Human Security -- A New Response to Complex Threats

05/01/2013 06:19 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2013

Written by Sadako Ogata

Today, millions of people face extreme insecurity as a result of conflicts and economic crises -- not only in acute conflicts like Syria but also in many lower-profile crises. To be sure, great strides have been made since the start of this century, notably in reducing global poverty, due in large part to the concerted action and targeted goals to be achieved by 2015 that were set in motion at the landmark 2000 UN Millennium Summit. However, there is no denying that, in too many parts of our world, the international community fails to protect people whose lives are dangerously at risk.

This calls upon us to mount a new response to meeting human needs, one that recognizes the complex nature of the problems now before us. Such a response exists in the concept of human security, which was advanced a decade ago with the release of the findings of the UN Commission on Human Security, which I co-chaired with Amartya Sen.

The need for such a commission emerged in part from my experience as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 to 2000. During that turbulent decade, I observed serious gaps in protection of people in many conflict countries, as well as pressing need for closer coordination between humanitarian and development work. Our 2003 report, Human Security Now, drew on two years of research, field visits and public hearings to propose an innovative framework of action that addresses critical threats to human security.

Since then, through some 200 projects in 85 countries supported by the UN Trust Fund for Human Security, the concept of human security has become a powerful tool for protecting and empowering vulnerable people. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) where I served as president from 2003 to 2012 has also implemented this approach not just for communities recovering from conflicts, but also overcoming poverty, joblessness and climate change.

On May 8, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki- Moon and I will gather with global leaders in New York to review the lessons learned from applying the human security approach in the ten years since the report's release. This examination is timely. As the international community begins to chart out a post-2015 development agenda, the broad application of the human security approach can play a key role in coordinating -- and indeed galvanizing -- the world's many humanitarian and development resources to greater effect.

Here's why. As distinct from traditional state-centric notions of security, a human security lens puts the focus on vulnerable people. Moreover, it is concerned not just with protection, but also with empowerment -- making it possible for people to take an active role in making their lives and communities more secure. Human security is inclusive. It gives us a new way of operating in which all partners -- from government and UN agencies to other donors, civil society and local residents themselves -- define needs, set goals and mobilize expertise and ideas.

Human security also takes a wide view, looking across broad sectors to address interrelated issues. In this way, communities can build positive coping mechanisms to deal with many types of insecurities. Through Trust Fund projects, we have learned valuable lessons for rebuilding war-torn communities, strengthening the resilience of vulnerable people exposed to sudden economic downturns and natural disasters, and addressing urban violence. Others have responded to complex challenges such as extreme poverty in isolated and neglected communities, human trafficking and health pandemics.

Today, the value of the human security approach has found wide consensus among governments and practitioners. This has been heartening. However, a mountain looms before us: Do we have the political will to bring this approach to scale? To collaborate on the most intractable crises? And how can we best make headway on preventing conflict?

These questions challenge us to envision a world in which people live in dignity, free of fear and want -- and to deploy our most promising tools in order to make it a reality. In this spirit, I believe the human security approach provides us with an agenda for change and an important path forward. As we look to the future, how can we step more quickly in this direction?

Sadako Ogata, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is also former President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and co-Chair of the Commission on Human Security.