Reflection on guns and security

This blog post originally appeared on the Mennonite Church USA website.

By Doug Hostetter

Doug Hostetter is the peace pastor at Evanston Mennonite Church (which he attends digitally), and is the associate representative of Pax Christi International to the United Nations in New York City.

105 Howitzer, Tam Ky, Vietnam, 1968. Photo by Doug Hostetter.

Many Mennonite homes in Harrisonburg, Virginia, had guns in the 1950’s. No, we were not worried about “personal protection” —  most of our neighbors never even bothered to lock their doors — but we lived on the edge of farmland, surrounded by wonderful state parks. Like most of my male friends, I grew up owning guns and looked forward to hunting season in the fall. I was totally comfortable around guns. I had been taught gun safety by an older Mennonite neighbor before I was allowed to buy my first rifle. The first and most important lesson always was: Never point a gun, loaded or unloaded, at another person. Guns were to be used for target practice, until one learned to use them accurately, and then, for hunting, carefully following safety precautions so that one didn’t accidently kill a protected animal or injure another hunter. Our Mennonite faith taught us that personal safety comes not from guns and locked doors but from personal relationships that can be built, even with one’s enemy, through integrity, trust and vulnerability.

After graduating from Eastern Mennonite College (now University) in 1966, I filed for and received conscientious objector status. As this was the middle of the Vietnam War and men of my generation were being drafted and sent to Vietnam against their will, I felt it was only just that I volunteer to do my alternative service in Vietnam as well, but I served with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). MCC at that time was the director of Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS), which also included volunteers from Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief. I was assigned to start a VNCS unit in Tam Ky, Quang Nam, in central Vietnam, where the heaviest U.S. military activity was taking place at that time. Our primary project was a literacy program that utilized 90 Vietnamese high school students to teach 4,000 refugee children how to read and write their own language, after the schools in their home villages had been destroyed by the American Air Force.

Experiencing life in Vietnam during the war was a total shock to my system.

Wall around the VNCS house. Photo by MCC.

I had grown up feeling very comfortable and safe around guns, which were being used responsibly by neighbors for hunting. Now, I was in a country at war, with nearly a half-million American soldiers bristling with guns that were designed for killing other human beings.

I learned a lot about protection and guns during my three years in a war zone. When I visited Tam Ky to explore whether VNCS should start a unit there, I had been informed by the American officials that the only safe place for me to stay in Tam Ky would be in one of the U.S. government compounds. There were three options: the Military Advisory Command, Vietnam (MACV); the CIA compound; or the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) compound. All three compounds were heavily walled and guarded with land mines and machine gun posts.

Wall around the USAID compound. Photo by Doug Hostetter.

I stayed in the USAID compound, but I soon realized that I could not remain there. Vietnamese people were allowed to come into and leave the USAID compound during the day, but at night, all Vietnamese people — except prostitutes — were expelled, and Americans were not allowed to leave the compound in the evening. I realized that, if I was there as a Christian peace witness to the Vietnamese people, I could not live in a U.S. Government compound, where I could not interact freely with Vietnamese people. When I returned to start the VNCS unit in Tam KY, I and one other VNCS volunteer moved into one of the dorm rooms of the local Catholic high school that the priest had built for students whose homes were far from the school.

Eventually VNCS was able to rent a small bungalow across the street from the Catholic high school for our unit house. I will never forget the advice we received from the woman who rented us the bungalow. Mrs. An explained that, occasionally, the National Liberation Front (NLF, which the Americans called the VC) would briefly take over Tam Ky. She pointed out that, since the house was fenced in by only a small four-foot wall, we could add a steel gate, a few rolls of concertina barbed wire for the front and top of the wall, and a 50-caliber machine gun for the front yard. That, she thought, would be adequate protection, so that when the NLF guerrillas came into town, we could hold them off with the 50-caliber until the U.S. Marines arrived to rescue us. No, I explained, that was not how we wanted to live. We never put a gate in that four-foot wall, and everyone in the village knew that we had no weapons. Our only protection was a small sign “Vietnam Christian Service” (in Vietnamese), with a peace dove and a cross. The VNCS house was the only place in Tam Ky where Americans lived outside of walled and guarded compound. I lived in Tam Ky for three years. The National Liberation Front took over the village — often for only a few hours in the middle of the night — about a dozen times. Each time that the NLF entered Tam Ky, they attacked the heavily guarded MACV, the CIA and the USAID compounds, but the VNCS bungalow, the one unprotected place where Americans lived, was never attacked.

