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"Human Security: A Refugee Perspective" - Keynote Speech by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Ministerial Meeting on Human Security Issues of the "Lysoen Process" Group of Governments, Bergen, Norway, 19 May 1999

Speeches and statements

"Human Security: A Refugee Perspective" - Keynote Speech by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at the Ministerial Meeting on Human Security Issues of the "Lysoen Process" Group of Governments, Bergen, Norway, 19 May 1999

19 May 1999
The concept of human securityThe need for mechanisms to address conflictsProtecting human securityPromoting human securityA collective and comprehensive effort

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If to be secure means to be free from fear of being killed, persecuted or abused; free from the abject poverty that brings indignity and self-contempt; free to make choices - then a majority of people in today's world do not live in security. Chapter 1, Article 1 of the United Nations Charter proclaims that the first aim of the world organization is to "maintain international peace and security". Half a century later, this goal has not yet been achieved. Yes, significant progress has occurred. When the Charter was ratified, most Asian and African countries were European colonies. Not so long ago, a large part of Europe itself, east and west, and almost all of Latin America, lived under communist or fascist regimes, whose policies denied freedom and blocked economic development. But if we look back at the decade that is ending, our optimism is shaken: the Gulf crisis, the successive Balkan conflicts, the Rwandan genocide, countless wars in Africa, the Afghan tragedy, and many other episodes, stand out as backwards steps on the path to peace and security.

Your initiative is therefore welcome and timely. Let me thank Foreign Minister Vollebaek of Norway for hosting this conference, and for inviting me as keynote speaker. It is a pleasure, and a great honour, to be with you today.

The concept of human security

Human security is a term which carries the risk of meaning all, and nothing. This is why I would like to put it into a context, and I will do so by referring essentially to the experience of my Office. UNHCR is the United Nations agency responsible for protecting and assisting refugees. Its mandate is based on the 1951 refugee Convention and on other refugee law instruments. "Human security" is not defined in international law, but it does provide a useful complement to the legally based concept of refugee protection.

Four years ago, in Stockholm, in delivering the Palme Memorial Lecture, I said that following the end of the Cold War, security threats came much less from external aggression, and more from internal tensions. It was necessary, therefore, to shift at least some international attention from the security of borders to that of people, inside and across borders. I concluded that lecture by suggesting that to ensure the security of people would be the challenge for the next century.

Basically, this has not changed. "Internal tensions" have not eased - they have actually become a larger, more serious problem. Although inter-state wars have not disappeared - think of the Horn of Africa, or, in a less direct fashion, of the Great Lakes region - conflicts today tend to be internal. Their consequences, in particular, continue to require humanitarian responses, especially by UNHCR and agencies working in partnership with us. There are about 22 million persons of concern to my Office in the world today, of whom 12 million are refugees, and 5 to 6 million are internally displaced people. This number has recently escalated again as a result of the crisis in the Balkans: there are almost 800,000 refugees and internally displaced people from Kosovo alone. But one should not forget other situations: more than one and a half million people remain displaced in the rest of the former Yugoslavia; there are still 260,000 refugees from Burundi in Tanzania; 440,000 refugees from Sierra Leone in neighbouring countries; and there are still 2.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. And these are just a few examples.

The importance of human security as a concept is clear if you consider that my Office deals on a daily basis with people who are, by definition, "insecure". Refugees and internally displaced people are a significant symptom of human insecurity crises. Because homes, personal belongings and family ties are such an important part of everybody's security, it takes considerable pressure to force people to abandon them, and become refugees. Refugees are doubly insecure: they flee because they are afraid; and in fleeing they start a precarious existence. To me, a powerful symbol of the tragic insecurity which pushes people to flee, and of the fragile security they live in as refugees, are the tractors on which so many ethnic Albanians flee Kosovo, and which you have certainly seen on TV screens. Refugees cling to their tractors. Tractors are often the only possession left to them; in many cases, they are their new home, on which they sleep and keep their children and travel; and surely they are the tangible sign of their hope to return home soon.

