The Human Security Network, Fifteen Years On

Fifteen years ago this month, Lloyd Axworthy, then Canada’s Foreign Minister, visited Norway. He and his Norwegian counterpart, Knut Vollebaek, had become friends, having discovered during their frequent meetings that they shared a similar world view. Their collaboration had already resulted in innovations like the creation of the Arctic Council. So Vollebaek wanted to make Axworthy’s visit special. He invited his friend to Bergen, a charming and historic city on Norway’s southern coast, and hosted a dinner in a unique setting: the beautiful but eccentric mansion built in the 1870’s by one of Norway’s musical icons, the violinist Olle Bull, on Lysoen, the small island that Bull owned just outside Bergen.

It was during that long and convivial evening in 1998 that the two friends conceived of the Human Security Network and began to draft the principles that would later comprise the Lysoen Declaration. That Declaration created the Network and committed its members to promoting and advancing themes that would, in the years to come, figure prominently on the international agenda.

There was a strong consensus that the time has come to revitalize the human security agenda, to examine its makeup, and to ensure that members qualify through current commitment and not just past participation.

Last week, Vollebaek and Axworthy were back in Bergen at a conference that gathered scholars, civil society and diplomats from around the world to assess the impact of the Human Security Network and the movement that the two friends started 15 years ago. Participants included representatives of almost all of the original 13 countries that comprised the Network: Austria, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Greece, Ireland, Jordan, Mali, Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland, Thailand and South Africa (which has taken part as an observer in the Network since its outset). The conference also looked forward, imagining an agenda for the next phase of the Network and redefining human security in the current age.

The University of Ottawa was one of the organizers of the conference (along with the University of Bergen and the University of Winnipeg), and we participated actively in its sessions. Roland Paris moderated a panel on Human Security and International Intervention, and chaired the closing conversation between the two former ministers. I took part in a debate that involved the exchange of differing views concerning The UN and the Future of the Human Security Network. (I was greatly assisted in my preparation through research and writing done by Erica van Wyngaarden, a Masters candidate at our Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.)

The original human security agenda included a number of objectives that grew from doctrine’s underlying principle that the true rights-holders in our world are not states and governments but rather the individuals for whose benefit they exist and in whose interests states are supposed to act. Seen in this context, the ‘rights’ that states possess are derivative—and indeed, the word most commonly associated with states is not ‘rights’ but ‘responsibilities’.

Taking stock of the progress on that original agenda, the conference observed the prominence of human security on the agenda of the Security Council and in international discourse since the Lysoen Declaration. It also noted some of the Human Security Network’s most significant gains: the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel mines; the Rome Treaty creating the International Criminal Court; ground-breaking Security Council thematic resolutions on Children and Armed Conflict and Women, Peace and Security; and major breakthroughs on the Protection of Civilians, including the unanimous adoption by UN member states in 2005 of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

There was also discussion about what accounted for the Network’s successes, and especially the methods by which a small group of highly committed, diplomatically agile and like-minded states focused their efforts on a short list of practical goals to produce measurable progress in a relatively short time.

But the conference discussions were about more than just re-living ‘greatest hits’. There was recognition too of the areas where the Network has fallen short (like the unfulfilled ambition to regulate the circulation of small arms and light weapons). Some worried too about the elasticity of the concept of human security, and whether by trying to include too much it might, in the long run, achieve too little. Finally, there was a strong consensus that the time has come to revitalize the human security agenda, to examine its makeup, and to ensure that members qualify through current commitment and not just past participation. There was agreement too that it is now necessary to invest fresh energy and commitment, and to define goals for the human security agenda that reflect contemporary priorities and concerns.

On that score there was no shortage of possible topics: the use of drones in targeted extrajudicial killings led the list. But there was discussion too about the human security dimensions of climate change, human trafficking, transnational crime and global public health. Many also felt that the Network should return to R2P and work towards broadening its scope beyond the narrow ambit resulting from the multilateral negotiations of 2005, more in keeping with the original report of the Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001. There was also a counsel of caution, however, that in fashioning the agenda for the future, care should be taken to avoid over-reach, and that the Network should address only those items that are not being effectively pursued by other existing means.

In sum, the conference provided a most useful context within which to acknowledge, fifteen years on, the achievements of the Lysoen Declaration while also recognizing the important work that remains. In keeping with the original spirit of Lysoen, it also laid the foundation for the Human Security Network Version 2.0, and the next generation of an important innovation that still has much to offer the world.

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