I came to realize that most people in a war kill
to keep the enemy from killing them first.

When it was clear to everyone that we had no weapons, and in fact could not even protect ourselves, we were no longer a threat; we were not feared and many Vietnamese people, on both sides of that war, became our friends.

My attitude towards guns has changed drastically since Vietnam. I have seen, up close and personal, the way military weapons destroy the human body. It astounds me that my country, or any nation, would allow civilians to purchase military style automatic rifles, like the AR-15 or the AK-47. These automatic rifles were specifically designed for war — to kill and or seriously maim people.

Why would any government allow the sale of automatic rifles to the civilian population, and why would any decent person want to own such a weapon?

I am not philosophically opposed to hunting, and some of my brothers still do, but since returning from Vietnam, I have not been able to bring myself to reassemble my boyhood .22 caliber rifle, which I had carefully disassembled and stored before I left for Vietnam, over 50 years ago. I do know, both from the Sermon on the Mount and personal experience, that true safety comes not from higher walls or bigger guns but from the refusal of weapons and hostility, which can enable trust and friendship whether with neighbors at home or enemies abroad.

Nonviolence, Our Stories, Peace

PCI’s UN representative Doug Hostetter shares his path of nonviolence

Listen to the part one of the interview with Doug.

Listen to the second part of the interview with Doug.

Pax Christi International has been fortunate to have Doug Hostetter as part of our team of volunteers at the United Nations in New York for several years.

Doug, a Mennonite and conscientious objector, served in the middle of a hot zone during the Vietnam War supporting the people who lived there. He shared his incredible story with Alan Winson and Rebecca McKean with Bar Crawl Radio in mid-June 2022.

In the second part of the interview, Doug describes his daily activities in and around the Tam Ky battle zone during the Vietnam War – his interaction with the U.S. American Marines and a very different relationship with U.S. officers who saw his positive work with the local population – as sapping GI morale. This led to a decision he had to make when he learned that the CIA was putting out rumors that could lead to his assassination. He describes surviving the violence of the two-week TET offensive of 1968 and the human devastation that he witnessed afterwards.

Doug’s experiences in Vietnam established his life path working for peace throughout the world: in Nicaragua during the Contra War, in Iraq with his attempts to prevent the First Gulf War by trading a plane-full of medicine with the Iraqis for U.S. citizens and UN hostages, and his work to save Bosnian students from genocide in the 1990s.

Listen to the part one of the interview with Doug.Listen to the second part of the interview with Doug.

In a world rife with intense violence, this story of a man of nonviolence should be heard.


Hohourongo: Reconciliation and Peace Making

The following is a contribution to our Peace Stories blog and to the Pax Christi International movement from our friends in Aotearoa (New Zealand). This is a contextual theological contribution on peace making. Photo: Pedro Szekely via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Led by Kevin McBride, our Pax Christi Aotearoa New Zealand section thinks it is important that we develop a spirituality of peace that is right for our part of the world and that there is much we can learn from Māori as the indigenous people of our country. To be in dialogue with Māori about these things is a way of addressing the harm and disrespect that was generated by colonisation. It is a dialogue that restores healing to all in our country.

At a recent study on Pax Christi and a Spirituality for Peace, Rangi Davis shared this lovely reflection on the Māori concept of Hohourongo. It is a model she uses in her teaching and counselling practice. Rangi explained that to move along the pathway to hohourongo, other important Māori principles are needed, namely, tika, pono, and aroha working alongside tapu, mana, noa and turanga (see explanations below). Rangi’s understandings developed under the guidance of Pa Henare Tate (Rev. Dr. Henare Tate) who was a preeminent scholar and teacher of Māori theology and spirituality.