The need for mechanisms to address conflicts

You are gathered here to discuss some specific human security issues: land mines, small arms, children in armed conflict, humanitarian law, human rights and so on. These are all crucial issues. However, we must not lose sight of the most essential point: in the context of internal conflicts, what mechanisms does the international community possess to ensure and maintain the security of threatened people? Coalitions around individual issues are important. Making coalitions effective, through viable operational mechanisms, is even more important.

Threats to human security are varied - political and military, but also social, economic and environmental. A wide array of factors contribute to making people feel insecure, from the laying of landmines and the proliferation of small arms, to transnational threats such as drugs trafficking, to the spread of HIV. Once again, therefore, let me speak of human insecurity from my perspective. Refugees flee conflicts. One of the main factors of human insecurity is precisely the lack of effective political and security mechanisms to address conflicts. The polarization of the Cold War marginalized conflicts. Kosovo is the latest evidence that ten years later, our efforts to develop new mechanisms to address the fluid and fragmented crises that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, have not been successful.

In my Palme Lecture, I emphasized that to counter the new security threats, those represented by internal tensions and strife - by the proliferation of light arms, rather than of nuclear weapons - the international community should have utilized non-military intervention measures. I advocated that better and more comprehensive governance could grant security to nations better than military defense measures. I stressed that to ensure international presence - including through humanitarian agencies - was the best way to provide security to people and build their confidence in situations of internal conflict and weak state authority.

I remain essentially of the same opinion. Today, the concept of "human security" commands the same respect and attention as the more traditional one of "state security". Issues pertaining to "human security" are increasingly discussed by the United Nations Security Council - there is a growing awareness that states cannot and will not be secure unless people feel secure, too. The concept of "power" is changing. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in Berlin recently, "there are many ways for one people to exercise influence over others - through trade, through culture, through diplomacy, and so on." I hope I do not sound too pessimistic, however, if I say that in the last four years nothing of what has happened in the world reassured us that "soft" measures alone can contain conflict, not to mention resolve or prevent it. The problem is - as the Yugoslav crisis shows - "hard" measures, such as international military intervention, appear equally inadequate, alone, to stop or prevent war.

In Kosovo over a thousand unarmed OSCE civilians, responsible for the verification of compliance by Serbian and ethnic Albanian forces with the Holbrooke-Milosevic accord of October 1998, courageously attempted to accomplish their tasks, but failed to stop the conflict - by the time NATO started its action, 400,000 people in Kosovo were in need of humanitarian assistance - of whom 260,000 were internally displaced - and almost 100,000 had fled the province. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is the presence of SFOR military contingents that continues to hold together the fragile peace built at Dayton. In West Africa, some of the most violent conflicts of this decade, that have displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians, have been resolved or at least contained only by the intervention of ECOMOG forces. And one could argue that it is precisely the lack of such an effective regional peacekeeping force that allows another African conflict, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to continue to produce civilian casualties, forced displacement and human rights abuses.

"Hard" measures are not doing any better, although they are based on sophisticated technology. It is not surprising that the world, disoriented and frustrated by the difficult task to adapt to a new and yet unclear international system, often finds it easier to resort to tools and concepts developed during the Cold War, with which it is more familiar.

High-technology, "safe" warfare is one such concept. I once heard former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt say that the world did not need missiles, but crowd control systems. It is not for me to judge NATO military action in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I have certainly advocated - for months - the need for an urgent political solution to the Kosovo crisis, and it is not up to a humanitarian organization like my Office to suggest which means to adopt to achieve such a solution. But I cannot avoid asking some questions: can bombs dropped from 15,000 feet resolve a house-to-house conflict between communities that have lived together, separate but intertwined, for hundreds of years? And even if they could soon contribute to end the appalling violence waged against civilians - and I hope they do - will the task of helping people rebuild their shattered lives, and of helping communities live together again, be any easier?

