September 2015, Nos. 1 & 2 Vol. LII, The United Nations at 70

When I started my work as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in February 1991—as the first woman, the first Japanese, and the first academic in that post—the world had just moved away from the rigidly controlled cold war structure. Within weeks of my arrival in Geneva, almost 2 million Iraqi Kurds had fled to Iran and Turkey in the aftermath of the Gulf War. That was the beginning of my turbulent decade as High Commissioner until I left the position in 2000.

The Gulf War of 1991 was a major watershed in the advancement of multilateral diplomacy and humanitarian action that set the stage for the post-cold-war period of the 1990s. The scale and speed of refugee exodus were unprecedented, and the pace of their return was equally rapid. Backed up by Security Council resolution 688 (1991), the coalition forces intervened to set up a safe haven in northern Iraq to bring back the Kurdish refugees. Soon we moved to northern Iraq for the first time, working closely with international military forces to help refugees and internally displaced persons. In the following years, especially in the former Yugoslavia and the Great Lakes Region of Africa, we were constantly challenged to rethink our protection, assistance and solution strategies.

The foundation of protection remained legal, but ensuring this protection increasingly became an operational, practical, hands-on activity. UNHCR was on the front lines, often in war zones, and frequently alone. We became much more active in countries of origin, particularly when helping returnees to reintegrate. The times also demanded innovative approaches to asylum. We broke new ground—and together saved many lives—by promoting temporary protection for refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina, or by implementing the Humanitarian Evacuation Programme for refugees from Kosovo. Following the dramatic events in the Great Lakes Region of Africa between 1994 and 1997, and a request by the Secretary-General to make proposals on how to ensure security and neutrality in refugee camps, we developed a “ladder” of options, from the basic “protection by presence” to a range of “medium” alternatives of training and deployment.

When the cold war came to a close, people optimistically spoke of the arrival of the new world order. Reflecting on the changed environment, peace agreements were reached in Central America, Cambodia, South Africa and elsewhere in the early 1990s. The main operations of UNHCR in these regions became repatriation. The reality that followed, however, betrayed our optimism. The predictable universe of cold war relations was replaced by a period of uncertainty and instability. Super-Power rivalry and proxy wars were replaced by ethnic conflicts within nations. New patterns of conflicts made population movements more fluid and complex than before. Many crossed borders and became refugees eligible for international protection, but many more remained internally displaced, receiving no protection from their States. The mixture of refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as the rapidity and scale of human movement, were special features of my time as High Commissioner. This trend has continued, and today, when there are 51 million forcibly displaced worldwide—exceeding 50 million for the first time in the post-Second World War era—the number of internally displaced persons became double that of the figure of refugees.

Conflicts were inevitably the main cause of mass exodus, and more than ever, displacements and wars became inextricably linked. My first briefing to the Security Council was in 1992, when violence broke out in the former Yugoslavia, displacing millions of people. To me, it was like crossing the humanitarian Rubicon. The long-upheld principles of neutrality and impartiality were generally interpreted by the humanitarian community as meaning to keep a clear distance from political involvement. No head of a humanitarian agency had ever addressed the Security Council.

I was often quoted as having stated “there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” What I wanted to emphasize then was that refugee problems are essentially political in origin and therefore have to be addressed through political action. Humanitarian action may create space for political action, but on its own can never substitute it, as well demonstrated by the tragic example of Syria today. Solutions require decisive intervention by leading global and regional powers or by the Security Council. Against this conviction, I willingly briefed the Security Council, the most powerful political organ of the United Nations, 12 times. I made strenuous efforts to urge the political actors to become more engaged in settling humanitarian crises.

In carrying out my responsibility as High Commissioner, my concern was always centred on providing security to the refugees and giving them opportunities to lead happier lives. Traditionally, security issues were examined in the context of “State security”, i.e. protection of the State, its boundaries, its people, institutions and values from external attacks. People were considered to be assured of their security through protection extended by the State. However, in the post-cold-war era, without external aggression or threat to territorial integrity or State sovereignty, people were faced with outbreaks of intra-State violence, caused by historic rivalries and animosities among different ethnic, religious and social groups. The State as protector of people frequently remained ineffective in ensuring “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want”. Maintaining or developing peaceful relations among opposing individuals, groups or communities became a central security issue.