The imagery is:

picking up the pieces, putting together again, binding the wounds,

healing the wounds, mending the rifts, re-connecting the severed links,

 replacing the lost, empowering, reclaiming wellness,

reclaiming relationships, balancing the scales,

casting off the rubbish, entering the house of Rongo (Peace)

Hohourongo indicates a violation has occurred to Atua, tangata and whenua (God, people and land) and there is need for restoring tapu and mana through reconciliation or settlement. Hohourongo heals and restores wellbeing to people. The restoring of spiritual wellbeing restores psychological wellness and physical health. Violation severs relationships. Hohourongo re-connects and strengthens the severed three-fold relationship with God, people and land.

Violation ignores and tramples upon tapu restrictions and weakens the power of that safety measure. Hohourongo restores to tapu boundaries the power to safeguard the tapu and mana of all things that exist.

Hohourongo and tika, pono and aroha

Violation is the result of failing to act according to tika, pono and aroha.

Tika is needed to re-establish and maintain right relationships to make right responses and for the right exercise of mana by following the process of hohourongo.

Pono in the first place reveals the reality of the act and the effect of violation on the victim and perpetrator and their whānau (family, community). Secondly, it reveals the reality of the damage done. Thirdly it ensures all steps are taken to repair the damage. Fourthly, if there is no truth or integrity, hohourongo is not effected.

Aroha must always be a part of hohourongo because there is always need for compassion, sacrifice, generosity, and even affection during the process of victim, perpetrator and whānau.

Elements for Hohourongo

Admission, sorrow for the violation, resolve to mend and make right, utu or compensation is required of the perpetrator.

Signs/Whakamā, tears, sorrow, maybe relief.

The victim and whānau can determine the format of the hui hohourongo.

Acceptance of confession, sorrow, admission of guilt and utu, the compensation, granting forgiveness if hohourongo is to be achieved.

Signs/ Maybe tears, karakia, hariru and hongi.

Kua houtia te rongo – reconciliation has been achieved.

Kua tau te rangimarie – peace has been established.

I end with this Psalm 119:10:

“Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light to my path.”

“Ma te tini me te mano kia taea” With all our contributions we can achieve it.

Arohanui, Rangi

The Essence of Peace for Aotearoa

It is very important as we in Pax Christi Aotearoa-New Zealand explore the foundations of our work for peace, along with other sections and associates across the world, that we ground our principles in the vital essence of the land, the taha wairua of its Tangata Whenua, the Maori people. 

And while it is fully appropriate that we do this, it is also very much in the spirit of the founder of the Pax Christi movement, Marthe Dortel-Claudot, who saw it as a means of reconciliation and of mending the divisions that had been caused by years of warfare among European neighbours. In a similar way, we can heal the wounds of colonisation in our own land and become a sign of hope to others in our region and beyond engaged in working for peace for all, everywhere.

In the spirit of justice, love and peace

Kevin McBride 


A force stronger than war

20 years after 9/11, an American reflects on the power of friendship

By Doug Hostetter, Pax Christi International United Nations Representative (New York)

This article was originally published on the Anabaptist World website on 26 August 2021.

Photo: Abdul Hadi, pictured with Doug Hostetter in August 2002, returned to his home in Qala Kuja, Afghanistan, three years after it was destroyed in fighting between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. Mennonite Central Committee and Church World Service helped him rebuild. — Doug Hostetter

When I arrived in Afghanistan to deliver humanitarian aid seven weeks after 9/11, the first question an Afghan farmer asked me was, “Why is the U.S. attacking our country? Your government was so helpful when we were occupied by the Soviet Union. We thought America was our friend.”