And I have another, more fundamental question: by the time high altitude bombs may indeed be the only means left to the international community to resolve a conflict, isn't it too late to address its root causes? Obviously yes - and why, then, does the international community let conflicts simmer until the stage in which both "hard" and "soft" means seem inadequate to attain peace - as in the Balkans today? Wouldn't it be better to adopt a more timely, and at the same time more gradual, almost "stratified" approach, before reaching the point when under public pressure, and usually facing a humanitarian catastrophe, governments are obliged to resort to dangerous, costly, politically risky military missions? These are truly "mission impossible", tasked as they are to resolve very complicated tensions, in highly volatile environments, at the same time trying not to expose their soldiers' lives, and - without much success, as we see - avoiding to target civilians.

Democracy as a means to reduce and resolve conflicts is another idea often spoken of, and perhaps inherited from the polarized world of the Cold War. It is very powerful, and very appealing. But while I cannot think of any better political system than a democratic one, I would warn against the illusion that democracy, in itself, can defuse the type of tensions causing most of today's insecurity - ethnic and religious rivalries, or conflicts over water and land, or deep social disparities.

Worse, democracy - particularly the fragile democracy that has often emerged from the collapse of the colonial and communist systems - can sometimes be a conduit for these tensions to emerge, and erupt into conflict. Democracy heightens the sense of ownership of resources by individual people. In strong democratic systems, this helps citizens develop a sense of responsibility, of belonging to a community, of sharing with others. On the contrary, in fragile systems, it often leads to the identification with a group - social, ethnic, religious - in opposition to other groups. Inter-communal conflict can thus be the result of an incomplete or distorted democratic development.

One point is clear: international conflict resolution mechanisms must be appropriate and proportional to the situation they are meant to address. When I say "address" conflicts, I do not mean just stop wars, but also establish a lasting peace, and prevent fresh conflicts from erupting. The history of the former Yugoslavia in the last ten years is like a catalogue of means through which human security can be violated - a tragic succession of situations in which people have been either forced to flee, or have forced others to flee. Addressing conflicts comprehensively means providing people with enough sense of security and confidence that other people, and especially other groups - minorities in particular - do not represent a threat any longer, thus making coexistence possible again. To achieve this - and again, let me stress that I am speaking from a humanitarian and refugee perspective - I suggest that we look in two directions: how to protect conditions of human security; and how to promote them.

Protecting human security

Following the dramatic events in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa between 1994 and 1997, the Secretary-General of the United Nations requested UNHCR and the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to make proposals on how to ensure the security and neutrality of refugee camps.

We have now developed a series of proposed measures available to the international community in order to help create and maintain conditions of security in refugee camps and settlements. The idea was to develop a "ladder" of options rather than to remain limited to the "soft" or "hard" alternatives only: from the most basic step - the presence of UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies next to refugees in camps and settlement, to a range of "medium" alternatives of providing training and support to build national law enforcement capacity, or of deploying international civilian or police monitors, to the international peacekeeping solution - with a preference, however, for sub-regional arrangements. While this project is intended to address refugee situations, it can apply to other situations of "internal tension" and conflict, and particularly to situations where civilians are internally displaced or otherwise affected - in short, situations of human insecurity.

Let me say a few words on the basic and "medium" options. I referred to "presence" as the most basic step. I believe that presence is still an essential means to reduce tension and provide security and confidence. At UNHCR, we like to say that we work with people. And this is not just an expression. It actually means that our field and protection officers work with refugees, next to them. Protection does not only mean defending legal rights. Protecting refugees means monitoring borders to ensure that they remain open when refugees cross them; demanding access for food and medicines needed for their assistance; fighting discrimination; relieving trauma; counselling on legal procedures; deciding when to advise refugees to return home; and so on. At times, it requires discreet negotiations with governments or non-governmental forces. At other times, it demands speaking out to denounce abuses and violations. Refugee protection is a set of legal instruments, operational activities and material contributions that can restore a sense of security in people whom flight has deprived of everything - sometimes, as the Kosovo tragedy has shown, even of their identity.

