Issue 16 - Article 16

Canada's Human Security Agenda

December 5, 2012
Jennifer Moher, Peacebuilding and Human Security Division, Department of Foreign Affairs & International Trade, Canadian Government
6 min read

For over two years now Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade together with foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy have been promoting human security as a central theme of Canadian foreign policy. This approach signals a shift in perspective which takes people, rather than states or territory, as a principal point of reference in international affairs. The agenda seeks to address a range of threats – particularly those which stem from violent conflict – to the safety and security of individuals. It aims to complement rather than replace existing approaches to protecting national security and to promoting international development.

The human security approach is a response to the profound changes that have occurred in the global environment in recent years. Armed conflict has taken on a different shape – predominantly intra-state in nature, and often characterised by religious or ethnic discord. Disturbingly, civilians now constitute up to 80 per cent of the victims of such conflicts, and are increasingly the deliberate target of combatants on all sides. This is also true for those trying to provide protection and assistance, as UN and humanitarian personnel find themselves increasingly under threat.

A second trend relates to intensifying global interdependence, and the emergence of a range of challenges which are as transnational in their origins as in their effects, and which often have direct and serious implications for people’s safety. For all its promise globalisation has also shown a dark underside, illustrated by such phenomena as terrorism, illicit drugs, crime and corruption, and trafficking in women and children. Together, these trends have prompted more comprehensive approaches which acknowledge the negative implications that increasingly porous borders may have – not just for the security of states, but also more directly for people. 

Canada’s promotion of the human security agenda is a response to these new global realities. In recent years, Canada has played a leading role on several important human security initiatives including the achievement in 1997 of a binding international convention banning antipersonnel landmines, and efforts since the adoption of the Rome Treaty in 1998 to establish an International Criminal Court to hold accountable those responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Canada is also advancing work in other key areas including building capacity for conflict prevention and resolution, the promotion and protection of human rights, tackling international crime, corruption and drug trafficking, halting the proliferation of small arms, and promoting the development of effective and humanitarian sanctions regimes. In addition, Canada is focusing on the disturbing phenomenon of war-affected children and are working with the international community to set priorities  and establish concrete mechanisms which will protect the rights and welfare of these children. To this end, Canada will co-sponsor with Ghana a West African conference on this subject in April 2000, and will host an international conference in Ottawa in September.

Partnerships and multilateral cooperation are at the heart of Canada’s work on human security. Most prominent is Canada’s work on the UN Security Council to advance the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Launched last February as the theme for Canada’s first presidency of the Council, the initiative has since resulted in a resolution formalising Security Council responsibility for the issue, as well as the publication by the Secretary General of a report outlining 40 specific recommendations aimed at enhancing the legal and physical protection of civilians in situations of conflict. Canada, along with other Council members, has also sought to mainstream these concerns in daily Council deliberations – whether on thematic or geographic matters, or in decisions on peacekeeping mandates or sanctions regimes. Canada will profile this theme for the remainder of its Council term, including during its next presidency in April.

Also at the UN, Canada is chair of the Angola Sanctions Committee, which is expected to table the recommendations of its Expert Panel later this spring. The Committee’s work draws attention to an issue of increasing interest to Canada under the human security agenda – the economic factors and strategies which underpin conflict, and the policy options and tools available to influence these in support of peace.

Canada is also working in special partnership with a group of like-minded countries as part of the Human Security Network. This will give added profile and support to the agenda. The Network grew out of Canada’s close bilateral partnership with Norway, and now includes over 12 countries. The next meeting of the Network will be hosted by Switzerland in May 2000, and will address, among other issues, the question of how to engage various nonstate actors – including NGOs, the private sector, and armed opposition groups – on aspects of the human security agenda.

Human security is a work-in-progress. Canada’s efforts in partnership with concerned others have launched, if not resolved, important debates about the nature of the global security environment, about the relationship and balance between state sovereignty and the fundamental right of individuals to their own safety, and about the responsibilities, obligations and capacities of the international community and its key institutions to address emerging threats to the security of people. Canada remains committed both to the further intellectual and practical development of the agenda, as a keystone of its foreign policy.

Implementation of a human security-centred foreign policy is not as easy in practice as in principle. Recently there have been debates in the Canadian press which reflect this difficulty. These debates have considered issues such as the high levels of human rights abuses in Kosovo under the nose of the UN (Canada is putting $100m into reconstruction in the Balkans, much of it into Kosovo). Also, Canada’s use of the ‘Claymore mine’ in East Timor, which is seen by anti-personnel landmine activists to violate the spirit of the Ottawa Convention.

For more information on these and other debates see the website of The North-South Institute on <>



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