Human security

  • Last updated: 20 Jul. 2023 16:40

In recent decades, the nature of war has changed dramatically. Great power competition, terrorism, intra-state conflict, cyber threats and climate change pose real risks and often directly impact individuals and communities in ways that have prompted a shift in thinking about approaches to security. The concept of human security is one such result. Human security is a multi-sectoral approach to security that gives primacy to people. The Human Security Approach and Guiding Principles, adopted at the Madrid Summit in June 2022, provide the Alliance with a common understanding of human security. For NATO, it encompasses five areas: combatting trafficking in human beings; protection of children in armed conflict; preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence; protection of civilians; and cultural property protection.


  • For NATO, the term human security relates to risks and threats to populations where NATO has operations, missions or activities, and how to mitigate and respond to them.
  • NATO recognises the importance of reducing the impact of its actions on civilian populations in conflict zones and wherever else it may be conducting activities.
  • At the Madrid Summit in June 2022, Heads of State and Government emphasised the centrality of human security by endorsing the Human Security Approach and Guiding Principles, which provide that NATO will be people-centred, actively integrate gender perspectives and address the differentiated impacts of conflict and crisis on different people in the population, especially those in situations of vulnerability or marginalisation.
  • The 2022 Strategic Concept, NATO’s core policy document, underlines that human security, including the protection of civilians and civilian harm mitigation, is central to NATO’s approach to crisis prevention and management. It also commits NATO to working with other international actors to address the broader conditions fuelling crisis and pervasive instability, and to contribute to stabilisation and reconstruction.
  • NATO has a number of policies and guiding documents related to human security, including on the protection of civilians (2016), preventing and responding to conflict-related sexual violence (2021), combatting trafficking in human beings (updated in 2023), and children and armed conflict (2023).



Combatting trafficking in human beings

Trafficking in human beings is a widespread global phenomenon targeting the most vulnerable and affecting nearly every country in the world. Its impact is felt disproportionately in war-torn and crisis areas, and has implications at the individual, community and national scale. Armed conflict of any kind increases the number of displaced and impoverished people, subsequently causing greater vulnerabilities with more people at risk of being exploited through organised crime networks. Factors such as political instability, poverty and gender inequality create environments conducive to the trafficking of humans.

All NATO Allies are signatories to the United Nations (UN) Protocol on Trafficking in Persons. Allies are keenly aware that human trafficking fuels corruption and organised crime, and is an impediment to peace and security. NATO is not the primary organisation to combat trafficking in human beings, but supports the efforts of the international community and has developed a policy.

NATO’s first Policy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings (2004) committed NATO to reinforcing efforts to prevent, mitigate and respond to such activity. 

At the 2023 Vilnius Summit, NATO Heads of State and Government endorsed an updated NATO Policy on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings.

The updated policy recognises that combatting trafficking in human beings enhances NATO’s operational effectiveness and credibility. It shows the Alliance's determination to prevent, mitigate, counter and respond to all forms of trafficking in human beings, including for sexual exploitation, forced labour or the removal of organs. It acknowledges that the majority of detected victims are women and girls, while men and boys are also targeted.

The policy aims to ensure that measures are gender-responsive, age-sensitive, victim-centred, trauma-informed and that human trafficking considerations are integrated into military planning. It also seeks to reduce the risk that NATO funds be used to support human trafficking networks and organisations, including by addressing risks of trafficking through due diligence in supply chain management.

The policy enhances collaboration between Allies, international organisations and civil society, including on information sharing and support to victims and survivors. It provides for additional training and education to help deployed personnel treat victims and survivors fairly, respectfully, equally, with dignity and without discrimination.


Children and armed conflict

Children are affected by armed conflict in many different ways. The six grave violations against children, identified and condemned by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), include their being killed and maimed, recruited or used as soldiers, sexually exploited, abducted, their schools and hospitals being attacked, and their access to humanitarian services being denied.

The issue was first addressed by NATO Leaders at the 2012 Chicago Summit, where they decided to develop practical, field-oriented measures to address violations against children in times of war. As a result, NATO adopted its first Military Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict later that year, outlining a broad framework to integrate United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1612 on Children and Armed Conflict and related resolutions into operational activities and into education and training. Soon afterwards, the North Atlantic Council (NAC), the Alliance’s top political decision-making body, appointed the Assistant Secretary General for Operations within NATO’s International Staff – and later the Secretary General’s Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security – as the Senior NATO Focal Point for Children and Armed Conflict. This person is in charge of maintaining a close dialogue with the UN on this topic.

