Part of the lecture series Global Security and the United Nations: 70 Years On


The processes leading to the establishment of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948 date back at least to 1910. But the reaction among churches and Christians to the horrors of the great conflicts of the 20th century – and especially the Second World War – was a major influence on the formation, purposes and focuses of the WCC from its beginning. In this sense, the WCC shares a common heritage with the United Nations (UN). Over the succeeding decades the purposes of the WCC and the UN have continued to intersect especially in the common search for peace, human rights and democratic and inclusive development.

The pursuit of peace and justice has been an integral part of the WCC’s mission since its foundation, and the historical context in which the WCC was born has had a profound and lasting impact on its life and work. The Council was established as a fellowship of churches with the fundamental purpose of striving towards the vision of Christian unity – a globalizing vision that in some ways mirrors the UN’s own, though proceeding from a very different starting point and constituency.

But even in the process of its formation, the WCC was confronted with and obliged to respond to the reality of war and its consequences, genocide and other crimes against humanity, and mass movements of refugees and displaced people. It needed in this context to nourish the new fellowship and build bridges between churches and nations divided by past wars and the threat of new ones.

This point in history was also a precious moment of shared hope among people all over the world for a new international order and new institutions and instruments to ensure lasting peace. The WCC endorsed and promoted these aspirations. The newly-created UN carried and was shaped by such aspirations, and by the hope that it might become an instrument of the world's peoples, not only of world powers.

WCC-UN relations

The UN gave early recognition to the WCC as one of the international NGOs with the largest and most diverse constituencies globally, representing most of the Christian churches other than the Roman Catholic Church. This recognition implied a responsibility of active engagement on behalf of the fellowship of churches in pursuit of the purposes expressed through the UN, and aroused expectations both within the UN and among its member churches about the WCC’s role in international affairs.

And indeed the WCC, through the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) – the creation of which in 1946 preceded by a couple of years the formal establishment of the WCC itself – was a significant actor in some of the foundational processes of the UN , including in particular the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

CCIA was among the first international non-governmental organizations to be granted consultative status by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). In addition to its engagement in the articulation of normative international human rights standards, CCIA worked to strengthen the economic and social agenda of the UN in such fields as decolonization, economic development, protection of refugees and displaced persons, the elimination of racism, and the promotion of the status of women. Together with other ecumenical and civil society partners, CCIA pressed for the creation of international institutions empowered to enforce the full range of accepted human rights standards.

WCC continues to maintain consultative relations with the UN and many of its agencies. The CCIA as a WCC program coordinates the wide-ranging involvements of other WCC programs with intergovernmental bodies, and seeks opportunities for the churches to contribute effectively to the work of the UN system – across its three ‘pillars’ of peace and security, development, and human rights.

The WCC continues to play an important role in promoting accountability to the provisions of international human rights law through national and international processes, and regularly cooperates with the UN, regional inter-governmental human rights bodies, and other international non-governmental organizations dedicated to the cause of human rights. It engages in programs to develop human rights awareness among the churches, and to equip them to defend and promote human rights in their own societies. It supports the human rights efforts of churches and councils of churches around the world financially, through solidarity actions, and by the sending of investigative and pastoral delegations in times of crisis.

Beyond this, the WCC seeks to promote the effective democratic participation of all nations, large and small, in the UN and the system of global governance, and support for these bodies in financial terms and through compliance with the international rule of law administered by the UN and other intergovernmental entities.

Although the WCC (especially through CCIA) and other faith-based organizations were early, trusted and influential partners of the UN, succeeding years have sometimes seen a certain antipathy and distance on the part of the UN with regard to religion and religious organizations. But in more recent times we have witnessed a mature and welcome re-engagement by an increasing number of UN agencies, programmes and funds with the ‘faith demographic’ and with faith-based organizations.

For our part, it is important for the faith communities to recognize that we are not the fount of all wisdom and good, and that our historical partnership with the UN system is more critically important now than ever before. Together with the UN, we have much to contribute to the search for justice and peace, from the experiences and perspectives of our vast global constituency. However, especially in the context of confronting religiously-inspired extremist violence, it is essential for religious actors to acknowledge that in some cases we are part of the problem. Indeed, precisely for that reason, we must be actively engaged in global efforts to seek solutions.

