World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Resources / Documents / WCC commissions and working groups / Commission of the Churches on International Affairs / United Nation relations / The collaboration of the WCC with International Governmental Institutions

The collaboration of the WCC with International Governmental Institutions

22 November 2003

Presentation by Peter Weiderud, Director, CCIA, at the Plenary of the Pontifical
Council Cor Unum, Vatican City, November 22, 2003

Your Eminences,
Your Excellencies,
Dear participants, friends and colleagues,

I am delighted to be in your midst and to be able to participate in dialogue with
you about our witness as churches to the International Governmental Institutions,
in particular to the UN, where my focus will be. I bring you greetings from
Geneva, in particular from our General Secretary, Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, and his
newly-elected successor, Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia.

For 60 years now - longer than the existence of both the UN and the WCC -advocacy
at the UN has been a priority for the ecumenical movement. The WCC, now
with a membership of more than 340 churches in 120 countries, is a child of the
same generation as the UN, and like the Roman Catholic Church, we have strongly
promoted the values of multilateralism - international law, human rights and
peaceful resolutions of conflicts - as expressions of human dignity and civilization.

In many fields we have close, constructive and creative cooperation with the Roman
Catholic Church. Let me share with you some examples. In a number of both
regional and national ecumenical organizations, the Roman Catholic Church is a
full member and very active. With Justice and Peace-Netherlands we work closely
together advocating for the International Criminal Court and for the creation
of the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. The cooperation with the Holy See
representative in Geneva is excellent, and in particular we benefited from that
during the Iraq crisis. For many years we have had joint delegations and strong
Roman Catholic presence, including some bishops, in the WCC delegations to
the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

It is indeed timely that we can meet in a dialogue and mutual sharing of experiences,
at a time when the concept of multilateralism and the role of religion in
society are challenged. It is a time for us to assess and see how we can improve
our witness.

The Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson, who most of you have probably never
heard of, used to introduce himself as a literary omnivore. He consumed all kinds
of texts with lust and joy - magazines, novels, newspapers, bills, aide-memoirs
and minutes.

Except for three kinds of texts, that he refused to read:

a) Law

b) The Apostle Paul

c) Texts beginning with the words: "We are living in a time of change."

I like to disagree with Frans G. Bengtsson. It is true that every generation might
have good reason to feel that they are living in a time of change.

And we are indeed living in a time of change.

Our societies go through dramatic changes:

- From mono-cultural to multi-cultural;
- From industry-based to knowledge-based;
- From national to regional and global;
- From modern to trans-modern;
- From secular to post-secular.

Some of these changes are more obvious in industrial countries, however, through
globalization, the effects are to be recognized globally.

I very much appreciate His Excellency Archbishop Cordes' paper on how religion
through modernism and secularism in the Western world has been pushed into
the private sphere. This is important for us to understand and assess, to be able
to meet the challenge of the return of religion in political processes. Governments
and intergovernmental institutions are not equipped to deal with this post-secular
challenge and therefore open to us in a new way.

In a more integrated world, joined by markets, emails and "CNNification", the
challenge of doing international affairs work for a church is different. An informed
public opinion can today be extremely powerful and change governments' public

So, my understanding is that this change is a major opportunity for the Christian
churches. However, we must be open and flexible, if we are to make use of the
new possibilities.

Like all institutions, we are forced to adapt in order to be relevant to our task and
to the people we are sent to serve. Structures that used to be influential are suddenly
irrelevant. New structures of power are emerging. We must find new sources
of funding.

What does a changing society mean to our UN advocacy and to our work in international
affairs? I would like to give two examples from my personal experience
on how new technology has changed preconditions for policy-making.

My first personal experience with the UN was in 1987, when I was asked by the
Swedish Government to be advisor to the Swedish delegation to the General
Assembly, as representative of the Swedish peace organizations.

At that time, e-mail did not exist. The fax was relatively new. Every morning the
Ambassador met with his staff to give instructions and discuss the agendas and
meetings of the day. At the end of the day the staff reported back and a telex was
sent back to Stockholm for the staff there to work with instructions for the next

The Ambassador was in total control of the work of the Swedish delegation. He
was also extremely powerful, as it was not possible to communicate anything but
the most important issues. The rest had to be decided on the spot.

Today, every staff is e-mailing not only Stockholm but the rest of the world in
order to get the best possible information and knowledge. Even small issues go
to Stockholm for consideration. The Ambassador is by-passed on a lot of issues
and has, in order to be relevant, to adopt a completely different style of leadership.

