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In Search of Human Security

Vienna Austria

Bari, Italy
Libera Università Mediterranea

I am deeply honoured to receive this "Laurea Honoris Causa" degree from the Libera Università Mediterranea "Jean Monnet". In particular, I would like to thank President Degennaro and his colleagues at LUM, as well as the entire Bari community, for their warm reception and kind hospitality.

The Russian poet, Boris Pasternak, once said, "In this era of world wars, in this atomic age, values have changed. We have learned that we are guests of existence, travelers between two stations. We must discover security within ourselves."

Half a century later, the search for security is still the overriding concern for many people and nations. At the same time, the definition of what constitutes security, and the strategies for attaining it, are also changing. Circumstances are forcing us to think beyond conventional concepts of national security to concepts of human security - security that is people-centered. I will begin by reviewing the current picture, and then try to explain how we can do better to enhance our security.

The Picture

The current security picture is paradoxical. As a writer in the Financial Times aptly put it, "The world has rarely been more peaceful or felt so insecure."

The world is more peaceful because - according to the Human Security Report, published in 2005 by the Human Security Centre - there has been a sharp decline since the early 1990s in civil wars and other forms of armed conflict. From 1992 to 2003, the number of refugees also went down by 45 per cent, and human rights abuses have decreased in most parts of the developing world.

But what is just as clear is that the global sense of insecurity is higher than at any time before, because the forces that drive insecurity remain persistent and pervasive, and our hope for a secure world, at peace with itself, remains elusive. What are these drivers? One can fit them into a number of categories:

    • First, poverty, and poverty-related insecurities, for the billions who lack access to reliable food supplies, safe drinking water, adequate health care, and modern energy supplies. This is the rawest form of insecurity - the basic fear of whether a person will survive from one day to the next. Abhorrently, this is the plight of 40 per cent of the world´s population, who continue to live on less than $2 dollars per day - and there are those even less fortunate who squeeze out a subsistence existence on as little as $100 per year. Experts say that every day more than 20 000 people die "because they are too poor to stay alive" - in other words, they die of causes that could be addressed for a relatively modest investment.
    • The second category is the lack of good governance - not infrequently linked to poverty - which ranges from corruption to severely repressive regimes whose hallmark is egregious human rights abuses. While democracy recently has made remarkable strides - particularly in Eastern Europe and Latin America - scores of dictatorships remain.
    • The third driver of insecurity is the sense of injustice that results from the imbalance between the "haves" and "have-nots" - inequities manifested in sharp contrasts in wealth and power. The dividing line is variously drawn as developed versus developing, North versus South or rich versus poor - with the wealthy 20 per cent of the world consuming 80 per cent of its resources. But even more, what intensifies this insecurity is the "Us versus Them" attitude, and the perception that the sanctity of human life is not equally valued - that society grieves the loss of life in the developed world far more than it grieves the greater loss of life in places like Darfur or Iraq - or, for that matter, in Congo - where nearly four million people have lost their lives in civil war since 1996, and roughly 1000 people a day are still being killed.
  • Fourth is the artificial polarization along religious or ethnic lines. This is a centuries-old phenomenon, but it has flared up in recent years, leading some to worry about a "clash of civilizations" between Muslims and the West. In my view, such tensions are not fundamentally because of clashing religious values, but because of the perception by some that the gross inequities they suffer are the result of religious and ethnic prejudice, instead of what they actually are: the consequences of conflicts between nations over power and resources. These people are inclined to express their rage by wrapping themselves in an identity defined by extreme views of ethnicity, race or religion.

What we should recognize is that these drivers of insecurity are inter-related; one often exacerbates the effects of another. It is no coincidence that, of the 13 million deaths from armed conflict over the past ten years, 9 million have occurred in sub-Saharan Africa, where many of these drivers coexist.

In a few regions - such as in South Asia or the Middle East - conflicts arising from a host of insecurities have been left to fester for decades. The longer these conflicts and insecurities remain unaddressed, the greater the sense of injustice and humiliation. Ultimately, it is in these very regions where we have seen the rise of extremism and the constant threat of internal strife, interstate wars and the temptation by States to seek weapons of mass destruction.

Extremism itself is both an outcome and a driver of insecurity. In the post-Cold-War period, international terrorism is reported to be the only form of political violence that is on the rise. The September 2001 attacks in the United States served as a watershed in global awareness of terrorist activities. But from the perspective of five years later, a tragic consequence is that we seem to have been so focused on retribution and addressing the problem through the use of force that we have paid little attention to the obvious need of dealing with the root causes that fuel extremist ideologies.

The security picture would not be complete without acknowledging the impact of globalization. Modern society is interdependent as never before. This interdependence is a double-edged sword; it provides opportunities to address these problems more effectively, but in some ways can also accentuate them. Consider this example: according to the World Bank, as a side effect of the September 11 attacks and their impact on the global economy, millions of people in the developing world were pushed into poverty.