As for the WCC, we have our own mandate and agenda. While the ecumenical movement is attentive to UN partnerships and other international developments in setting that agenda, the WCC seeks to develop relationships with the UN system in a way which responds to our own priorities, and which guards against being diverted or being co-opted by others.

It is important to note that we are not always and automatically in agreement with everything that the UN does. For example, the WCC has repeatedly critiqued the application by the UN of economic sanctions, including most recently in the case of North Korea. We have long doubted the efficacy of such sanctions in achieving their stated purposes, and have highlighted the disproportionately negative impact that they tend to have on the poorest and most vulnerable, as well as other counter-productive effects.

Nevertheless, the WCC certainly should and does make use of those UN mechanisms to which it has access to pressure governments to comply with widely accepted international norms and standards, such as those on human rights. In this process, the WCC especially seeks to support and enable member churches and partners to represent their own interests in appropriate UN forums.

The impact of the WCC on the UN agenda can often be maximized through selective involvement with other non-governmental organizations and coordinating bodies. There is the need for clear priority setting for ecumenical involvement with the UN. It cannot, nor should it pretend to, relate to the whole range of issues addressed by the UN. It must relate selectively, in relationship to its own programme priorities. Experience shows that day-to-day cooperation with selected specialized agencies and programme bodies are generally more effective than less focused involvements.

In general, WCC relations with the UN should be viewed in the light of how we might use the instruments it provides to achieve the ecumenical vision of a just, inclusive and peaceful world. In this way, it becomes not an extra burden, but an inherent part of the mandate of the Council.

In 1966, the WCC Church and Society Conference declared that the UN is the best available structure through which to pursue the goals of international peace and justice. And on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the UN Charter, the WCC Central Committee (Geneva 1995) reaffirmed the WCC's dedication to the principles and purposes of the Charter and the central role of the UN in the conduct of international relations, in safeguarding the international rule of law, and in the elaboration of norms and standards governing international behaviour for the benefit of the whole of humankind and the global environment.

The Central Committee went on, however, to express deep concern about trends which have diverted the UN from aspirations expressed in the Preamble to the Charter, and thus erode public confidence. The Central Committee called for UN reform which would assure full participation in effective decision-making by all member states, redressing a situation which tends to relegate small, less powerful, and economically deprived nations to subsidiary roles in the formation and implementation of international policy, especially on peace and security.

The UN has always struggled to fulfil the expectations and aspirations of the world’s peoples, and to cope with the weight of cumulative crises. It has undergone successive waves of reform, including following the agenda outlined in the UN Secretary-General’s report to the Millennium+5 Summit in 2005. But the outcomes have often been incremental or partial. And the post-World War II power relations reflected in the Security Council especially have remained entrenched. However, in the current context of an unprecedented concurrence of long-term challenges, the case for more thorough-going reform and renewal becomes even more pressing.

New crises and challenges

Seventy years after the establishment of the UN and of CCIA, the world is a very different place compared to the situation immediately following the end of World War II. An array of profound and interconnected crises poses unprecedented challenges to global security and to human dignity and rights, to the UN and the whole international community, including the ecumenical movement. The nature and severity of these challenges are now all too obvious, including:

  • Climate changes, and related increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events.
  • Sectarian religiously-inspired extremist violence, and concomitant threats to religious liberty and minority rights.
  • The prevalence of new civil and intra-state conflicts, despite the decline in inter-state conflicts.
  • The misuse of new communications technologies, enabling the rapid dissemination of violent ideologies and plots, as well as posing increased threats to privacy and to freedom of expression.
  • Advances in weapons technology, including the proliferation and continued development of nuclear weapons, and the imminent prospect of lethal autonomous weapons systems.
  • The persistence of extreme poverty in some areas and sectors, despite overall progress in reducing poverty globally.
  • Extreme levels of income inequality.
  • Refugee and migrant crises, driven by conflicts, oppression, environmental degradation and poverty.
  • Rising xenophobic and nationalistic political tendencies, coupled with persistent racism in many societies.

