peace can be maintained. It is also important that the churches commit themselves at an early stage to prevent the escalation of conflicts. In some places, churches are already working on the local level in peace-making and peace-building activities in their communities and those examples need to be held up and affirmed. But the ecumenical fellowship needs, in dialogue and cooperation with people of other faiths, to expand and intensify its efforts in the broader dimensions of peace-making for the sake of peace and justice in the world.

As Christians, we take inspiration from the words of the Apostle Paul:

So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation: that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us: we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (II Corinthians 5: 17-20)


In light of these considerations, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Geneva, 26 August - 3 September 1999:

1.  Reaffirms the long-standing support of the World Council of Churches for the United Nations as the unique instrument of the peoples of the world for guaranteeing respect for the international rule of law; for guiding and governing international actions for international peace and security; for providing leadership in response to humanitarian need in times of conflict; and for developing an approach to peace which holds together early-warning and prevention of armed conflict, peace-making and peace-keeping, and post-conflict reconstruction and peace-building.

2.  Encourages the United Nations in its continuing efforts to find new and appropriate ways of responding to civil conflicts and other situations in which human rights are violated on a mass scale, including measures to overcome the culture of impunity.

3.  Reiterates its call on member churches to raise awareness in their societies and impress upon their governments the need and obligation of all states to respect the obligations they have assumed under the UN Charter, and to support the United Nations and its specialized agencies so that they may more effectively fulfill the roles they have been assigned by the international community.

4.  Calls on the United Nations, churches and church-related institutions to continue to raise awareness about the impact of war on children and women, to address the needs of children and women in conflict situations, to advocate for the inclusion of children's and women's issues during peace negotiations, to respond to the needs of children and women in post-conflict situations, and to support efforts by all organizations to advocate on behalf of children and women in situations of violence and armed conflict. In this context, the Central Committee welcomes UN Security Council resolution 1261 (1999) on Children and Armed Conflict, and urges the Security Council to apply these provisions whenever it considers responses to specific situations.

5.  Renews its call for effective controls to be placed on research, production, use, sale or transfers of weapons of war, in the light of massive military actions such as that conducted by NATO in Kosovo and other parts of Yugoslavia, which serve the purpose of testing new, ever more sophisticated weapons in attacks on heavily populated areas, and which glorify such weapons.

6.  Recommends that the General Secretary 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.

7.  Calls on churches and church-related institutions to reflect on the churches' unique contributions in facilitating reconciliation and encouraging peaceful means of resolving conflicts and to urge their governments to devote increased attention to non-violent means of conflict resolution and to develop and support institutions for training in alternative, non-military approaches to international peace and security consistent with the new demands and opportunities offered in the post-Cold War period.

8.  Calls on churches to give expression to an ecumenism of the heart, to remain open to one another, and to engage in both bilateral and multilateral dialogue on issues related to their shared obligation to manifest the universality of the gospel at all times, particularly in times of religious, ethnic, national or international conflict, supporting and encouraging one another, and giving witness to their unity in Christ for the sake of the world.

9.  Calls on churches and church-related institutions to participate actively in the Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010), to recover and uphold traditional means of non-violent conflict resolution, to develop creative approaches to prevention and responses to conflicts within their own contexts, and to share information about their activities with churches and church-related networks.