The same goes for us. Twenty years ago it was sufficient to be present in New
York and, on behalf of the churches, lobby and influence ambassadors to the UN.

Today, in order to achieve results, we have to have the same message in New York,
as in Stockholm, Santiago and Seoul.

We have to work with the member churches on issues of international affairs, and
not only act on their behalf. We have to communicate and build alliances in new
ways. We have to establish new priorities.

The other example I would like to give you is more recent - when I was serving
as political advisor to the Swedish Foreign Minister. When I began in 1994, the
mobile phone was relatively new. It was clumsy, and the cover with the network
was not reliable.

Only a year later, most of these problems were solved, and suddenly there was a
major shift in policy-making. The Foreign Ministers started to talk directly to
each other. Before, a phone call was a major event to organize. Just to have two
ministers sitting at their desk at the same time was a major achievement. Every
call was carefully planned, basically to confirm dialogues that had already been
made by civil servants. Now, they started to collect the phone numbers of their
colleagues. They became Ivan, Lena, Madeleine and Klaus to one another.

This meant that the systems were by-passed, and had to change in order to be relevant.
Politics became much more dynamic, with increased possibilities and risks
for unexpected decisions. Politics became much more sensitive to the public debate
and to the media.

For us this is good news, if we can change accordingly. Politics today give much
more room for values, principles and public voice, compared to ten years ago. But
we, as churches, need to be more visible, in the media and also in direct contact
and dialogue with ministers. We need to be known and relevant. We need to
make use of our unique role as churches, act with quality, and focus our work in
areas where we are able to make a difference. Our role is not to make politics, but
to make politics possible.

Twenty years ago, before the explosion of information technology, the role of a
multilateral actor - like the WCC - was different and much more self-evident.

Simply by being in Geneva, we were better informed, better equipped and better
placed than any national actor.

Today that is not the case anymore. I was as well informed in my home in Västerås
in Sweden a little more than a year ago as I am now.

National actors in the developed world have the information and the financial
tools they need to became global actors by themselves. In this time of globalization,
it is in fact much easier to fund national structures for global work.


Ecumenical priorities always depend on context. The two major European ecumenical
assemblies are good examples.

At the All-European Christian Assembly in Basel in May, 1989, half a year before
the end of the Cold War, the European churches called for the abolition of the
institution of war.

In Graz in 1997, during the crisis in former Yugoslavia, the same churches identified
the need for humanitarian intervention, also with military means, as a last

The ecumenical movement shows in particular its relevance when it is able to
interpret the present and the future and provide guidance, leadership and inspiration
to member churches and its constituencies on how best to meet the challenges
of our time.

The history of WCC advocacy at the UN shows many good examples of this.
The WCC's involvement with the UN started actually already when the UN was
in formation.

Inspired by the 1937 Oxford ecumenical conference on Life and Work, ecumenical
bodies, particularly in the US and Great Britain, on behalf of the WCC in the
process of formation, began after 1943 discussions on how the hoped-for peace
would be structured, and how to build the new international order.

Through the Commission on a Just and Durable Peace of the Federal Council of
Churches, US churches developed a programme called "Six Pillars of Peace". This
programme offered important correctives to the draft charter for the UN produced
at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in Washington DC. There, an appeal
was made for the incorporation of human rights provisions in the Charter, the
revision of the Charter in order to recognize the role of the great powers, but also
to give a say to all nations, great and small.

At the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco, a church delegation
strongly argued that the United Nations must be seen not just as an instrument
of states, but also give expression to the aspirations of the world's peoples.

The lack of this, they argued, was a major reason why the League of Nations had
failed. Therefore they urged for a preamble stating that, and the inclusion of an
article which would provide people with direct access to its deliberations.

The UN Charter eventually did reflect the concerns and contributions of the
churches. When it was signed at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco on October
24, 1945, the preamble referred to the "peoples of the United Nations, determined
to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." And an article
was included which provides for consultation with non-governmental organizations.

One leading lay person of the time and later US Secretary of State, John Foster
Dulles, affirmed this, submitting that:

As originally projected at Dumbarton Oaks, the organization was primarily
a political device whereby the so-called great powers were to rule the
world … It was the religious people who took the lead in seeking that the
organization should be dedicated not merely to a peaceful but to a just order...

The Commission on a Just and Durable Peace was also the organizer of the meeting
in Cambridge in 1946 where the Commission of the Churches on International
Affairs, CCIA, was formed jointly between the WCC, in the process of formation,
and the International Missionary Council, only a year after the birth of the
UN. CCIA was created to ensure an effective relationship between the churches
and the leadership of the new global body and also to provide the main means to
represent WCC member churches at the UN.

