Back to the future for ‘human security’

In glossing over the freedom from fear aspect of its original articulation and placing it firmly within an individual nation state framework, this will be a disappointment to many.

Mary Martin
13 July 2013

The United Nations is rediscovering human security, the concept it pioneered and then fell out of love with. In time to mark the twentieth anniversary next year of the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report, which put human security on the map of international policymaking, the UN has launched a renewed push to promote the concept of people-centred security.

In May, the UN convened member states and participants from civil society to a meeting in New York to consider ways of  implementing human security and advancing it on policy agendas. The high profile session was opened by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and featured contributions from Sadako Ogata , former head of UNHCR and co-chair of the 2001 Commission on Human Security (CHS), Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary-general of ASEAN, also a member of the CHS ,  and deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson.

The session was more than a talking shop of UN luminaries, or a celebration of the UN’s achievements two decades ago in reframing a vision of global security based on individual vulnerability. The set piece speeches contained a clear call  to return to human security as a way of framing a new development and security agenda beyond 2015. The concept is being rehabilitated as a way of igniting progress on the Millennium Development Goals.

More to the point it offers a chance to reimpose some coherence on the UN’s own policy-making after the decade long deviation triggered by the Global War on Terror.  The UN wants to present a solid front in re-establishing its leadership with a new global agenda.

The meeting urged UN agencies, ranging from UNDP, the original champion of human security, to UNICEF and IOM to focus on human security as a way of improving co-ordination between policy programmes and institutions. To that end it had commissioned an assessment of the Trust Fund, which confirmed – on the basis of case studies of Trust Fund projects – that human security was capable of adding value to existing UN approaches.

According to Ban Ki-Moon human security had to be considered a ‘central factor’ in recognising the links between peace, development and human rights, and in empowering people: ‘It is more important than ever to find comprehensive solutions to the world’s interlinked problems. You cannot end poverty without empowering women and girls. You cannot establish lasting peace without respect for human rights. You cannot increase prosperity or address climate change without transforming the world’s energy systems.’

He said that the approach must be  broad-based. ‘We need traditional partners, like Governments and non-governmental organizations. But we also need academics, businesses, philanthropists and others to help end poverty, promote development and establish peace.’

All this comes at a price: the meeting was a plea for more funds to expand the  UN Trust Fund for Human Security (UNTFHS), set up in 1999 to support projects which translate a human security approach into practical action. Around $350m has been spent on 200 projects covering peacebuilding, urban violence, climate change, migration and refugees and health. The vast majority of these funds have come from Japan, the promoter and guiding spirit behind setting up the UNTFHS. Whether Japan can succeed in multilateralising contributions to propel the fund into a second stage of development was clearly one of the agenda sub-texts in New York.

What is clear is that human security has succeeded in mobilising rhetorical support within the UN membership which sees it as a way to address security and development problems.  That represents a remarkable shift in emphasis for the UN which for the past decade had largely turned its back on high-level human security initiatives, to the extent that the term was notable by its absence from major policy texts. Lakhdar Brahimi, for example, former chair of the UN

Panel on Peace-keeping, and current UN envoy to Syria, remarked that he never used the term: ‘because I don’t know exactly what I mean, and I worry that someone will come up and contradict me.’[i]

Chapter 2 of the 1994 UNDevelopment Report which put human security on the map, defined the general characteristics of human security and how it could bring together multiple emerging themes of the post-Cold War global security agenda. It framed threats to security with reference to the principles of freedom from fear and freedom from want. Yet even though the report – and the subsequent 2001 Commission on Human Security – succeeded in wresting the dominant focus of security away from state interests towards those of vulnerable individuals, UNDP itself appeared to have given up on developing this distinctive vision of human security, or at least articulating it. Meanwhile key state sponsors such as Canada famously abandoned the formulation as well.

In the many references to previous UN declarations on human security  at the New York meeting, there was a notable seven year gap in the timeline between the 2005 World Summit, where paragraph 143 of the Final Outcome document declared a commitment to discuss and define the notion, and September last year when the General Assembly adopted  consensus resolution 66/290  on a common understanding.

The General Assembly resolution  offers a broad version of human security, traditionally championed by Japan, which regards the point of human security as adding a moral dimension to actions by the international community, and providing a means for addressing a range of global problems from poverty to crime, pandemics and the environment, not just those related to conflict.

Mrs Ogata confirmed that this was ' a significant milestone' in affirming human security as a useful entry point for dealing with contemporary issues. ‘With a new understanding from the General Assembly Resolution, the UN should better integrate the concept into their operations,. It should be the overarching principle for the post-2015 development agenda, and (for) how to turn compassion into concrete action.’

A new fork in the road

However, this suggests a fresh fork in the road for human security.  The GA Resolution, and the comments at the New York meeting, were notable for emphasising not only an expansive vision of security, in which violence and other aggravated human rights abuses are categories within a panoply of threats to individual livelihoods and dignity - a breadth of definition which critics have argued waters down its impact as a policy approach.  But the new push behind human security also makes clear that it should be consistent with state sovereignty.

Surin Pitsuwan claimed that human security was important in adding value to security policies and in humanising traditional concepts of security. But he stressed that this did not detract from states. Rather it was a ‘rational approach in the diplomatic community’. Echoing this, the first delegation to speak in support of human security as a 'pragmatic and action oriented' approach to security issues, was the European Union. Some observers might find it ironic that it was a post-national regional polity which was the first to affirm that the primary responsibility for human security lay with states. So it seems that human security is now to be about development and diplomacy, as long as states wish it so. 

The EU intervention was echoed by statements from other delegations. Egypt and Cuba added calls for the importance of 'nationally identified priorities' as well as stressing non-intervention and declaring that problematic issues of human security were up to individual states to manage.

Moreover, by resurrecting human security and aligning it with an MDG policy agenda, the UN has also sidestepped debates about whether human security could provide creative and constructive new ways of addressing violence in civil wars.

Despite the fact that the New York meeting took place as diplomatic arguments were raging over atrocities in Syria, any link between human security and efforts to alleviate individual suffering in that conflict was glaringly absent from the UN session. Neither was there any mention of the links between Responsibility to Protect and human security, much less whether it should entail external intervention. 

Thus the UN may have taken a significant step in reviving human security on multilateral policy agendas. But in glossing over the freedom from fear aspect of its original articulation and placing it firmly within an individual nation state framework, this will be a disappointment to many who might have hoped for a more robust reincarn

[i] Mary Martin and Taylor Owen, ‘The second generation of human security:lessons from the UN and EU experience’ International Affairs 86: 1, 2010


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