These issues cannot be analysed or dealt with in isolation. The new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledges this fact, in its more holistic and comprehensive approach to defining and promoting development.

However, despite this constructive reframing of the development agenda, the fact remains that the post-World War II architecture for global security is poorly adapted to dealing with the complexity of this constellation of challenges. In particular, the millennial and existential nature of the threats posed by climate change exceed the frame of reference reflected in the UN structures, or indeed in traditional Westphalian and democratic political processes.

Moreover, the stresses of confronting such a range of concurrent crises have contributed to, or coincided with, an evident decline in respect for obligations under international law and for the very principle of multilateralism. This decline is apparent in many contexts, but is perhaps most obvious in the lamentable fragmentation and divergence of European responses to the current refugee crisis.

Just as the WCC shares a historical heritage and common purposes with the UN, it is also confronted in the current context by similar challenges and dilemmas.

The past seventy years have imposed severe tests on the intention of this fellowship of churches to witness credibly to the universality of Christ's church in a divided world and to God's purpose for the whole of humankind and creation. All too often, the churches have been too much part of the world, participating in its divisions, accepting and sometimes even reinforcing enemy images, and participating in the exclusion of the other and the unsustainable exploitation of the planet. But at other times, for example even in the darkest moments of the Cold War and in the midst of the struggle against apartheid, WCC member churches and courageous women and men within them have built bridges across ideological divides and been powerful witnesses for peace and justice.

In these seven decades, profound changes have taken place in the world as well as among the churches. The major problems have shifted, but not disappeared; and in the new forms which they are taking, some are even more acute than before. Even though colonialism has largely disappeared, many of the nations to emerge from colonies are subject to new kinds of economic and political dependency, which continue to bring misery upon their peoples. Even though the Cold War has ended, the nuclear arms race has slowed, and the apartheid regime in South Africa has been supplanted, wars continue to be fought, nuclear arms continue to be upgraded and to proliferate, and racism and xenophobia raise their ugly heads in many different contexts.

New sources of violent conflict have emerged from racial, ethnic and religious tensions. Even though inter-religious dialogue and cooperation have become more common, religious identities and loyalties continue to be used to foment hatred and violence. Despite nearly universal legal and constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, the situation of religious minorities, including some Christian churches, has in fact become increasingly precarious in many places; elsewhere, the very principle of religious freedom is being challenged.

Where cruder expressions of militarism have receded, they have often been replaced by more sophisticated forms of military hegemony supported by high technology. International solidarity is giving way to fear and xenophobia as the numbers increase of those leaving their homelands to escape conflict, oppression, chronic poverty and unemployment. As income inequalities rise to historically extreme levels, this trend is accompanied by spiralling risks of political and social instability.

The impact of climate change has begun to be felt, not only predicted – especially among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities with the least capacity to adapt. The wide-ranging consequences of climate change cut across and profoundly affect all spheres of policy and action – environmental, economic, social and political. The policy responses and behavioural changes required in the face of these impacts are generational and millennial in nature, far exceeding the relative ‘short-termism’ – and short-sightedness – of our normal political processes and impulses.

The contemporary constellation of global crises has moral and spiritual dimensions even more profound than the crisis which faced the world at the earliest stages of the modern ecumenical movement and of the UN itself. But the moral foundations of human community have in the meantime become even more fragile.

Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace

The WCC has been promoting peace and reconciliation for many decades, and has been supporting its member churches in becoming engaged in peace initiatives, such as dialogue, mediation, lobbying and accompaniment to the marginalized and conflict-affected communities.

The WCC pursues peace with justice globally, between countries, and within individual nations. This involves promoting those things that make for peace, and denouncing those that threaten peace with justice. Since its First Assembly, the WCC has favoured non-violent responses to conflict, and has generally warned against efforts to resolve conflict through the application of armed force, believing that this risks furthering the vicious cycle of violence. The Council promotes the elaboration of international norms and standards that improve the international community's capacity to address conflicts before they explode into violence, to mediate violent conflicts through negotiation, and to bring offending powers into compliance with international resolutions by diplomatic and moral suasion. Occasionally, the Council has engaged directly alongside churches in specific situations to mediate conflicts between contending nations or parties.

