Dr Alan Okros is a Full Professor in the Royal Military College Department of Defence Studies employed as Deputy Director, Research in the Dallaire Centre of Excellence for Peace and Security.
Special Contribution: This article was developed by the Canadian Defence Academy Dallaire Centre of Excellence for Peace and Security as part of ongoing research and analyses to deliver on its mandate to establish an enduring platform on child soldiers and build expertise in other human security issues with contributions from: Emmanuelle Caucci, Shanel Feller, Melissa Hollobon, David Hughes, Shannon Lewis-Simpson, Heather Low, Melinda Mansour, Shannon Smith and Stefan Wolejszo.
Reporting of the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine influences how we understand the conflict and, subsequently, how we assess responsibility, pursue accountability, and determine the array of threats that stem from Russia’s aggression. Accordingly, the frameworks through which such reporting is produced matter. Traditionally, armed conflicts have been analyzed through the lens of state security. State security views the state and state interests as the principal objects of attention. Grounded in considerations of territorial integrity, this orientation emphasizes the military defence of state interests, prioritizing the protection of borders, people, and values against threats that emanate from abroad.Footnote 1 Yet as the global security landscape evolves, as the nature of conflict shifts from inter to intra-state, the continued prioritization of state-centric security perspectives is inadequate to determine and address the panoply of threats that challenge the “survival, livelihood, and dignity” of people.Footnote 2 By focusing on communities and sub-groups, human security emerged as a complementary means to expand upon state security’s singular focus. Its emergence aligned with the changing nature of armed conflict in which wars of conquest were supplanted by asymmetric conflict and sustained political violence.
In many ways, ongoing events in Ukraine confound these shifts. The Russian occupation of Crimea that began in 2014 and the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine is a reversion to inter-state conflict in which a foreign aggressor seeks the dissolution of a political entity through territorial aggrandizement. Although the contours of the Russia-Ukraine conflict align, in many ways, with a traditional state-security paradigm, a human security framework facilitates analysis from the level of civilian populations. This lens is relevant across the full spectrum of military activities, from assessing the future security environment to responding to natural disasters. As the CAF and its Allies assume non-traditional roles, such as working in displaced persons centres outside of Ukraine, human security provides necessary, complementary, insights into the local, regional, and international consequences of events in Eastern Europe.
Understanding Human Security
Human security is subject to competing definitions and understandings. At its core, a human security approach focuses on the under-conceptualized nature and consequences of threats that affect people and communities. By centring vulnerable sub-groups, this approach identifies and assesses the complex set of insecurities that people face within an interconnected world that presents a new array of threats, not neatly captured under conventional security frameworks. While this emphasizes, and in a sense is a response to, the changing nature of armed conflict, understandings of human security also look beyond the use of force to acknowledge that issues such as extreme poverty, pandemics, environmental degradation, or the proliferation of misinformation pose security threats and fuel instability. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 66/290 (2012) calls for “people-centered, comprehensive, context-specific and prevention orientated responses that strengthen the protection and empowerment of people.” The Resolution presents a human security approach to “assist Member States in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people.”
Building on human security’s normative development in the mid-1990s, the UN, NATO, and the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence have developed their own human security frameworks to integrate holistic security analysis within current operating environments. Amongst Canada’s allies, NATO places increased emphasis on the development and advancement of a human security framework. In 2021, Secretary-General Jen Stoltenberg announced that human security “is at the heart of who NATO is and what NATO does.”Footnote 3 The 2022 Madrid Summit Declaration emphasized the centrality of human security and pledged to ensure its integration into NATO’s three core tasks of deterrence and defence, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security.Footnote 4 Currently, NATO structures its human security focus around five, non-exhaustive, cross-cutting themes: (i) Protection of Civilians (POC); (ii) Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC); (iii) Countering Trafficking in Human Beings; (iv) Preventing and Responding to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV); and (v) Cultural Property Protection (CPP).
A human security lens offers a more comprehensive picture of events in Eastern Europe. Historian Timothy Snyder recently described the conflict in Ukraine as both a war for territory and a war for reality.Footnote 5 As contrasting narratives and purposeful disinformation campaigns cloud understandings of the conflict, assessing events through a human security lens offers clarity. While a full, human security-focused, assessment of the conflict is beyond the scope of this commentary, a short appraisal structured around each of the current NATO themes illustrates the value of applying a human security perspective to the conflict and its consequences for Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces and, more broadly, the international community.
Protection of Civilians
NATO’s Policy for the Protection of Civilians states that “protection of civilians (persons, objects and services) includes all efforts taken to avoid, minimize and mitigate the negative effects that might arise from NATO and NATO-led military operations on the civilian population and, when applicable, to protect civilians from conflict-related physical violence or threats of physical violence by other actors, including through the establishment of a safe and secure environment.”Footnote 6 The focus on civilians and establishing safe and secure environments are clear illustrations of a human security approach.
