As NATO nations celebrate the 70 year anniversary of the Alliance, CIVIC urges NATO leaders to address growing threats to human security, through placing the protection of civilians at the center of its military operations.

A 25-year-old concept created by the United Nations1It was first used by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in their 1994 Human Development Report http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/255/hdr_1994_en_complete_nostats.pdf as a response to profound changes in the global environment, “Human Security” (HS) is currently making a comeback in security and defense circles as a mechanism to address growing threats to the safety of those (individuals and communities) faced with violence and instability. As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) enters this field, it is of utmost importance that it further clarifies what “Human Security” means from the perspective of a military organization, as well as makes sure that introducing yet another concept won’t create more confusion than it will bring clarity, political and strategic focus, and resources to better protect civilian populations caught in conflicts.

“Human Security” (HS) has been conceptualized by the United Nations (UN) as a way to address “Freedom from Fear,” meaning violent threats to populations, “Freedom from Want,” meaning poverty and absence of basic needs, and finally “Freedom from Indignity,” including human rights abuses and limits on democratic participation. In that sense, the emergence of this concept has initiated a long-needed coordinated approach between various streams of work (Gender, Children in Armed Conflicts (CAAC), etc.) which are too often looked at in silos.2Children in armed conflicts (CAAC), gender, sexual exploitation and abuse, disabilities, or even cultural property protection have been developed as vertical policy areas, with dedicated political frameworks, guidance, resources, and staffing; they also correspond to well-identified protection-related agendas within the United Nations. While it was essential to create and grow these various fields of work, some governments and military organizations have struggled to connect and integrate them into a consistent and comprehensive framework for action, which may have created duplications or gaps, but also at times competition between these various thematic issues. They also tend to fail to be mainstreamed into security and defense activities. The HS concept also suggests the need to consider pre- and post-conflict phases, examining early warning mechanisms as well as responding to and stabilizing violent situations.3The usage of the terms ‘conflict’ and ‘violent situations’ can include armed conflict situations (in the legal sense) as well as situations of violence falling below that threshold. Therefore, HS from the perspective of a military organization may relate to conflict environments where International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is applicable, as well as contexts where International Human Rights Law (IHRL) is relevant.

While compliance with IHL (and to some extent even the rationale behind IHL) has been highly debated,4As have shown debates at the 31st and 32nd Red Cross Red Crescent Conferences, respectively in 2011 and 2015 the notion of HS has on the contrary become more and more attractive. With HS, governments have a new way to link military operations to a broader civilian agenda, and it allows them to center their foreign and defense policies around civilian populations, in addition to states and territories. The United Kingdom (UK) has recently chosen to use the HS lens, following Canada, Japan, and a few other governments. In January 2019, the Ministry of Defense released JSP 1325,5Joint Service Publication 1325, Part 1 and 2, Ministry of Defence, January 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/human-security-in-military-operations-jsp-1325 which provides guidance on “Human Security” in military operations. This publication was followed by Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson’s6https://www.gov.uk/government/news/mod-to-establish-centre-of-excellence-for-human-security April 2019 announcement of the creation of a Center of Excellence (CoE) on “Human Security,” which recognized that “protecting civilians (…) is as much as a military task as defeating the enemy.”

In the past eighteen months, NATO has increasingly embraced the HS concept, and is now considering the creation of a HS unit that could consolidate a number of “cross-cutting topics,” including Gender, CAAC, Protection of Civilians (POC), Human Trafficking (HT), and Cultural Property Protection (CPP).

While this attention to HS may be seen as a positive signal of NATO’s renewed interest in protecting civilians, on the other hand the HS concept has proven to be fragile and challenging to describe – therefore potentially problematic. As NATO enters this field, it is of utmost importance to further clarify what “Human Security” means from the perspective of a military organization, and to make sure that introducing yet another concept won’t create more confusion than it will bring clarity, political and strategic focus, and resources to better prevent, mitigate, and respond to civilian harm. HS should build and expand on existing efforts to enhance POC, furthering these efforts by linking them to the wider human environment. HS should not however obscure ongoing POC efforts or divert attention from the need to more effectively prioritize the reduction and mitigation of civilian harm linked to conflict and violence.

A few years ago, NATO initiated an ambitious agenda to improve the protection of civilians through the successive adoption of NATO’s POC policy (2016)7https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133945.htm and NATO’s POC Concept (2018) – both documents which are noticeably still in the operationalization phase. In the field of POC, NATO has played the role of a trailblazer by setting standards, tools, and practices, which should inspire nations and governments across the world. This approach examines the civilian environment as a whole, including the identification of threats and vulnerabilities affecting entire communities, as well as their strengths and resiliencies. It also provides guidance to identify vulnerable groups, and to factor-in their specific protection needs and agency.

NATO’s POC framework provides a good starting point to understanding how the military can reduce civilian harm, as well as what practical guidance, policies, and practices may be considered in operations and activities. Decision-makers are invited to fully integrate a civilian perspective into their operational cycle, risks assessments, situational awareness, and intelligence, as well as into the planning, designing, and conduct of operations.