The 10th Assembly of the WCC, held in Busan, South Korea, in 2013, invited Christians and people of good will everywhere to join in a Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace. WCC calls all people – young and old, women and men, differently abled, people of different faiths – to engage their God-given gifts in transforming actions and to walk together in this common vision. The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace is an initiative that renews the vocation of the church through collaborative engagement with the most important issues of justice and peace, healing a world filled with conflict, injustice and pain. Participating in God´s gift of unity and God´s mission of justice and peace (missio Dei), we intend to respond to God’s will for this world by becoming communities of justice and peace and celebrating the fellowship of such communities.

Priorities in peacebuilding and conflict prevention

The Way of Just Peace, as described by the 10th Assembly, covers many dimensions and objectives, not limited to the absence of conflict but encompassing all those things that make for peace. Peacebuilding and conflict prevention includes addressing the root causes of conflict and strengthening a society’s resilience to manage potential conflicts in the future.

Among other things, this entails ensuring that both women and men participate in decision-making processes, post-conflict reconstruction and transitional justice processes. Strengthening women’s economic and social security, as well as addressing gender-based violence, are essential measures to secure a durable peace, security and reconciliation.

The involvement of women in peace processes and peace negotiations is still too limited. Continued efforts are needed to ensure that the needs and priorities of both women and men are included in peace processes and peace negotiations. Women’s equal and meaningful participation in peace processes is both an end in itself as well as a means to secure inclusive and sustainable peace. UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) is the most important commitment made by the global community with regard to women’s participation in the maintenance of peace and security. We welcome the publication by UN Women of Guidelines for the Development of a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.

Children have been disproportionately affected by conflict as casualties of violence, as internally displaced persons and as refugees. Violence against children in conflict harms families, impoverishes communities and reinforces other forms of inequality.

There is an increasing number of conflicts provoked by interfaith tensions and divides, unconstitutional changes in governments, disputed elections, incomplete political transitions, ethnic and social tensions and inter-communal violence. Solutions invariably require comprehensive settlements that include a whole host of issues such as power-sharing, economic opportunities, constitutions, justice, truth and reconciliation, human rights, and gender equality.

In church circles peacebuilding starts with teaching against violence. The Bible is not free of the threads of violence, and these must be acknowledged and examined. But it is also full of examples on which church leaders and people of God can base their teaching for peace and non-violence.

Effective engagement in peacebuilding requires us to move beyond the existing dichotomies of realism vs. idealism, citizenship vs. discipleship, the spiritual and moral purity of the church’s witness vs. the need for the church to take a public role that is responsible and politically effective.

In many contexts church leaders play a highly influential role in society. They may differ in their views as to whether engagement in peacebuilding is part of their mission and in their understandings of their obligations to the established order. But all church leaders are challenged to take a proactive role in engaging in and supporting initiatives for peace, justice and overcoming poverty, as a calling to God’s mission in the world.

In peacebuilding and reconciliation, church leaders are called to promote those things that make for peace, and denounce those that threaten peace with justice. They may promote non-violent responses to conflict and warn against efforts to resolve conflict through the application of armed force and the perpetuation of the cycle of violence. They are invited to define strategies to address conflicts before they explode into violence, to mediate violent conflicts through negotiation, and to call offending powers to compliance with international resolutions. Church leaders are called to enable the inclusive participation of community members in peacebuilding and reconciliation activities, especially encouraging and promoting the role of women and youth in these processes, as well as the role of interfaith dialogue and cooperation for peacebuilding.

Central in the things that make for peace are the social, economic, political and environmental factors that impact human life, security and wellbeing. The newly-adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an important point of reference for a comprehensive approach to these issues.

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The achievement of the SDGs requires multi-level engagement – local, national, regional and global – and a transition from normative discussion to the details of measurement and implementation. A related issue is how to ensure the UN system is ‘fit for purpose’ to promote effectively the national implementation of this transformative agenda. This is a key question for the future of the UN. Supporting peaceful, just and inclusive societies is a recipe not only for sustainable development, but also for the maintenance of international peace and security.