But as I said at the beginning, recent history has taught us that humanitarian presence alone is often insufficient to address internal tensions or conflicts. Let me therefore draw your attention to the "medium" options - involving, for example, deployment of police or other supervisory forces in support of local law enforcement mechanisms. The key is precisely to support local institutions, before it is unavoidable to intervene with an external force. We experimented this kind of measure in refugee camps in the former Zaire between 1994 and 1996. Results were mixed, but we learned from the experience. We are now providing support to local police in refugee camps in Tanzania, and we are negotiating similar arrangements in Albania and The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. "Medium" options - and, I should add, sub-regional peacekeeping - may be the most viable solutions in many situations, but they require the support and active involvement of governments, so that stand-by arrangements can be put in place.

I will not elaborate on traditional, international peacekeeping. We all know the problems: deciding to deploy peacekeepers, in itself a very complex political issue; determining the composition of the forces; financing their very substantial costs; convincing public opinion that sending young people to faraway places is right and relatively safe; speeding up deployment; trying to avoid "mission creep"; and so on. Peacekeeping will continue to be indispensable, and we must defend it in concept and in practice. But, very often, it is too complex and slow to constitute a viable response. Situations of grave insecurity cannot wait for two months, the minimum required period to prepare and deploy in full a UN peacekeeping force. As a result, UNHCR and its partners have often faced intractable situations alone. I do not want this to happen again. This is why I insist on developing a range of options, that we should implement before crises precipitate, and before both the "soft" and "hard" alternatives become inadequate.

This is why I also insist on the importance of establishing concrete mechanisms soon. with well defined procedures to activate whatever level of option is chosen. As a user of such mechanisms - on behalf of refugees - I would like to be aware of which type of security support I can count upon in case of need. I know that some of your governments have been active in promoting the concept of a stand-by peacekeeping force. I encourage these efforts, because predictability is crucial to the effectiveness of any mechanism meant to protect the security of people. I hope that your initiative will be able to consider support to our own in this field.

Promoting human security

For those who live in the industrialized "north", insecurity is the exception, rather than the norm. It exists - in the forms of poverty, terrorism, crime or disease - but it is a confined phenomenon, which must be fought, and is not meant to last. It is difficult for them to even imagine how permanent and pervasive human insecurity can be - but it is, to an Afghan woman or a Sierra Leonean boy of military age, for example. As I said at the beginning, a majority of the world's population is deprived of human security. Particularly in the situations of conflict which are of direct concern to my Office, the constant threat of insecurity makes even the periods of security uncertain and unpredictable. Some of the refugees from Kosovo are at their fourth or fifth displacement. In what in my opinion is one of the most graphic illustrations of chronic human insecurity, starting in 1994, for three years, tens of thousands of Rwandans were forced to flee by their criminal leaders, and later pushed into the rainforest by their ethnic adversaries - some trekked thousands of miles from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

The security of people, therefore, must be not only ensured and upheld, but also made to last. Once again, I will draw examples from UNHCR's experience with refugees. In our work in support of return and repatriation, we often deal with people who have fled a conflict, and now return to live with others who may have been on the opposite side of the same war. In current post-conflict situations, the return of refugees, necessary as it may be to the peace building process, often complicates it. Because if war has changed, so has peace.

The international community must pay much closer attention, and much more coherent support to societies emerging from conflict. Peace-building in the period immediately following the end of conflicts is a very weak link in the international cooperation system, although it is a vital one, since it connects conflict resolution with development efforts. I am very concerned by the gap which currently exists between humanitarian intervention during conflicts, and the beginning of long-term development programmes. We are particularly worried about this gap because very often recently returned refugees are among those who suffer most from the lack of resources available to build peace. This in turn does not help preventing the recurrence of conflict and of refugee flows.