Fumbling for a response, I said, “A group of militants, from an organization with headquarters in your country, destroyed two buildings a half kilometer tall in New York City, killing almost 3,000 people.”

He looked confused. This appeared to be new information. We were in Kunduz, a province with no electricity, running water or paved roads, where the tallest building was one story high.

Twenty years later, people still are asking questions about the U.S. military response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Many of these questions center on the impact of U.S. military action and the consequences of the 20-year war. Many Americans understand the U.S. did not win the war, and they question its high cost in blood and treasure. But they might not know what other choices their country might have made.

In Afghanistan, and earlier in Vietnam, I have seen the futility of war and the power of compassionate assistance to restore hope and build friendship.

My reflections on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 are informed by my convictions as an Anabaptist Christian, service with Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam 50 years ago, conversations with Afghans 20 years ago and my role as MCC liaison to the United Nations from 2006 to 2018.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the 20 years of war that followed, have had profound and disastrous effects on the U.S. and Afghanistan. By making war, the U.S. turned a country whose people thought Americans were their friends into an enemy.

For many Americans, the logic of the Afghan war was clear: As the innocent victim of an unprovoked attack, the U.S. had to retaliate. On closer examination, things get a bit messier.

It is true Al-Qaeda militants based in Afghanistan hijacked the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center and struck the Pentagon. But the hijackers were all Arabs, mostly Saudis, with not a single Afghan among them. Given Al-Qaeda’s secrecy, it is highly unlikely the Taliban leadership of Afghanistan even knew the 9/11 attacks were going to happen.

When it was determined that ­Al-Qaeda carried out the attacks, the U.S. government demanded Afghanistan immediately arrest or expel Al-Qaeda leaders.

The Afghan government requested a few weeks to organize a Loya Jirga (grand assembly of Afghan traditional leaders) to make that decision. The U.S. refused and responded militarily with massive bombings followed by ground troops.

The war was a blatant violation of the United Nations Charter and international law. The U.S. chose not to bring the matter to the U.N. Security Council but instead to initiate a war with NATO allies.

The attacks of 9/11 were serious crimes that should have brought decisive responses from law enforcement. Had the U.S. responded through INTERPOL, the international police organization, most nations would have given their support. Russia, China, the European Union, the United Nations and even most Muslim countries would have joined the effort to bring the 9/11 criminal plotters to justice.

Instead, the U.S. alienated the Muslim world, and many of our allies, by starting a war that resulted in more than 241,000 deaths, including 2,400 U.S. service members.

As the most powerful country in the world was preparing to attack the poorest country in Asia, I contacted MCC and the American Friends Service Committee to ask if they would join with a previously planned October trip to deliver food to Afghanistan. A small Afghan American organization, Help the Afghan Children, had organized the trip.

MCC and the AFSC agreed. They asked if I would represent them and accompany the organization’s director, Suraya Sadeed, to deliver food to displaced people in northern Afghanistan.

Sadeed played a key role in a story of compassionate ministry to Afghan people who suffered great tragedy due to the U.S. war.

She and her husband had emigrated to the United States in the late 1970s as the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. A decade later, after the Soviet defeat, she returned to Afghanistan and discovered great need. She came back to the U.S., started a small charity and returned regularly to assist children.

I asked Sadeed how she could work in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. How was it possible to have a medical clinic for women and girls in Kabul?

“There are good people in every country, every religion and even every political organization,” she responded. “I found a Taliban leader I thought I could trust. I asked, ‘What would you do if your wife or daughter had a difficult pregnancy?’ ”

He responded, “I would pray to God.”

“Yes,” Sadeed told him, “but there are professionals who can save lives in childbirth.”

“We could never allow a doctor to see a woman during childbirth,” he responded.

(All female doctors had been dismissed when the Taliban took over.)

When she promised to staff the clinic only with women, he agreed.

Then, in an instant, years of work was undone.

Just before we entered Afghanistan, Sadeed learned that chief pediatrician Dr. Belquis, internist Dr. Rahma and a registered nurse from the clinic were all killed in the U.S. bombing of Kabul.