I questioned countless times how we should address the central security issue of the day, i.e. the security of the people. I learned that by focusing more directly on the people, we could find ways to provide protection and enhance security. This quest for a people-centred security concept led me to take up “human security” as a paradigm shift from the traditional “State security”. It was in the search for new ways to meet the security challenges of the day that the Commission on Human Security was established in 2001 after I left UNHCR, under the initiative of the United Nations and the Government of Japan. I was honoured to co-chair the Commission together with the Nobel Prize economist Amartya Sen. Our 2003 report, Human Security Now, drew on two years of research, field visits and public hearings to propose an innovative framework of action that addresses critical threats to human security.

With the establishment of the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security, the concept departed from the abstract and reached the concrete, equipped with means for protecting and empowering vulnerable people across broad sectors, and allowing seamless transition from humanitarian relief to development action. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), where I served as President from 2003 to 2012, proactively partnered with humanitarian actors, hoping to cover gaps between humanitarian relief and development work. The human security approach was implemented by JICA, not just for communities recovering from conflicts, but also to overcome a variety of hurdles such as poverty, unemployment and climate change.

Human security concerns both protection and empowerment, with the aim to capacitate people to take an active role in making their lives and communities more secure. Human security cannot be achieved singularly; it operates as a common platform, providing an inclusive and consolidated approach for all partners—from government and United Nations agencies, various donors, civil society and local residents through defining their needs, setting up common goals and mobilizing expertise. Human security also provides a wide view, looking across broad sectors to address interrelated issues. In this continuum, communities can build positive mechanisms to deal with many types of insecurities.

Today, with the adoption of General Assembly resolution 290 (2012), the human security approach sets up broad consensus among Governments and practitioners. It was a heartening moment for me to address the High-level Event on Human Security in May 2013 at the United Nations Economic and Social Council Chamber in New York.

However, the question remains how to sustain the political will of Governments and leaders to act on behalf of those whose lives and dignity are at risk, and to turn such compassion into political action. The equation is even more complicated, when a new source of threat manifests itself in the form of international terrorism and violent extremism. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) operates beyond national borders with devastating speed. Globalization, which not only creates wealth and opportunities but also widens inequality, has added further complications to security management. The extraordinary growth in information technology and advancement in communication through social networking sites can easily and rapidly polarize the landscape and recruit dissatisfied adolescents to terrorist militancy. The acceleration of climate change and global warming induce mega disasters, deadly epidemics, and even conflicts, disproportionately affecting those already living in vulnerable situations. We are tested by whether we can stay united to pass on a livable planet to future generations.

Since the United Nations was established, significant progress has occurred. When the Charter of the United Nations was ratified, most Asian and African countries were still European colonies. The United Nations started with 51 Member States, expanding over these 70 years to 193 Member States today. The evolving threats and challenges against which the Organization is tested may have outpaced the progress. Article 1 of the Charter proclaims that the first aim of the world Organization is to “maintain international peace and security”. If to be secure means to be free from being killed, persecuted or abused, free from extreme poverty that brings indignity and self-contempt, and free to make choices, then still too many people today cannot afford security.

“From development to peace to human rights, the United Nations must be ever more fit for purpose,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his briefing to the General Assembly in January 2015 with the milestone year ahead. I welcome the initiative of the Secretary-General to appoint a High-level Panel to explore the ongoing challenge of how to close the growing gap between humanitarian needs and available resources. In the run-up to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, and in the endeavour for the United Nations to live up to its mission, I would like to call on people, rather than States, to take centre stage.

One lesson I have learned is that solving refugee problems takes time. Changing people’s attitudes takes time. Developing confidence among people who fought each other takes time. But the task is not impossible. Focusing on people themselves and harping on their self-interest may seem like a roundabout process, but it is the most effective approach to conflict prevention and finding lasting solutions.

After all, people are what matters most. I have often been asked from where I draw my energy. I often think of all the refugees whom I met in camps, in villages, in reception centers, in shantytowns. I believe that what has kept me going is the conviction that our collective efforts can turn the terror and pain of exile into the safety and unity of family and friends. What the United Nations has done and will continue to do are worthwhile efforts for the future and happiness of all people everywhere on Earth.