The tools of globalization, such as television and the Internet, have also made the imbalance in wealth and living standards more glaringly visible, and thereby even less sustainable in the long run. And attributes of globalization such as ease of travel, interlinking of financial institutions, and greater access to advanced technology have arguably made it easier for extremist groups to operate and spread their ideology.

Against this backdrop, it should be apparent why conventional concepts of security - rooted in the protection of national borders - are no longer adequate. As you have noticed, most of the drivers of insecurity I have mentioned are without borders. If a new extremist group emerges in the Middle East, it makes me insecure. If a new strain of bird flu appears in Burma, I become seriously concerned. If a new civil war breaks out in an African state, I should be disturbed. Because the probability is that all these could affect me sooner or later.

In short, the modern age requires that we think in terms of human security - a concept without borders that acknowledges the inherent linkages between development, human rights and peace. While national security is just as relevant as before, the strategies to achieve it must be much more global than in the past, and our remedies must be centred around the welfare of the individual and not simply focused on the security of the state. The concept of human security is straightforward: every individual has the right to live in peace, freedom and dignity. And unless we understand this and set it as our goal, we will not have either national or international security.

The Institutions and Mechanisms

If human security is our goal, then perhaps it should not be surprising that many of our national and international institutions - particularly those dealing with more conventional security concepts - seem inadequate at times when coping with modern threats.

In the broadest sense, the United Nations and its system of organizations have a remarkable record of achievement. We have had no world wars in more than 60 years. UN bodies have succeeded in setting norms and overseeing many important aspects of our life - such as labour relations, global health, civil aviation, food and agriculture, and trade. In the case of the peaceful and safe use of nuclear technology, it is the IAEA who has been working to ensure that the technology is made available to all who want to make us of it, and to set in place the required regulatory infrastructure.

On the other hand, and despite these achievements, I believe it is not an exaggeration to say that the system falls quite short in addressing threats to international peace and security. When faced with such threats, the outcomes are neither certain nor consistent.

The United Nations Security Council is the body entrusted under the UN Charter with the primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security. The Council can point to some success stories as a peacemaker in terms of conflict prevention and conflict resolution, and as a peacekeeper in the aftermath of conflicts. In the case of Namibia, for example, sustained and active UN engagement led to the country´s transition from occupation to independence. In the case of East Timor, similar UN involvement led to its rebirth as a free and independent nation. These and other cases have highlighted the importance of not only peacemaking and peacekeeping but also peace-building; it is essential that conflict prevention and containment be followed by sustained efforts to build the infrastructure that can support an enduring peace.

That said, to understand the urgency and scope of the need for Security Council reform - as well as the reform of the overall structure for maintaining international peace and security - we must look critically at situations where it has not been able to adequately fulfil its function. I would mention four aspects in that regard:

    • First, the Security Council has often been unable to intervene in a timely manner on humanitarian crises. The most glaring example is perhaps the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which roughly 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in a period of 100 days. Despite advance intelligence, and international media coverage as the atrocities unfolded, most countries did not even speak out in condemnation at the time. United Nations intervention was too little and too late.

      The ongoing tragedy in Darfur is another case in point. Despite a campaign of death and suffering affecting millions of people, and the passage of Council resolutions and the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry in 2004, we have not found an effective solution. We have had ample discussions on the scope of sovereignty and the nature of genocide; but for the victims of rape, displacement, terror and disease, this has provided little solace.

    • Second, we continue to allow longstanding conflicts to fester. Conflicts in regions such as the Korean Peninsula, South Asia and the Middle East have remained for decades, deteriorating from bad to worse, with devastating effects on the lives of millions of people. The Palestinian Territories, for example, have been subjected to 39 years of occupation, leading to increased polarization and militancy. These conflicts, like others, could be solved. They endure because the Security Council and the international community in general, despite intermittent efforts, have not made the necessary investments nor mustered the resolve needed to end these conflicts.
    • Third, a number of the central tenets of international law on which the Security Council - and the United Nations itself - are based, have been challenged or undermined in recent years. Consider examples of such tenets. The centralization of the authority to use force in the Security Council, except in the case of a State´s self defense against an armed attack, and possibly an imminent threat. Proportionality in the use of force. The protection of civilians during times of war. The prohibition against weapons that kill indiscriminately. And the responsibility of the Council to put an immediate end to violence. A disturbing precedent recently was the Council’s failure in Lebanon to put a prompt end to the fighting, despite the daily loss of innocent lives.

The Fixes

As discouraging as the picture may seem when we speak of the security system´s vulnerabilities, I believe nonetheless that it can be fixed. By clearly identifying current weaknesses, we are in a better position to reform that system.