The four lenses described in the NATO POC concept emphasize the need for 1) a comprehensive “Understanding (of) the Human Environment” (UHE) to generate sufficient strategic awareness across all operational domains; 2) to “Mitigate Harm” (MH) with specific attention on the perpetrators of violence in both their “own actions” and “others’ actions;” 3) to “Facilitate Access to Basic Needs” (FABN) in order to ameliorate the effects of a crisis8This includes mostly situations of armed conflicts and natural disasters. on civilians, including through ensuring the delivery of aid and mitigating the effects of harm on host communities; and 4) to “Contribute to a Safe and Secure Environment” (C-SASE) through the establishment of the necessary conditions (public order, physical security, territorial security, functional government, etc.) for stability. These lenses provide a tool that seems quite comprehensive and ambitious to frame NATO’s approach to communities and individuals.

At CIVIC, we believe that such considerations are part and parcel of an effective POC approach, necessary to reduce and mitigate civilian harm, and as such, must be integrated and operationalized in a systematic and comprehensive manner at all levels. For instance, when CIVIC supported the creation of a Casualty Tracking Provisional Group (CCTPG) by the Ukrainian military in December 2018, a best practice in civilian harm mitigation inspired by the experience of ISAF9International Security Force Assistance, NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 in Afghanistan, we advised that the data collected on civilian casualties is disaggregated by age and gender in order to be able to identify potential differences in vulnerabilities, threats, and civilian harm mitigation measures per group. Today, the CCTPG develops recommendations to the Joint Force Operations (JFO) Commander on adjustments to ensure better protection of civilians on the basis of disaggregated data, providing them with a higher capacity to address specific patterns of civilian harm. In this instance, implementing a “Protection of Civilians” approach and taking into consideration the needs of specific populations were part the same approach.

An overall “Human Security” umbrella will certainly be useful to incorporating newer thematic issues such as Human Trafficking (HT) or Cultural Property Protection (CPP), which are absolutely relevant to NATO’s current and future environment, while preserving the integrity of each topic. However, should NATO create of a whole new approach to its civilian environment? NATO’s POC framework proposes a conceptual and practical approach that can serve as the spine of NATO’s “Human Security” approach. It is flexible enough to accommodate issues related to specific groups such as women, boys, girls, elderly persons, or disabled persons. It does not need to be replaced, but should be prioritized, operationalized, and built upon by taking onboard the following recommendations:

  • NATO’s POC approach is quite strong; its successful implementation depends first and foremost on its adequate prioritization, operationalization, and resourcing at all levels of the organization (political, strategic, operational, and tactical levels);
  • From a legal, conceptual, as well as practical perspective, the protection of civilians should not be seen as a cross-cutting topic among others. POC consists in the approaches, policies, and practices which support and operationalize applicable legal frameworks, such as IHL, while contributing to strategic effectiveness through a better approach to the civilian environment and the various conflict drivers at play;
  • The “absorption capacity” of NATO at the operational and tactical levels should be considered a critical element enabling or jeopardizing the implementation of better civilian protection; any new institutional framework should factor-in feasibility and clarity for Commanders and their units.

NATO’s renewed interest in a population-centric approach to military operations provides a unique opportunity to further adapt internal policies and practices in order to better protect civilians in conflict. With the commitment of the NATO leadership, the recent production of the POC Concept and Handbook, and the upcoming creation of a “Human Security” team, there is definitely a momentum within NATO. However, whether these efforts will be adequately translated into practice in current and future NATO activities still poses a question. The “Human Security” umbrella will hopefully provide a framework that will foster consistency, operationalization, and resource mobilization to make better civilian protection a reality.


[1] It was first used by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in their 1994 Human Development Report http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/reports/255/hdr_1994_en_complete_nostats.pdf

[2] Children in armed conflicts (CAAC), gender, sexual exploitation and abuse, disabilities, or even cultural property protection have been developed as vertical policy areas, with dedicated political frameworks, guidance, resources, and staffing; they also correspond to well-identified protection-related agendas within the United Nations. While it was essential to create and grow these various fields of work, some governments and military organizations have struggled to connect and integrate them into a consistent and comprehensive framework for action, which may have created duplications or gaps, but also at times competition between these various thematic issues. They also tend to fail to be mainstreamed into security and defense activities.

[3] The usage of the terms ‘conflict’ and ‘violent situations’ can include armed conflict situations (in the legal sense) as well as situations of violence falling below that threshold.

[4] As have shown debates at the 31st and 32nd Red Cross Red Crescent Conferences, respectively in 2011 and 2015

[5] Joint Service Publication 1325, Part 1 and 2, Ministry of Defence, January 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/human-security-in-military-operations-jsp-1325

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/mod-to-establish-centre-of-excellence-for-human-security

[7] https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_133945.htm

[8] This includes mostly situations of armed conflicts and natural disasters.

[9] International Security Force Assistance, NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, 2001-2014

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