CCIA became one of the first international NGOs to be granted consultative status
with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It also played a key
role in helping to shape the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Status with
ECOSOC (CONGO) with specialist committees in such areas as human rights,
disarmament and development.

Engagement in human rights work was immediate for the Commission and its
focus on the adoption of a UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights was
achieved on December 10, 1948. Its first Director, Dr O. Fredrick Nolde and his
staff played a significant role in the drafting of the Declaration, contributing to
the formulation of the article on religious liberty.

They went on to work on issues such as decolonization, peace and war, refugee
protection and relief, the status of women, women in development, eradication
of poverty and racism. Dr Nolde's biographer even notes that the staff of the CCIA
were often highly regarded in inner circles of the UN both for their expertise, and
for the pastoral role several of them played with diplomats and senior officials.

Through the regular production of a "pre-Assembly memorandum" which was
circulated to all the permanent missions at the UN headquarters, the CCIA made
delegations aware of the positions of the WCC on the growing range of items on
the General Assembly's agenda.

In 1968, a thorough review of the CCIA agenda took place in The Hague, on the
eve of the WCC's Uppsala Assembly, with a significant shift from the North
Atlantic agenda to broader Southern perspectives, which were confirmed at the
Fourth WCC Assembly, the same year.

In the years that followed, the representatives to the UN focused heavily on an
agenda close to that of the G77. Examples include work on the elimination of
racism and of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the African liberation struggle,
militarization, human rights abuses under military dictatorships, nuclear disarmament,
international economic justice and a new world order, the rights of
women and of indigenous peoples and a concern for children and youth.

WCC/CCIA has participated in and often made substantive contributions to most
major UN world conferences held over the years, and helped plan parallel events
around many of them. During the 1990s these included the World Conference
on Environment and Development, the Copenhagen Social Summit, the Beijing
World Conference on Women and Development, the Cairo World Conference on
Population and Development, the Hague Peace Conference and more recently the
World Conference against Racism and Xenophobia, in Durban, 2001, and the
World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, 2002.

The WCC has worked especially on the follow-up work of the Commission on
Social Development, the Status of Women, and Sustainable Development including
Climate Change. As a member of the NGO Coalition for the creation of the
International Criminal Court (ICC), it has worked to further the application of
the international rule of law. Ecumenical delegations have participated in meetings
of the Commission and its Sub-commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

The membership of both the WCC and the UN has changed significantly from
the founders, who were mostly from the global North, to the current membership
which is mostly from the global South. Our respective agendas have expanded
and for the WCC, important additional issues on our agenda today include
globalization, the international debt crisis , climate change and global warming,
HIV/AIDS, women under racism, indigenous peoples and their land struggle,
root causes of terrorism, humanitarian intervention and application of sanctions.

The WCC may well be the largest and most representative of the international
NGOs accredited to the UN. It is certainly among those closest to local conditions
affecting the lives of countless individuals.

Partly as a result of this, WCC delegations to UN world conferences or summits
have often played important roles in broader civil society coalitions formed alongside
the intergovernmental gatherings in the hope of influencing the outcome.


Iraq is the conflict that takes most of the attention of the UN Security Council
at the moment. It is also the conflict that has had most of the attention of the
International Affairs team of the WCC over the last year.

On March 20th, when the US-led coalition started the war on Iraq, the general
secretary of the WCC stated that the pre-emptive military attack was immoral,
illegal and ill-advised. These are not unique words in the ecumenical family.

During the whole Iraq crisis, the member churches of the World Council of
Churches and other actors in the ecumenical family were able to maintain a clear,
common and consistent language, also in harmony with the voice of the Roman
Catholic Church.

In particular, we should recognize the US churches which have been courageously
active in a difficult political context. Their work shows clearly the importance
of the ecumenical movement and the value of international contacts when reflecting
on public issues.

While the so-called religious right - which forms its theological reflection predominantly
in a domestic context - has beaten war drums with the US Government,
the Roman Catholic Church and the member churches of the World Council of
Churches have been able to form an independent, strong and prophetic critique.

For the WCC, advocacy against a war means:

• listening to member churches and partners
• reading the political context
• providing theological insights, moral and ethical dimensions
• formulating positions and statements
• communicating positions to the media and wider public
• shaping public opinion
• mobilizing member churches
• lobbying international intergovernmental bodies and governments

There were many statements produced by the WCC last year. I would like to comment
on one of them, which was a result of a meeting during the German Presidency
of the UN Security Council in Berlin, on February 5, convened by the WCC,
where heads of churches in European countries together with the CEC, MECC
and the NCCCUSA, gathered to find a common language and response to the
Iraq crisis.