American bombs had also killed four boys from the Help the Afghan Children Vocational Training Center in Jalabad.

Friendship and hope can be fostered through love and compassion — or destroyed in an instant by the weapons of war.

Positive change cannot be imposed by outsiders, but culturally sensitive assistance can make a difference. With funds from MCC, the AFSC and my family and friends, I was able to collect $60,000. Together with $70,000 that Help the Afghan Children collected, we were able to bring $130,000 to neighboring Tajikistan. There a supplier would convert our funds into 239 tons of wheat, sugar and cooking oil, which was loaded on 19 trucks and brought across the northern border into Afghanistan.

Sadeed and I traveled ahead. A few days later in Afghanistan, our supplies caught up with us. Afghans who had fled the U.S. bombing further south warmly welcomed us. We had enough supplies to feed 3,600 families of seven for one month.

As the U.S. withdraws its last combat troops, some will say the military must remain so Americans can build schools, modernize the country and protect Afghan girls.

Despite the rhetoric of politicians, wars are fought for material and strategic reasons, never for development, education or human rights.

From years of working in a war zone (I served three years with MCC in Vietnam at the height of that war), I have learned the military does not have the right equipment or training for nation building or the empowerment of women.

The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 20 years. We have sacrificed the lives of thousands of U.S. service members and contractors and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians. Yet most Afghan people’s lives are worse today than when the U.S. invaded two decades ago.

Change in Afghanistan will need to be led by Afghans, not by foreigners whose weapons have caused great suffering and claimed many lives. Social change must be driven internally, not imposed through military occupation.

Eight months later, in 2002, when it was safe to travel to Kabul, MCC asked me to return to Afghanistan to visit a home-rebuilding project in Parwan Province. MCC was working with Church World Service to rebuild Afghan homes destroyed by war.

I met again with Afghans who had lost everything in the war. Once again, people welcomed me warmly as I brought a token of hope from people who believe love is stronger than vengeance and nonviolence a better choice than war.

Doug Hostetter served with MCC from 1966 to 1969 in Vietnam and October-November 2001 and July-August 2002 in Afghanistan. He directed MCC’s United Nations office from 2006 to 2018.


The gentle strength of nonviolent witness

By Judy Coode, coordinator of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative

On January 6, many watched in horror as thousands of people stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. in a furious, chaotic, and deeply misguided attempt to nullify the November 2020 election of Joe Biden as president of the United States. The insurrectionists broke windows and furniture, swarmed offices, menaced members of Congress and their staff, stole property and inflicted a sense of terror on those who work in and near the U.S. Capitol. In the aftermath, five people were dead, at least 140 injured, and unknown more were traumatized.

The January 6 attack was violent: in attitude, language, action, and result. Rather than stabilizing our democracy it has painfully accelerated social divisions.

The United States has a history and culture of nonviolent demonstrations, most of which are peaceful. As the nation’s seat of power, Washington, D.C. is accustomed to protestors, both individuals and groups. Anti-war demonstrations have been as large as 500,000 people; the 2017 Women’s March brough out 470,000; and the annual anti-abortion marches also bring out tens of thousands. A few protests include isolated arrests for minor offences (although several times in recent years, D.C. police have tried to corral and arrest large groups of demonstrators. These incidents have been challenged in court and authorities have been forced to drop the charges.)

Twenty five years ago, in 1996, Washington experienced a different type of protest: Sr. Dianna Ortiz, OSU, wanted to know who in the U.S. government was involved in the kidnapping and torture she had endured in Guatemala in November 1989. She took extraordinary steps to find the answers.

On March 31, 1996, Palm Sunday, Dianna began a vigil across the street from the White House (then occupied by Bill Clinton) in Lafayette Park. Wrapped in a sleeping bag for warmth, with a straw hat for sun protection, Dianna projected a silent message of dissent to the reigning world order. Without speaking, she demanded to be seen and heard. Without violence of word or action, she insisted on changing the tide away from secrecy and corruptive power toward transparency, honesty, and justice.