We see this in the former Yugoslavia, where more than one and a half million people remain uprooted, and where minority returns continue to face serious political, administrative and security obstacles. We see it in Rwanda and Liberia, where a large proportion of the population are recent returnees, and where - while humanitarian assistance dries up for lack of funds - development activities do not start given the precarious political and security situation, and the limited capacity of the government. We may see it in Kosovo in the near future.

When peace is negotiated, more attention must therefore be paid to creating conditions for the coexistence of divided communities. Rehabilitation and reconciliation activities are fundamental elements of peace building, and must be planned and implemented much sooner, while humanitarian agencies such as my Office concentrate on their areas of expertise - helping people return and be reintegrated in their communities. In this respect, it is also very important to give support to national NGOs and other local groups. In some situations these civil society institutions are often among the few functioning "providers" of human security in weak states wrecked by, or emerging from, internal conflicts. I am thinking of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example; or of Kosovo, where until March international humanitarian assistance was distributed through a huge local network, the Mother Teresa Society.

I believe that efforts to allocate resources and implement programmes in post-conflict situations are urgently needed if we are serious about enhancing the security of people in a comprehensive, far reaching and durable fashion. On our side, together with other UN agencies and institutions, the World Bank and a group of key donor governments, and under the sponsorship of the Brookings Institution in Washington, we are trying to explore ways to improve both institutional and funding arrangements to address the gap in this transition phase. There are - already - some concrete initiatives. I would like to mention, and welcome, the creation of a Human Security Fund of 100m USD by the Government of Japan, from which we hope to obtain resources for projects in the southern Balkans. Denmark is launching a similar initiative. These are important precedents and examples. I hope they will be followed by others.

Resources are essential. The example of Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, clearly shows that reconciliation is also a political process. This is true in other situations as well. The willingness of national and local authorities to restore inter-communal dialogue is indispensable, but so is a positive attitude by the people concerned. This is perhaps the greatest challenge of the return of refugees to situations of fragile peace - and, I would add, of post-conflict situations in general: that peaceful coexistence be accepted by divided communities living together again, rather than simply forced upon them. It is in this acceptance that lies the key to a secure society.

A collective and comprehensive effort

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I have attempted to outline the complexity of human security issues seen from a refugee perspective, and to make a few proposals on how to address them comprehensively - during and after conflicts - with people, rather than states, in focus.

Clearly, such efforts cannot be limited to one organization alone. The expansion and growing inter-dependence of "human security" issues has prompted UNHCR to take an interest and become involved in a range of activities which might have previously been considered beyond our mandate - the environment, for example, or the problems of landmines and small arms. To do this, however, we have had to forge a series of strategic partnerships, which recognize the multidimensional nature of human security and the need to reinforce it through comprehensive approaches.

The Kosovo crisis does not only demonstrate the continued relevance of our own mandate - the need to protect refugees and to find solutions to their plight - but also the importance of a common effort to provide human security. UNHCR shoulders the heavy responsibility of leading humanitarian activities for refugees and displaced people from Kosovo in a very politicized and militarized environment. But it cannot carry out this task without the cooperation of many different actors: of governments hosting refugees; of those financing its work - governments and private donors alike; of other UN agencies and NGOs implementing assistance programmes; of military contingents providing logistical support. Let me add that this common humanitarian effort will not be successful unless it is really common - that is, unless there is support for multilateral action focusing on the security of people, rather than on bilateral action focusing on the self-interest of states. And, in a broader sphere, no solution will be found if governments do not strive to find a political solution to the crisis, and no programme will be sustained without the support of development agencies and financial institutions.

We are learning in the Balkans that we live, indeed, in a world which is both dangerous and frightened. The human security of every man, woman and child from Kosovo - and from many other places - can only be assured by a collective and comprehensive effort. None of us shall be secure while any of these men, women and children continue to live in fear.

Thank you.