The statement involved asking every general secretary of regional ecumenical
organizations to join the WCC General Secretary in calling their respective members
to a global advocacy effort.

Within a few days we had 181 heads of churches' signatures, which were handed
over by our UN office to the members of the Security Council and to the UN
Secretary General.

While the WCC statements normally are talking to the member churches, the
Berlin document gave an opportunity to talk with the member churches.

This and other statements were translated into Arabic and we made efforts to get
them known in that part of the world, from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf.

It was picked up by the Arab media and, for example, the Lebanese newspaper
An'nahar in its editorial recognized the voice of the Christian churches and also
challenged the Arab leaders to do more of the same. Churches in the Middle East
have especially welcomed the international Christian voice and unity and grassroots
communities stated that the WCC statements made them proud to be

This is of course a very important message to and support for the significant role
and centuries-old presence of Christians in the Middle East and their key role as
bridge-builders between the so-called Western Christian world and the Muslim

We were, despite a unified ecumenical movement and a lot of advocacy efforts,
not able to stop the war.

However, we were able to reach two very important achievements:

1. To bring the message to the Muslim world that this was not a Christian war
against Islam, but an action taken by some governments.

2. To contribute clearly to the discussion about the illegality of the action by
those governments.

This discussion will continue and we need continuously to be part of it.
International relations can basically work in three different ways. The first option
is to let the strongest decide. The second is anarchy. And the third is according
to international law.

International law is not always easy, and does not always have the answer. However,
it is by far the best option and our task is to strengthen the framework of international

What has been at stake in the Iraq crisis are some of the important principles,
developed throughout the 20th century within the UN system, with the experiences
of two World Wars, a process of de-colonization, the Cold War and several
humanitarian crises in mind.

For us who believe in the concept of common security, on the need to achieve
security not against the adversary but together with him, this is a time of both
great challenges and great opportunities.

Looking at the world today, it is a most frightening place, in fact more frightening
than has been the case for a long time, and in particular since the end of the
Cold War.

• Not because we have more conflicts between or within states. In fact, the
number of conflicts is scaling down, especially between states.
• Not because the number of terrorist incidents are increasing. On the contrary,
they are declining.
• Not because the number of people killed in these conflicts or attacks is
growing. Compared to a decade ago, this trend is also declining.
• Not because there is a lack of ideas on how to solve old conflicts and prevent
new ones. The creativity from a number of new actors in this field is
most promising.

However the risks to international peace and security that are increasing are:

1. Instability arising from too many fragile or collapsed states.

2. Proliferation of small arms and light weapons and the deterioration of the
effectiveness of the treaty regimes to prohibit proliferation of weapons of
mass destruction

3. Growth of international terrorist networks.

The main problem is the difficulty to achieve consensus, confidence and common
strategies on how to meet these threats to peace and security. Also the weakening
of international institutions and rules created to serve precisely that purpose,
including the rules to govern the use of force and the current militarization of the
understanding of security.

These concerns were at the core of the discussions at the WCC International Affairs
and Advocacy week at the UN, this past week. This was the first time that we, as
the WCC, met with key people in member churches, ecumenical organizations
and specialized ministries for mutual sharing and common strategizing at the UN.

It was heartening to experience the expectations they all have towards the leadership
role of the WCC in international affairs. There was also a great interest
from the UN, for example on the ethical and theological aspects on the responsibility
to protect, which was one of the public seminar topics. Our advocacy role
as churches is not only critical, but much needed and we should not shy away
from it.

The present state of flux in national and international politics and the need for a
new political ethos is a great challenge and an opportunity for the Christian

The ecumenical movement, through the WCC, has for decades promoted the need
for a just, peaceful, participatory and sustainable global order. It has done so, and
will continue to do so, with a clear understanding about the realities in the world,
but without being paralyzed by it.

The WCC has always had a realistic, but hopeful, understanding of the role of
the UN. The UN can never be stronger than the political will and power that is
given to it by the member states.

And - to quote the most famous of my countrymen among UN officials - Dag
Hammarskjöld: "The UN was not created to take humanity to heaven, but to
save it from hell."

Understanding the reality, we as churches are asked to offer hope and promise as
well as a call to repentance, on the basis of the gospel. The message must be so
true and demanding that the messengers will break through the barriers to deliver
it, and to win the hearing and response of those to whom it is addressed.

The biblical promise of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1), where love will
prevail, invites us as Christians to engage in the world.

The contrast of that vision with the reality makes that invitation compulsory and