Churches divided on just war

Published March 1, 2001


The World Council of Church has launched a Decade to Overcome Violence in the shadow of controversy over whether violence to end violence and oppression is ever justified.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, speaking to reporters during events to mark the launch of the decade, strongly defended the need for armed intervention by the international community to deal with human rights abuses.

Mr. Ramos-Horta, joint winner of the 1996 peace prize and cabinet member for foreign affairs in East Timor’s United Nations transitional administration, said there is no alternative to armed intervention by the international community in situations like Kosovo, Cambodia and Rwanda where human rights are being abused on a massive scale.

Earlier, during a meeting of the WCC central committee, Catholicos Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church, the committee’s moderator, suggested that although violence is “evil,” it might be an “unavoidable alternative, a last resort” for people living “under conditions of injustice and oppression, where all means of non-violent actions are used up.”

In a speech in Berlin, Catholicos Aram said the decade is a commitment “to overcome violence by active non-violence” but he went on to reiterate: “Even so, we do not judge those for whom, in extreme situations, when hope for justice and dignity has disappeared, the use of force as a last resort may become necessary.”

Mr. Ramos-Horta pointed out that at a peace gathering in The Netherlands in 1999, he had been one of the few speakers to say, in front of thousands of people, that he supported NATO’s intervention “to avoid genocide” in Kosovo. “There was no other alternative,” he said.

The Decade to Overcome Violence is intended to encourage churches and ecumenical partners to overcome all forms of violence and as a statement of the WCC’s wish to work with local communities, secular movements and people of other faiths to build a culture of peace.

Catholicos Aram’s remarks were criticised by some central committee members, particularly from Germany.

Rita Sussmuth, former president of the German parliament, spoke out passionately about the need to resolve conflicts by non-violent means.

“To anyone who believes that we can resolve the conflicts of today – whether in the Middle East, in Turkey or in Africa – by using weapons, then I can only say, you can end wars or continue wars with weapons, but not create peace.

“Peace can only be created through using other means, in which societies outlaw violence, recognize the rule of law and reject any form of resolving conflicts through violence,” she said, to applause from the audience.

Asked about the issue, Mr. Ramos-Horta said: “If a genocide happens again, like in Cambodia in the 1970s, the world must intervene.”

But he stressed that any armed intervention must be approved by the United Nations: “You must use force as a last resort, but not unilaterally.”

Mr. Ramos-Horta is a former guerrilla fighter for East Timor independence from Portuguese rule and a prominent campaigner against the occupation of the territory by Indonesia, which invaded in 1975 after Portugal withdrew. In 1999, he was prominent among those urging the United Nations to send peacekeeping forces to East Timor.

In East Timor,” he said, “the church completely understood why people took up arms, even though they (churches) kept calling on them not to use those arms.”

He said in an interview that there is “absolutely no inconsistency, no contradiction whatsoever” between the campaign to promote non-violence and the need for armed intervention “until the campaign succeeds in persuading everyone in the world that the violence must be eliminated.”


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