Eventually, Dianna would spend 23 hours a day for five weeks in Lafayette Park, distributing a written statement explaining her action to passersby who expressed curiosity. She would leave the park each morning around 7 am to go home for a shower. She’d return to her spot as soon as she was able. She was often joined throughout the day by one, two, or several people who would sit with her and speak to tourists and others who asked about her vigil. Then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake dropped by several times to see her. First Lady Hillary Clinton invited her to the White House for a meeting. (She had met with President Clinton in 1994 asking for information on her abductors.)

Friends of Dianna took turns staying overnight with her in the park — it wasn’t an especially dangerous place, under the nose of White House security, but it did have a regular community of unhoused persons who claimed space there during the evenings. And plenty of rats emerged after dark gnawing through trash leftovers from the day. Dianna’s vigil spot was “next door” to Concepcion Picciotta, a woman who had lived in Lafayette Park since 1981. Concepcion, who had made a permanent peace camp in front of the White House to raise awareness of and to protest nuclear weapons, gave Dianna advice about how to survive in the park, especially at night.

Dianna Ortiz, Lafayette Park, 1996 / photo by Rick Reinhard

Over the weeks, until the vigil ended in early May when the CIA declassified many of the documents Dianna had requested about torture in Guatemala, members of the Washington faith and human rights advocacy community spent time with her. Her quiet dignity was a beacon–or perhaps a magnet. For those of us fortunate enough to sit with her, to join the daily noon prayer services, to spend the night, those weeks in the park felt full of grace and a powerful clarity. It was a holy time and source of deeper conversion for many.

In mid-May 1996, a series of simple, nonviolent civil disobedience actions took place. Over the course of a week, every day about 25-30 people blocked the White House sidewalk in order to elevate Dianna’s request for information about her case, to draw attention to the gross human rights violations taking place in Guatemala, for which the United States had given covert permission. They were arrested and charged with “demonstrating without a permit.” Many of those who exercised their right to peacefully protest for Dianna’s sake were members of Catholic women’s religious orders; many had never been arrested before.

Ultimately, although 20,000 pages of documents were released, Dianna was denied the information she hoped to uncover: She never learned the real name of the North American man known as “Alejandro” who was present during her torture, a man she was sure was an agent of the U.S. government. Despite that frustration, the community that encircled Dianna received a tremendous blessing from that time of vigil and prayer. Dianna’s gentle, persistent nonviolent witness was strategic; it was spiritual; it was active; it was deeply powerful. At the time, Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory wrote, “In a campaign year, nobody will challenge [CIA director John Deutch] but somebody like Sister Dianna.” The political world may have betrayed us but our hearts and souls were touched and strengthened.

All that was 25 years ago this month. At the beginning of 2021, Dianna (who was still living in Washington, D.C.) was diagnosed with a reemergence of cancer. With unexpected swiftness, she died. While our paths often crossed, the pandemic had kept us apart, so I had not seen her for several months. I never had the chance to ask her thoughts about the January 6 insurrection. I never asked her what truth she thought it revealed, whether it converted people to a deeper peace or to a thirst for justice grounded in compassion and prayer. What a contrast the raid on the Capitol was the powerful prophetic witness and action of Dianna Ortiz back in 1996.

Dianna Ortiz and Bishop Tom Gumbleton, Lafayette Park, 1996 / photo by Rick Reinhard
Dianna Ortiz, Lafayette Park, 1996 / photo by Rick Reinhard
Dianna Ortiz, Lafayette Park, 1996 / photo by Rick Reinhard

[Edited to add: Read Dianna’s memoir, The Blindfold’s Eye, published by Orbis Books.]


The right to have rights.

The human rights of the individual person and the rights of the peoples are the fruit of long historical efforts and achievements. Today it is a matter of maintaining and further applying existing human rights. The ever-existing inequalities must be processed so that equality and justice prevail for all. International governmental bodies and several local, national, and international human rights organisations (NGOs) are monitoring the implementation of the rights.

