Nairobi, 1975: The World Council of Churches and Human Rights

At its fifth international assembly, in Nairobi from 23rd November to 10th December 1975, the World Council of Churches (WCC) adopted a position on human rights that constituted a major turn away from its established stance and triggered what one prominent participant would subsequently refer to as a “human rights explosion” in the work of the WCC (Weingärtner 1983: p. 7). Founded in Amsterdam in 1948, the WCC was the most important organization in the international ecumenical movement, bringing together hundreds of Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches worldwide in a manifestation of Christian unity. At its previous assembly, in Uppsala in 1968, during the United Nations’ International Year for Human Rights, the WCC had still privileged religious liberty as the outstanding priority on the churches’ agenda, since this issue was seen to concern the churches most directly. Now, the WCC emphasized a number of social, economic, and collective rights – such as the right to work, food, health care, education, and self-determination – in addition to civil and political rights. Religious freedom only featured as one issue among others: it occupied last place in a list of six general headings. Moreover, the Nairobi Assembly emphasized the need to look at the conditions under which human rights were violated, thus embedding concern for human rights in a far more wide-ranging agenda for progressive change. With over fifty per cent of the WCC’s member churches coming from outside the West, whereas the ecumenical movement had originally emanated from Western Europe and North America, the new stance represented a challenge to established liberal views on human rights, as represented by Amnesty International, the International Commission of Jurists, and the International League for the Rights of Man. Finally, the Nairobi Assembly shifted the locus of the WCC’s engagement to its member churches. Although the WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) would continue representing the WCC at the United Nations, the churches residing under the WCC umbrella were called upon to undertake action at the local, national and international level. The Nairobi Assembly’s new agenda for human rights was hailed by its proponents as a newly ‘integral’ or ‘inclusive’ ecumenical consensus, but it was and has continued to be a source of great controversy.

Rev. Dr. Philip A. Potter, the WCC’s third general secretary (1972-1981), and the first to come from a non-Western country. Photograph by R. Mieremet/Anefo (Nationaal Archief, Inv. no. [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons

Apart from its general deliberations on human rights, the Assembly produced reports dealing with human rights in relation to Latin America and the Helsinki Final Act, each of which revealed some of the currents that were determining the direction of the WCC and laid bare underlying tensions. Nairobi’s report on Latin America reflected Third World concerns in that it reiterated the importance of the relationship between structural ‘root causes’ such as underdevelopment and inequality on one hand and ‘symptoms’ – violations of human rights – on the other. Nevertheless, the immediate concern of the report was with civil and political rights, since the military regimes that had come to power in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and elsewhere in the preceding years stood in the way of social justice. The illegitimate way in which these governments had come to power, the methods of repression which they used – most notoriously torture and disappearances – and the ideological affinities between the Latin American opposition and their supporters abroad, notably through the rise of ‘liberation theology’, produced a powerful transnational movement. Financial and other support for organizations opposing these regimes marked an important step in the WCC’s human rights engagement, especially from the 1973 military coup in Chile on, as the organization instituted a Human Rights Resources Office for Latin America, which helped spur the Nairobi Assembly to its ambitious vision for human rights.

Debates about the Helsinki Final Act generated the most intense controversy of the Assembly. The publication of an appeal for religious liberty by two Russian Orthodox Christians, the layman Lev Regelson (30 July 1939 –) and the priest Gleb Yakunin (4 March 1936 – 25 December 2014), in an unofficial conference newspaper, sparked intense disagreements. A number of delegates from Western churches pushed to issue a call on the Soviet Union to respect religious liberty. They were resisted by the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (which had become a member of the WCC in 1961) as well as others. Only after considerable acrimony and extended proceedings was a compromise reached, which contained a more reserved call for religious liberty and reiterated that member churches would always be consulted. In other words, the WCC would not go against the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was that voicing public criticism of the situation in the USSR was inappropriate. Ecumenical work on the implementation of the Helsinki Final Act was taken up by regional church organizations rather than the WCC, coming together, on the initiative of the CCIA, in the Churches’ Human Rights Programme for the Implementation of the Helsinki Final Act.

Critics of the WCC, such as the theologian and past participant Armin Boyens and the historian Hedwig Richter, have judged Nairobi’s deliberations and report on the Helsinki Final Act as an act of capitulation or willful blindness. They charge that the WCC ought to have been much more critical of the positions taken by churches that were repressed or controlled by socialist states. In their view, the leaders of such churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Nikodim (15 October 1929 – 5 September 1978), did too little to support individual religious dissidents and too willingly acceded to the demands of the state. According to this critique, the WCC’s leadership, especially its general secretary, the Rev. Dr. Philip Potter (19 August 1921 – 31 March 2015), and the new director of the CCIA, the Estonian-Argentinian exile Leopoldo Niilus (19 January 1930 – 9 February 2015), were willing to criticize Western states but turned a blind eye to repression in the Eastern bloc. Richter has argued that this was the result of the WCC’s increasingly left-wing political orientation.

The writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Cologne, the day after being exiled from the USSR. Photograph by B. Verhoeff/Anefo (Nationaal Archief, Inv. no. [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons

Others, like the church historians and theologians Katharina Kunter, Annegreth Schilling, and Christian Albers, have countered that the WCC was in a process of readjustment towards the concerns of Third World churches. These viewed issues of development, self-determination and racial justice as more pressing than what they perceived as a blinkered, Cold War-related struggle over religious liberty. While acknowledging that the WCC did relatively little on behalf of dissidents in the Eastern bloc, these authors point out the difficulties inherent in dealing with the Orthodox member churches from Eastern Europe and the USSR. Furthermore, while the WCC’s work for human rights in Latin America and elsewhere might have been inflected by Marxism, this did not mean that it was not a bona fide attempt to effect ecumenical action and correct what had so far been a largely Western-dominated agenda (nor was this new approach taken only by non-Western churches and theologians).

Chilean soldiers burning Marxist literature (28 September 1973). Photograph by Weekly Review (CIA Freedom of Information Act) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As a number of historians, such as Samuel Moyn, Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, and Jan Eckel have recently emphasized, human rights was never the only idiom available for phrasing demands for justice, and the concept’s use has been subject to great change over time. The relationship between human rights as articulated at Uppsala and Nairobi on the one hand and other ecumenical causes on the other is therefore an important subject for further research. Racism, self-determination, refugees, development, the position of women, and other issues were clearly connected to the WCC’s discourse on human rights, but the nature of these linkages and intersections varied over time. As an institution that engendered debate and action in relation to these issues, the WCC impacted upon the imaginaries of many millions of Christians worldwide. By vastly expanding its conception of human rights at Nairobi, the WCC went far beyond what secular partner organizations like Amnesty International were willing to say and do. Whereas Amnesty tended to decontextualize human rights violations in order to depoliticize them, and at the time only worked on issues of civil and political rights, the WCC pulled in the opposite direction, embracing human rights as part of a much wider, religiously inspired vision of liberation.

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Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Bastiaan Bouwman is a PhD candidate at the Department of International History of the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research deals with the human rights engagement of the World Council of Churches, with a focus on the Netherlands and Britain, from the 1940s to the 1970s. He currently is a managing editor of the academic journal Cold War History and one of the organizers of LSE’s International History Research Seminar (HY509). Previously, he was a junior scholar at the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2016.