NATO Needs to Revive Its Human Security Agenda


Jun 28, 2024

Flags flutter at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 4, 2023, photo by Johanna Geron/Reuters

Flags flutter at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, April 4, 2023

Photo by Johanna Geron/Reuters

This piece is part of a commentary series on the upcoming NATO summit in Washington in which RAND researchers explore important strategic questions for the alliance as NATO confronts a historic moment, navigating both promise and peril.

At the 2022 Madrid Summit, NATO adopted its Human Security Approach and Guiding Principles, emphasising a human-centred approach to its core mission: keeping people safe. Heading into the 2024 Summit, this charge has become harder than ever to fulfil.

The past two years have seen Russia's invasion of and war crimes in Ukraine, repeated military coups across the Sahel, new conflict in Sudan, and the intense fighting of the Israel-Hamas war. According to U.N. estimates, over 115 million people were forcibly displaced, and more than 33,000 civilians killed in conflicts in 2023, reflecting a continued deterioration of the security of civilians in conflict-affected contexts.

Developed within other international organisations, human security remains a relatively new concept for NATO. Within the alliance, human security considerations relate specifically to its core missions and activities—ensuring collective defence for its members, cooperative security, and crisis management. The United Nations General Assembly Resolution defined the pillars of human security (PDF) in 2012 as the right “to live in freedom and dignity, free from poverty and despair.” This multi-faceted approach to human security primarily relies on national governments' responsibilities to their populations. Nation states remain the core unit of the international order and human security should be understood as complementary to state security.

Nation states remain the core unit of the international order and human security should be understood as complementary to state security.

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Ahead of the 2022 Madrid Summit, RAND Europe organised a one-day seminar with a wide range of alliance stakeholders to discuss the present understanding of human security in NATO and its future practical applications. The alliance recognises five areas of human security: the protection of civilians; children and armed conflict; countering trafficking in human beings; preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence; and protecting cultural property. Particularly highlighted were calls for NATO to take concrete steps toward the adoption of a human security–focused approach to its everyday activities.

Participants in the seminar debated prioritisation of these different yet deeply intertwined components of human security. Protection of civilians is of course the main priority, but officials and experts also mentioned that all five areas should be approached as a whole, fearing that topics such as human-trafficking or cultural property protection can too often be overlooked. Since the 2022 Madrid Summit, the alliance released an updated policy on combatting human trafficking, reflecting how the war in Ukraine and the increased use of new and emerging technologies could hamper prevention efforts. The NATO policy on the protection of cultural property dates back to the 2016 Warsaw Summit but was enhanced by the 2018 Policy on the protection of civilians. The policy encompasses not only the protection of persons but also includes objects and services in its scope.

Though NATO's 2022 Strategic Concept—the main guiding document for the alliance—acknowledges the intent to integrate considerations around climate change and reflect a change of mindset within the alliance, few concrete steps have been taken since to operationalise the concept. A NATO definition of human security has yet to be adopted. In the 2023 Vilnius Summit Communiqué, mentions of human security were limited to a single paragraph. The consequences of Russia's illegal war in Ukraine, NATO enlargement to include Finland and Sweden, and the alliance's ability to ensure collective defence against external threats were the chief concerns.

Heading into the 2024 Washington summit, it is important that the alliance build on this momentum and not allow human security to slip down the political agenda once again. NATO's approach to human security must reflect and adapt to the fast-evolving threat environment. The 2022 Human Security principles adopted by the alliance recognise the changing security environment, specifically in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in NATO's backyard. But other trends are constantly changing the picture. Conflicts are increasingly characterised by the involvement of non-state actors, a complex mix of interstate and intrastate conflict dynamics, climate and environmental degradation, and the exploitation of new battlefield technologies such as drones and AI. All present new challenges for NATO.

NATO's approach to human security must reflect and adapt to the fast-evolving threat environment.

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Crucially, too, the emergence of human security as a NATO priority has not occurred in a vacuum. It builds upon work by other international institutions such as the United Nations, by nongovernmental organisations, and in academia. In this context, the alliance should seek to leverage existing knowledge and experience, and build on past NATO operations to support the translation of its concept of human security into practical action. An interesting step in this direction will be the publication later this year of a study conducted by the NATO Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre, which is currently investigating how human topics such as the protection of civilians and children in armed conflict can be implemented at the tactical level by military forces, including in relation to the Women, Peace and Security agenda.

Maintaining momentum is essential, amidst so many competing items on the agenda for NATO's leaders when they meet next month. The 2024 Washington summit will be a timely opportunity to reiterate the alliance's commitment to its human security–centred approach.

Pauline Paillé is a senior analyst in the Brussels office of the defence and security research group at RAND Europe.