We must keep asking: Who has access to rights and what do we mean by human rights? Human rights stand as a triumph of the human spirit and intellect. Rights enhance our capacity to be more fully human.

The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR) of 10 December 1948 is a landmark. “Universal” means that human rights apply to everyone. Rights also means that we have duties and obligations to others. All people are equal, and all should be free and none a slave to others.

Human rights are applied in the context of the nation-state. Today, there are 193 nation-states. The history of nation-states is the history of human rights.

Many individuals, not least philosophers, have pioneered the achievement of basic rights. For instance, French anthropologist Emmanuel Levinas stated: “Human rights do require recognition of the other as a fellow human being who, by his or her very existence and nothing more, possesses the right to have rights.”

Slavery is abolished.

Humankind has succeeded in abolishing slavery after several centuries of action. The conditions of slavery signified the absence of all rights, the opposite of citizenship. Slaves were unfree by definition; they had been deprived of recognition, social death. The possession of slaves was a marker of wealth and status. In addition, that included the clergy. The further up the hierarchy, the more slaves a priest, bishop, or cardinal owned. Today, there are still different forms of slavery, modern slavery such as human trafficking, forced labour, child marriage and more.

The nation-state and minority rights

The Berlin Treaty of 1878 and even more the Paris Peace Conference treaties after World War I were primarily about nation-states and the liberal principles that undergirded them – rights, constitutions, representation, and the rule of law. National belonging became a major criterion to get rights.

World War I began only thirteen months after the end of the Balkan Wars. A war among states, it too swiftly became a war among peoples, and thereby opened all the issues of nation-state creations; majorities and minorities, and who, precisely, would have the right to have rights. The war shattered much in four years, first soldiers’ lives; over seventeen million dead in total, more than twenty million physically wounded many more who suffered psychologically from the experience of battle. Women endured exploitative conditions in war factories, severe food shortages at home, and fractured families.

After WWI, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations brought the concept of minority rights and protection into the very centre of the international system. The concept of minorities was created from 1878 to 1919 and remains with us today. It is a category of the nation-state. Minorities are an invention of the nation-state. The right to have rights.

Religion and the nation-state

Religion in the past has both limited rights and made rights possible. Religious identity took on newfound political meaning in the age of nationalism mainly developed in the 19th century. For instance, Orthodoxy was the state religion. The identity of a nation and of a religion coincided completely. In some constitutions there was no place left for Muslims, Jews, or other minorities. A minority was always a visible disruption of the unity of the nation, and therefore a “problem”.

After World War II, activists, individual states, and the international community sought to create such a world, one in which everyone – no matter his or her nationality, race, or gender – can exercise human rights, while those who violate these norms are subject to accountability. Equality of women became a founding principle.

Dictatorial nationalism

Our history, however, has also known dictatorial nationalism combined with terror. Authoritarian systems and individual dictators and warlords are among the supreme violators of human rights. For example, the USSR experienced Stalin terror: Millions of people were experiencing denunciations, deportations, internments in labour camps, torture, and execution. Can we talk about human rights in a system that was bloody repressive, that killed, tortured, and deported millions of its own citizens? That allowed over six million of them to starve to death in 1932 during the collectivisation of agriculture campaign.

After World War II, the Soviet Union supported decolonization, nation-state founding’s, and international human rights. This position would win the Soviets sympathy in the Global South, which the USSR actively cultivated through support for guerrilla movements and national liberation struggles as well as cultural exchanges and economic development programmes with newly emergent countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Human rights dissidents

Later, human rights activists in the USSR demanded the rights of free speech and assembly. They called for freedom of movement, within the country and abroad, including the right to emigrate.

The Helsinki Accords of 1975 marked a critical advance in human rights. “Helsinki” became a banner that activists of all stripes held high together. Many dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe used the Helsinki umbrella to criticize the existing regimes by promoting individual freedom such as the right to free speech.