Since the current phase of the conflict began in February, media, international organizations, civil society groups, and actors on the ground in Ukraine have warned that Russian forces are targeting civilians. The UN’s Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented thousands of civilian deaths from indiscriminate attacks by Russian forces.Footnote 7 A June 2022 report by Amnesty International found that Russia had used cluster bombs and scatterable land mines during attacks on Kharkiv that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths.Footnote 8 Furthermore, a recent fact-finding report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe described how Russia had targeted hospitals, schools, residential buildings, and water facilities. These actions have led to mounting civilian casualties and may amount to war crimes.Footnote 9 The targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure highlights the importance NATO has given to enhancing national resilience.Footnote 10 The active engagement of Ukrainian civilians in reporting on or seeking to disrupt Russian troop movements is blurring distinctions between combatants and non-combatants. A human security approach provides insights into the consequences of these shifting categorizations.
Children and Armed Conflict
In 2015, NATO published its guidance to support “the further integration” of UN Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005) on Children and Armed Conflict. The NATO directive prioritizes support for UN efforts to monitor instances of the six grave violations committed against children affected by armed conflict as well as training to recognize and respond to instances that amount to one of the six grave violations. It further emphasizes the protection of children in armed conflict and the need to develop and promote reporting and monitoring mechanisms that focus on the six grave violations.Footnote 11 Children are disproportionately affected by armed conflict. They suffer from increased rates of recruitment and use as child soldiers, killing and maiming, sexual violence, abduction, detention, radicalization, denial of access to schools, hospitals, and humanitarian assistance, as well as forced displacement and separation from their families.
These disproportionate impacts are occurring in Ukraine. Media have reported on civilian combat training sessions in Kyiv that included child participants and have, since the first phase of the conflict began in 2014, pointed to evidence of child soldiering on both sides of the conflict. The use of landmines and wide-area explosive weapons in populated areas has not only resulted in higher mortality rates among affected children but has also triggered intense child displacement and separation from their families, which has resulted in more frequent reports of child abduction and sexual violence committed against children. As of May 2022, over 200 medical facilities including neonatal clinics, had been destroyed in the conflict, which inhibits access to urgent healthcare needs, including access to prosthetic limbs in cases of maiming. According to Save the Children, more than 20 schools per day have been attacked since the beginning of the conflict, and the Ukrainian Ministry of Education has noted that more than 869 schools have been damaged and 83 educational facilities destroyed. This is estimated to deprive approximately 5.5 million children remaining in Ukraine of the right to education. UNICEF has reported that as a direct result of the conflict, three million children in Ukraine and 2.2 million in nearby, refugee-hosting, states are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Human security provides a means of identifying and emphasizing the unique risks that children encounter within armed conflict and the security challenges that stem from these realities. When, for example, a 15-year-old child from Ukraine was reported to have used a drone to pinpoint Russian troop locations, this posed pertinent questions that problematize international efforts to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers and to ensure the special legal protections to which children are entitled within armed conflicts.Footnote 12
The NATO Policy on Combating Trafficking in Human Beings states that trafficking involves any form of force, coercion, or exploitation of vulnerability to exercise control over another person. The Policy aims to develop cooperation among the Alliance, its members, and international organizations to implement a zero-tolerance approach to trafficking. Members are required to review national legislation and report on national efforts to align with relevant international frameworks, encourage ratification of the UN Convention Against Organised Crime, its Protocols, and the OSCE’s Code of Conduct, provide training about trafficking, and actively prevent its occurrence.Footnote 13 The policy is the oldest to be included under NATO’s human security rubric and acknowledges that, as well as the impact on victims, trafficking of human beings affects countries of origin, transit and destination, and fuels corruption and organized crime.
Pramila Patten, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, notes that the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is rapidly turning into a human trafficking crisis.Footnote 14 The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) has highlighted that the risk of human trafficking for those fleeing Ukraine has been exacerbated following Russian aggression. Potential exploitation, they explain, often follows the promise of onward transportation or services to those that seek to flee the conflict.Footnote 15 The UN estimates that nearly six million people have been displaced from Ukraine to neighbouring countries and that eight million are internally displaced.Footnote 16 The growing humanitarian crisis and refugee flows from Ukraine increase the risk of human trafficking and related abuses. As an extension to traditional understandings of human trafficking, the Ukrainian government has accused Russia of forcibly taking thousands of civilians, including children, to Russia where they may be used as “hostages” to pressure Kyiv.Footnote 17 Viewed through a human security lens, these issues emerge as central to the conflict and amount to purposeful Russian tactics, not simply collateral consequences of military action or warfare.
Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
NATO’s CRSV policy commits to the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1820 on sexual violence in conflict. NATO has developed a series of military guidelines on the prevention of both CRSV and gender-based violence. These aim to reduce occurrences and improve responsive measures for the protection of vulnerable populations and oblige NATO personnel to prevent, act on, and stop CRSV, understand the risk of CRSV through information collection and reporting obligations, and cooperate with both international and local actors in combating CRSV.
In early June 2022, the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict reported to the Security Council, that instances of CRSV violations were mounting, in a context where specialized medical and psycho-social support is acutely lacking.Footnote 18 The UN’s Human Rights Monitoring Team has reported 124 alleged acts of sexual violence since Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, a number that is likely a significant under-count. Recently, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in her capacity as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, called for the dedication of resources to combat CRSV in Ukraine.Footnote 19 A human security lens facilitates the understanding from numerous conflicts over the last 30 years that CRSV has become a deliberate tactic that aggressors use to target specific groups within the general population.
Cultural Property Protection
The NATO approach to human security recognizes the importance of protecting cultural property, both as an element of its operations and a component of efforts to build peace and maintain security. In its 2016 Policy for the Protection of Civilians, and as enshrined in the North Atlantic Treaty itself, NATO has committed to the protection of property. This extends to the protection of cultural and religious sites and is included as a priority in several NATO operational directives.Footnote 20 NATO’s commitment to the protection of cultural property stems from obligations imposed by international law. Under international humanitarian law, parties to a conflict are prohibited from conducting acts of hostility directed against the “historic monuments, works of art, the places of worship that constitute the cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, for strategic gain and tactical advantage.”Footnote 21 While destruction and theft of cultural objects provide a means of erasing national identity, it also funds other forms of illicit activities that constitute additional security risks.
Russian forces have destroyed or targeted places of cultural significance in Ukraine. As of June 2022, 152 cultural institutions have been destroyed or damaged along with over 2000 educational institutions.Footnote 22 Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, UNESCO has tracked a deteriorating human rights situation that includes the destruction of Tartar and Muslim cultural sites and the persecution of Crimean Tartars and Ukrainians, especially those who “seek to preserve their native language, religious and cultural identity.”Footnote 23 By applying a human security lens to understand how Russia has exploited cultural heritage in the conflict’s initial phase, these patterns provide insight concerning the nature of the threat that Russian objectives pose to Ukraine.
Why Human Security?
Human security remains an open concept. The Canadian delegation to NATO is taking an active role in the development of the Alliance’s human security policy. Independently, other actors are advancing and applying their own understanding of the concept. Human security continues to evolve and is not limited to the abovementioned themes. When the concept of human security was first introduced in the 1994 UN Human Development Report, seven, non-exhaustive, concepts were listed. These included considerations of food, health, and economic security. Collectively, these diverse efforts constitute a normative shift from an exclusively state-focused conception of security to one that emphasizes how individuals and communities face direct and indirect threats from a multitude of complex factors. While early iterations of human security focused on development and humanitarian activities, the conflict in Ukraine illustrates that each of the cross-cutting themes considered above has a military nexus.
Armed conflict is inherently gendered. NATO has committed to the Women, Peace and Security agenda, which includes methods to ensure gender-responsive approaches throughout all NATO policies, planning, and procedures. This includes applying a gender-based perspective to the five cross-cutting themes discussed above. Further, the Canadian government’s application of Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) highlights the importance of intersectional analyses to recognize other important identity factors. In this context, GBA+ enables enhanced understanding of who is affected the most under the five cross-cutting themes presented.
From this basis, human security facilitates holistic security assessments. The UN has outlined how a human security framework enhances the analysis of threats and insecurities in an era of human-made planetary crises and global changes. Within the current context, a human security lens not only draws attention to the nature of Ukrainian suffering but also serves to identify both the strategic goals and tactical actions of the Russian Federation. It furthers our understandings of the interconnected global challenges and dimensions of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Assessing the global implications of the conflict alongside concurrent security threats like the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis creates what the UN Global Crisis Response Group describes as a “perfect storm” for states that are vulnerable to the downstream impacts on global finance, food security, and energy.Footnote 24 These impacts both exacerbate current security challenges and create additional global insecurities.
Human security provides a valuable means of framing and analyzing defence and security issues. It poses novel questions and focuses on often overlooked implications, options, and consequences that have a direct military nexus. Along with providing a more comprehensive account of events in Ukraine, such an approach can enhance military understandings of domestic disaster responses, emerging maritime and air defence requirements, the evolving future security environment, the disruptive impacts of climate change and pandemics, and extend to the recognition that Great Power contests entail all elements of national power, not only traditional defence considerations. Identifying the military dimensions of these challenges and threats is the necessary first step toward ensuring that Canada and the CAF safeguard Canadian interests while also meeting Canada’s international obligations.