The transformative goal of peaceful, just and inclusive societies is now enshrined as the centrepiece of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, notably in the form of SDG 16 and related indicators and targets. This is a remarkable achievement and opens up a new way forward for development, humanitarian action and peacebuilding.

Peace and justice are core to the discourse on ‘resilience’. Resilient societies are those where the social fabric is strong: societies that are just and inclusive, where the relationships between individuals, their communities and the state are functional and based on trust.

Although there is much to do at an international policy level, the key measure of success for SDG 16 will be the extent to which it makes a practical difference to the lives of those impacted by violence, injustice and exclusion.

The communications challenge that faces the 2030 Agenda as a whole (how to convey its novel scope and universal applicability and to generate broad-based buy-in) is particularly important for SDG 16 given its cross-cutting nature, complex subject matter and potential to be co-opted. There is a danger that the SDG 16 agenda could be co-opted for counter-terrorism, stabilization, and crime prevention approaches that are narrowly based on increasing short term security. Upholding the longer term imperative of addressing the root causes of violence and increasing inclusion and accountability will be an enduring challenge.

To maintain momentum it will be necessary to galvanize communities of interest – including communities of faith – around the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These will need to be able to move beyond single thematic issues and targets to encompass a broader view of the peace and development issues as a whole, including critical issues such as reconciliation that remain underemphasized in the 2030 Agenda.

Additionally, there is a critical need to make the vertical connections between policy makers at an international and national level and the perspectives and aspirations of those impacted by violence, injustice and exclusion. Faith-based organizations have an important role to play in this regard.

At the UN, the focus on peaceful, just and inclusive societies within the 2030 Agenda is part of a growing consensus on the need to better integrate the three UN pillars of peace and security, development and human rights, as evidenced by the ideas emerging from the three peace reviews and related processes in financing for development, climate change and humanitarian action.

Violence and Vulnerability

Violence and insecurity is a fundamental dimension of human suffering, as are poverty and oppression. Violence and the threat of violence darken lives and destroys hope across the world, from remote villages to big cities, from the poorest countries to the richest. We cannot hope to promote sustainable and inclusive development, the central aim of the 2030 Agenda, without addressing violence.

Equally, we cannot expect to resolve many violent conflicts and conflict risks without addressing the root causes of violence, including in political and economic exclusion, human rights violations and injustice, and unequal and unsustainable resource use in a climate-constrained world.

We must consider changing an international system that does too little to raise up the voices, needs and aspirations of the many, as compared to the interests of the few. That many of these issues are encompassed in the 2030 Agenda is a heartening development, but more needs to be done.

If we accept the premise that the keystone of the UN’s work, across peace and security, human rights, development and humanitarian action, is fostering the growth of peaceful, just and inclusive societies, then what changes need to take place - what do we need to do differently?

An initial step would be to use a preventive lens for all development, humanitarian, security and indeed business initiatives, both at the UN and beyond. Leveraged effectively, the 2030 Agenda could help outline a shared approach to addressing and preventing violence at its roots. The following principles will be vital for the international community to adopt:

All societies must work towards becoming more peaceful, just and inclusive. Our task is not complete until all human beings, wherever they may live, can fulfil their potential in peace. An effective and inclusive analysis, involving a variety of local perspectives, including youth and women, should be a prerequisite for any external engagement.

In the planning and implementation of development, humanitarian, economic or security engagement, always seek to do no harm, to ensure that unintentionally or otherwise, the consequences of that engagement do not themselves make things worse, for example by affirming existing or new patterns of political or economic exclusion.

Focus on increasing resilience and reducing vulnerability, particularly emphasizing the relationship between individuals, their communities, their government and their environment. Prioritize local needs, the longer term support for peaceful, just, inclusive and sustainable communities, over short-term security or stabilization objectives.

Preventing violent extremism is not primarily about military strategy, or even about ideologies; rather, it is about finding ways to accompany communities in becoming more resilient, in fostering peaceful, just and inclusive societies, as the 2030 Agenda has it. Faith-based approaches have an important role to play, not just in confronting the misuse of religion to foster violence and exclusion, but because of the positive insights and experience that religious actors can bring in addressing the root causes of violence, in their historic witness to peace, reconciliation, inclusion and social and economic justice.