I would suggest a number of guiding principles for these reforms:

      • First, as I have already made clear, I believe our overall approach to global security must be people-centred - that is, based on human security.
      • Second, our strategies must deal with more than symptoms. Under conventional concepts of national security, the protection of borders and defeat of the enemy through war may have been a reasonable and sufficient strategy. But in an interdependent world, my enemy today could very well be my partner tomorrow - we will have to share resources, combat common environmental and health issues, and interact with each other on many levels. In other words, we cannot just settle past differences, but equally through addressing the root causes create the necessary environment for future cooperation.
      • Third, our efforts to correct the imbalance in wealth and power must aim at a system of "distributive justice". We cannot let globalization continue to widen the gap between nations. The least developed countries should be viewed not as weaker neighbors, but as a wealth of human resources to be tapped for mutual benefit. By reducing subsidies and other trade barriers and establishing a level playing field, these less privileged can be given the opportunity to "trade their way to development".


      • Fourth, our approach to global security must be preventive and agile. The old adage in medicine says, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," and so it is with responding to security threats. We must have mechanisms for conflict prevention and conflict resolution that are reliable and that can be used in a timely manner to preempt and contain crises.
      • Fifth, our approach to global security will need to be multi-disciplinary. I have already mentioned that our insecurities are interlinked. But there are additional linkages. We cannot address development, for example, without addressing energy shortages - and we cannot develop sustainable energy solutions without considering the environmental impacts. We cannot support the spread of advanced technology without addressing the risk that these technologies might be misused for non-peaceful purposes. Hence, as we propose fixes to our global security system, we must manage take a broader view of the pre-requisites and consequences of our solutions.
      • Sixth, our approach to global security must be evolutionary in nature. There is too much that works well, too much invested, and too much at risk if we allow the current system to collapse. But equally, we cannot leave existing vulnerabilities unaddressed. In the case of the arms control and nuclear non-proliferation regime, the regime has had its successes, but a number of vulnerabilities remain. One such vulnerability is the lack of recognition of the linkage between disarmament and non-proliferation. Under the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the five countries that already possessed nuclear weapons committed themselves to nuclear disarmament. In exchange, the other countries that joined agreed not to pursue nuclear weapons. But the slow pace of the nuclear-weapon States to make good on their disarmament commitments - and their continued reliance on nuclear weapons for security - continues to be an impetus for other States to seek them. Another such vulnerability is the current concern related to sensitive nuclear operations such as uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. To address these concerns, I have been advocating the development of multilateral frameworks for controlling these proliferation-sensitive nuclear operations. Because I believe that, unless the solution is perceived by all to be equitable, it will not work - and, as with nuclear weapons, we will end up with more nuclear-weapon-capable States, to the peril of us all.
      • Seventh, civil society must engage in the process. To paraphrase a famous quote, "Human security is too important to be left to governments." The process that led to the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines is a good example. It was non-governmental organizations and members of civil society who argued most loudly and forcefully that these landmines could not be viewed purely in terms of their benefit to the security of the state. It might be said that NGOs and civil society, using the human dimension and the pressure of public opinion, dragged governments to the negotiating table. By putting human security first, they made clear that these landmines - because of their indiscriminate nature and their risk long after conflicts - could not be tolerated as a weapon of war. The same arguments are even more valid for nuclear weapons; it is unconscionable to continue living under the nightmare of annihilation through the use of nuclear weapons, intentional or otherwise.
      • Finally, if we are to achieve a new security paradigm, we must be committed to multilateral dialogue and multilateral solutions, and be united in our purpose: common security. While the insecurities of each country or group of countries will naturally be different, all insecurities must be addressed for the security paradigm to endure. Security cannot be achieved by pushing for our security at the expense of others. Perfect security for one country is perfect insecurity for another. Our quest for a new security paradigm will have to aim at a system that is inclusive and equitable.


Earlier this month, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on a United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy. It was refreshing to note that, with this resolution, member countries pledged to take action not only to prevent and combat the effects of terrorism, but also "to address the conditions conducive to [its] spread." This included: programmes to promote dialogue among diverse civilizations and cultures; agendas for development and social inclusion; measures to strengthen capacities for conflict resolution, and to apply these capacities to resolve longstanding conflicts; and other steps specifically designed to address the root causes that give rise to terrorism and global insecurity.

The United Nations Secretary General has also launched an initiative referred to as the Alliance of Civilizations, specifically directed at overcoming prejudice, misperceptions and polarization between diverse cultures. The Alliance is based on the recognition that "all societies are interdependent, bound together in their development and security, and in their environmental, economic and financial well-being."

These are hopeful signs. We have no choice but to engage. Our survival as a society - the legacy we will leave for our children - is at stake. But it will take more than words, and even more than institutional reforms. It will take a change of our mindset, the readiness to act as one human family, where every one of us feels responsible for the freedom and dignity of every member of that family - because at the end of the day, the security of the human family has become indivisible.


Last update: 26 July 2017