A New Concept of Human Security
Sadako Ogata, International Herald
Tribune, 8 May 2003
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TOKYO - New thinking and policies about security are
urgently required. Despite the fact that security is on the top of the
agenda of many countries and organizations, little scrutiny of the concept
is taking place.
Security means many things to different people and there is no broad
consensus on its meaning. The fight against terrorism; the diffusion of
weapons of mass destruction; the Iraq war; the spread of infectious
diseases; the loss of employment and the decline in economic growth have all
an impact upon security in different ways. As a consequence, people and
countries feel more insecure and apprehensive today than at the start of the
Yet the opportunities for working toward removing these threats are better
than ever. The rapid movement of people, capital, goods and ideas within and
across borders deeply affects the capacity of states to manage security
issues in an interdependent world.
Globalization, despite its challenges, creates new opportunities for
economic expansion and, if properly managed, can reach people and countries
previously excluded. Democratic principles and practices are gaining ground
and support. Civil society plays an unprecedented role in setting the
security agenda and policies.
It is within this complex and changing context that the independent
Commission on Human Security has sought to develop a new security concept -
and policies to go with it - that focus on people, rather than on states.
Assisted by 10 distinguished commissioners, the development economist
Amartya Sen and I co-chaired the commission. Its report was presented to the
United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, on May 1.
Human security is concerned with safeguarding and expanding people's vital
freedoms. It requires both protecting people from critical and pervasive
threats and empowering people to take charge of their own lives. Protection
refers to the norms, policies and institutions essential to shield people
and implies a "top-down approach," such as the rule of law and democratic
governance. Empowerment underscores the role of people as actors and
participants and implies a "bottom-up" approach.
Human security does not seek to supplant state security, but rather to
complement it. States have the fundamental responsibility of providing
security. Yet they often fail to fulfil their obligations - and are often
the source of threats to people. As is shown by the many violent conflicts
and the extreme poverty in the world, states cannot be secure if people's
security is at stake. But neither can people be secure in the absence of
strong, democratic and responsible states, as collapsed states illustrate.
These are the challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine today.
Human security also underscores the close linkages between gross human
rights violations and national and international insecurities. The Rwandan
genocide represents one of the worst human security failures. Nearly 10
years later, the consequences still reverberate through the Great Lakes
region of Africa. Realizing human rights lies at the core of protecting and
Human security also adds an important dimension to development thinking. As
Amartya Sen argues "development can be seen as a process of expanding the
real freedoms that people enjoy." By focusing on downside risks, human
security emphasizes that people must be protected when facing sudden and
profound reversals in economic and social life. In addition to "growth with
equity," human security is equally concerned with "downturns with security."
In the absence of safety nets, people face pervasive insecurities in sudden
economic crises - which, in turn, may be exacerbated by increasing conflict
and violence, as recent examples in Asia and Latin America illustrate.
At a time when the exercise of "hard" military power seems to leave little
scope for "soft" power, of promoting democratic principles or respecting
freedom and human rights, the call for a new security consensus may appear
ill-timed. But hard power alone does not win the minds and confidence of
If security is to be protected, conflict prevented, human rights respected
and poverty eradicated, a new consensus on security is urgently required.
This is a shared responsibility. Human security provides an impetus for all
countries, whether developed or developing, to review existing security,
economic, development and social policies. Creating genuine opportunities
for people's safety, livelihood and dignity should be the overall aim of
The writer, a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, is
co-chair of the Commission on Human Security. Its report, Human Security
Now: Protecting and Empowering People, is available at
From the Common Ground News Service