So how does this discussion fit in with current developments at the UN, and with the changing currents of issues and concerns within the international community? From a big picture perspective, the UN – indeed the international community as a whole – is in a curious place right now. On peace and security issues we seem to have reached a new low, characterized by a lack of cooperation between states that has contributed to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster unfolding across the Middle East and Europe. The role of the UN Security Council is in question, considering the veto power for the 5 permanent members still reflecting the post-World War 2 dispensation. There is an urgent unmet need for the UN’s peak body for addressing challenges to peace and security to reflect 21st century realities and needs in its structure, membership and processes.

But at the same time, we have had some extraordinary achievements in the recent agreements on the 2030 Agenda and on climate change, where countries have decided to move on from holding entrenched positions of Global North versus Global South, to a new paradigm based on cooperative approaches to common problems, where everyone has needs and everyone has something to contribute.

There are a number of downsides to the framing of ‘countering’ or preventing’ violent extremism. One of them of course is the inappropriateness of classing many different types of violence together, ranging from a long-standing civil war in Syria (with more than half a million dead and tens of millions displaced) to smaller outbreaks of religiously-inspired extremist violence, designed to shock and provoke a reaction. But another important consequence of the ‘violent extremism’ framing is the way in which it diverts attention from the role of state actors.

Additional concerns include the way in which too many governments have been restricting the space for civil society in their own countries and internationally, in the name of ‘counter-terrorism’ – and how the label of ‘terrorist’ has been used not only to exclude certain groups from peace processes, but also to prohibit any form of engagement by civil society with groups so labeled, whether with humanitarian or peace-making intent.

The world is at a turning point, where we have a choice to be made, between fear and national interest, or hope and a shared, cooperative vision of the future. In the forums of the UN, there is an emerging consensus on the need to focus on promoting sustainability and resilience, reducing vulnerability, and building peaceful, just and inclusive communities in a holistic manner.

But at many national levels, the signs are more of fragmentation, isolation and narrow self-interest.

Trust and Hope

Can the faith communities act effectively to counter these tendencies towards fragmentation, isolation and self-interest, and promote collaborative action to address the challenges currently facing the globe? Can religions and religious organizations even take a lead in communicating the just peace agenda, and can they assist in the vertical integration between affected communities and policy makers nationally and internationally? Can religious people choose against the violent strands in their scriptures and traditions? Can we, as global communities of faith, join with the UN in promoting a vision of humanity and its relationship to creation that is just, peaceful, inclusive and sustainable?

I hope and pray so. And I believe so.

At the WCC, we intend to give special attention to the cultural and spiritual influences, through which faith and religion can foster peace, cooperation, acceptance, trust, and restorative justice, rather than their opposites.

We intend to give the qualities of relations more weight than other approaches, in which reaching an agreement is based on traditional interest-based theories derived from rational actor models. These qualities of relations are key to sustainability in communities in which faith, culture and community are the social bedrock. This is something that religious actors, at their best, can especially contribute – through the development of trust, and the restoration and affirmation of hope.

For communities of faith are, at a very fundamental level, communities of trust and hope – and our characteristic message and contribution must reflect this. Hope is a defining quality of faith. From a specifically Christian perspective, the church’s role in society must be an expression of our faith. Through a prophetic, critical approach aimed at transformation and hope, not marked by fatalism, by indifference, devaluation or demonization of others, but by love. In our understanding, faith is intrinsically linked to and only properly understood under the criterion of love. Moreover, true hope is never only for me and my own community; it is anchored in a transformational event that has universal implications. Accordingly, I believe that if it is not a hope for all, it is not a real hope, and it is not a Christian hope. And a necessary condition for hope is that it expresses itself in love for others, whoever and wherever they are.

In this regard, on the firm foundation of our own faith principles and commitments, we can join the UN in recognizing our common heritage and trajectory, and in confronting the daunting challenges ahead. We work for the realization of peaceful, just and inclusive societies. That is why we call one another to be on a pilgrimage of justice and peace. For all.

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