Andrei Sakharov was a well-known dissident in the USSR. He was one of the “fathers” of the hydrogen bomb. However, later he questioned the usefulness of an underground nuclear test because of the health and environmental costs, which were too high. Sakharov, like Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, had helped create the weapons of ultimate human destruction and then recalled from what he had done. He focussed on the intellectual freedom. He wrote about human rights. His perspective involved the recognition of the other, of our common future, the fundamental prerequisite for human rights. According to Sakharov, the basic aim of the state is the protection and safeguarding of the basic right of its citizens.

Western countries and dictatorships

Immediately after World War II and into the raging Cold War (1945-1989), Western countries and democracies supported right wing dictatorial regimes worldwide because they would act as a buffer against communism. Many dictators could do their own thing, such as Salazar in Portugal, Mobuto in DR Congo, Pinochet in Chile, Marcos in the Philippines and more. Western democracies such as the USA kept their eyes closed against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Colonial states also held back the decolonization of many countries in the Global South.

Genocide Convention

The UNDHR remains the fundamental document for all human rights endeavours. One day prior to the passage of the UNDHR, the UN approved the convention that defined, for the very first time, the crime of genocide and made its perpetrators liable for prosecution. The Genocide Convention built on the Nuremberg and the Tokyo tribunals, in which leading figures of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were tried for war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity. The Nuremberg Tribunal was the more innovative of the two. It established the fundamental human rights principles that individuals, and not just states, can be held responsible for criminal actions. The claims by defendants that they were just “following orders” no longer suffice when the violations against peace and human rights are grave.

Crimes against humanity constituted a new doctrine, one that elevated into intern national law the fundamental principle of personal security against unwarranted and unjust state violence. In addition, at the turn of the twenty-first century the International Criminal Treaty (Rome Treaty) was finally established. Violators of human rights can now be hauled before international tribunals. Truth and reconciliation commissions, pioneered by Argentina and South Africa, have established a new form of transitional justice.

In 2005, the UN General Assembly unanimously passed the Responsibility to Protect (RtP), a resolution that profoundly limits state sovereignty in cases of massive crimes against humanity.  Protecting citizens is first a major task of the nation-state and, when it defaults, it is a task of the international community. This principle has not yet shown its effectiveness.  Powerful states often abuse the principle of RtP, whether through self-interest or power politics.

Since the passage of the Genocide Convention in 1948, genocides have taken place in Burundi and Rwanda, Guatemala, the former Yugoslavia, Darfur in Sudan, among Yazidis in Iraq and Rohingya in Myanmar. The Chinese government has launched a vast “re-education” campaign of Uyghur, placing tens of thousands of them in detention. Much of the world still lives under dictatorial regimes and in conditions of extreme inequality. On a global scale, democracy seems to be in retreat. In addition, today we are witnessing the largest refugee crisis in history, more than 81 million people.

Role of civil society

Every human rights advance, from slavery abolition to minority protection to democracy has been the product of popular movements. We have seen the dramatic growth of NGOs. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others have been founded, some local in character, others well-funded and with a global reach, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, with a high degree of professionalization.

Nation-state citizenship is still fundamental to our ability to exercise rights. The UN General Assembly passed in 2007 the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which affirmed Indigenous peoples’ full enjoyment of human rights and self-determination. Self-determination has become enshrined as a fundamental principle of the modern state system.

Human rights provide a powerful affirmation of the human spirit. They require that people be respected and afforded recognition no matter what their specific gender, nationality, or race. They demand that all people have access to the necessities of life, and have the freedom to express themselves, to work, build, and create as they wish, to join with others, as they desire, and to be free of the scourge of violence and forced displacement. Those are our fundamental human rights. We should demand nothing less from the worlds we inhabit.

Most nation-states have diverse populations. Diversity of all sorts is the intractable reality of human existence. How we can live with that difference is the critical issue.

Antwerp, 25 January 2021

Fr. Paul Lansu

Board Member Pax Christi International