World Council of Churches Office of Communication
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29 January - 6 February 2001
Potsdam, Germany

4 February 2001

"Humanitarian Intervention" issues can create ethical dilemma for churches

"Humanitarian intervention" - a term that describes armed intervention into a country in an attempt to protect the civilian population - normally raises serious questions for the political entities involved. But in recent years, the subject has also created moral dilemmas for churches, faced with the question of how to protect innocent people when nonviolence is not possible.

How people of faith are struggling with such questions in difficult situations was the subject of a February 3 press briefing at the World Council of Churches (WCC) Central Committee meeting in Potsdam, Germany. The briefing was held in advance of the committee's likely consideration of a policy document on the use of armed force in support of humanitarian purposes.

Conflicts today involve many "actors," said Dwain Epps, leader of the WCC International Relations team. Despite the intentions of those involved in the conflict, "always the victim is the civilian population, many of them women and especially children," he said.

"There is a need for Christians to enter into new coalitions to break the cycle of violence," he said. For example, civilians are working with police and military personnel in some contexts.

Speakers from nations that have experienced internal violence and possible armed intervention for humanitarian reasons, spoke from their own experiences.

During the genocide in Rwanda in the early 1990s, the Rev. André Karamaga, Central Committee member, Presbyterian Church of Rwanda, said "50,000 people were killed because they thought they were protected". The people who died assumed they were safe, following a "humanitarian" intervention into their country, he said.

"It is a scandal that a group of human beings are eliminated without help from the international community," Karamaga said, adding that it's not always clear who decides when an intervention is needed.

There may be good reasons for an armed intervention, but in the end, "humanitarian intervention" can bring violations of human rights, said Bishop Aldo M. Etchegoyen, Central Committee member, Evangelical Methodist Church of Argentina.

"Military intervention for good reasons doesn't help for reconciliation and peace," he said.

Karamaga and Etchegoyen expressed sceptical views of the United Nations' (UN) role in such interventions. But the Rev. Septemmy E. Lakawa, Central Committee member, Protestant Church in South-East Sulawesi, Indonesia, said the UN is part of the international community "reflecting the solidarity of the people of the world." The people of Indonesia must assume responsibility for assisting the UN she said.

What can churches of the world do to assist nations which may be vulnerable to violent forces from within? Overcoming violence can start with efforts to eliminate the root causes of poverty, Karamaga said.

Lakawa compared the task to the image of Jesus' hand outstretched on the cross. "It is time for churches outside of Indonesia to stretch their arms to us," she said. Churches throughout the world can learn about people in distress by listening to their stories, she said.

People in churches in the northern hemisphere can stand in solidarity with economically oppressed people in the southern hemisphere, Etchegoyen said.

The question of humanitarian intervention relates to the WCC's Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV), an emphasis to be launched in ceremonies in Berlin during the Central Committee meeting.

The DOV task is not just an 'activist' thing," Epps said. "This is an incredibly profound exercise about what we have in us to produce the world's most violent nations - those who sell or give away the most destructive weapons. How can we join with victims to live out of the Gospel of the Prince of Peace?"

Photos from the Central Committee

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 342, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.