At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO Leaders decided that the Alliance should do more to ensure it is sufficiently prepared whenever and wherever children in armed conflict are encountered. In response, and in close cooperation with the UN, NATO developed the document ‘Protection of Children in Armed Conflict – Way Forward’, which included a review of best practices initiated by NATO over the years.

In practice, standard procedures for monitoring and reporting on the six grave violations in NATO-led missions and operations have been developed in consultation with relevant non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The issue of children and armed conflict is incorporated into NATO’s military exercise scenarios so that NATO commanders receive training to respond to situations where the six grave violations committed against children might be encountered. Focal Points for Children and Armed Conflict have been appointed throughout the NATO Command Structure. They support the integration of the Military Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict into training opportunities, exercises and mission planning.

NATO is committed to the implementation of UNSCR 1612 and related resolutions on the protection of children in armed conflict. At the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, NATO Leaders endorsed a NATO Policy on Children and Armed Conflict to ensure that the Alliance is sufficiently prepared to prevent, monitor, respond to and report on grave violations and other serious violations or abuses against children in all aspects of the Alliance’s operations, missions and activities.

The policy integrates the latest international best practices and child protection principles of Allies and other international and regional initiatives, with special attention on awareness and preventive measures to better protect children in NATO operations. These efforts include training the Alliance’s deployed troops to recognise, monitor and report violations against children and to incorporate child protection issues into NATO exercise scenarios. When invited to train partner forces, NATO also emphasises the importance of protecting children in armed conflict.

The policy seeks to align NATO’s political and operational considerations with advances in international best practices and guidance as well as progress in the UN Security Council related to children and armed conflict (CAAC). It also ensures that the Alliance continues to engage with the UN, its funds, agencies and programmes throughout the missions or operation cycle to identify and analyse possible threats.


Conflict-related sexual violence

Conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) refers to acts of sexual violence directly or indirectly linked to a conflict that are perpetrated against women, men, girls or boys. CRSV is frequently, deliberately and strategically used to target civilians. It inflicts long-term trauma on individuals and families, destroys the social fabric of communities, triggers displacement and fosters prolonged conflict and instability. CRSV, when used or commissioned as a deliberate tactic of war or as part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations, can significantly exacerbate situations of instability, crisis, or armed conflict and may impede the restoration of peace and security.

NATO is committed to implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1820 and other relevant UNSC resolutions on sexual violence in conflict. In 2015, NATO developed military guidelines on the prevention of, and response to, conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence. These provide strategic direction with the aim of reducing the risk of CRSV and improving responsive measures for the protection of vulnerable populations. NATO personnel are obliged to prevent, act and stop CRSV; to develop the analytical tools necessary to understand the level of risk of CRSV for information collection and reporting; and to cooperate with relevant international or local actors, including the UN.

In June 2020, NATO hosted a Digital Dialogue on Conflict-Related Sexual Violence, where a new NATO policy was proposed to provide the foundation for the Alliance’s continued commitment to the fight against CRSV. The NATO Policy on Preventing and Responding to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence was adopted by Allied Defence Ministers in early June 2021 and, later that month, it was endorsed by NATO Leaders at the 2021 Brussels Summit. It outlines the actions that NATO will take to prevent and respond to CRSV in all operations, missions and Council-mandated activities.

In 2022, following the endorsement of the new policy, the NATO Military Guidelines on the Prevention and Response to Conflict-related Sexual Violence from 2015 were updated.

NATO is vigilant about the new and emerging challenges of CRSV. The Alliance regularly collaborates with a range of international organisations and civil society actors to work towards the elimination of sexual violence in conflict.


Protection of civilians

NATO and its partners are contributing to the protection of civilians by integrating related measures in the planning and conduct of NATO-led operations and missions. The protection of civilians includes all efforts taken to avoid, minimise and mitigate the negative effects that might arise from NATO-led military operations.

NATO integrates the protection of civilians from the outset of an operation, mission and other mandated activity. Drawing on experience from Kosovo and Afghanistan, NATO and its partners have developed specific policies and guidelines for the protection of civilians in the planning and conduct of NATO-led operations and missions.

At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO Leaders adopted a NATO Policy for the Protection of Civilians. The aim of this overarching policy is to set out a coherent, consistent and integrated approach to the protection of civilians in NATO-led operations, missions and other mandated activities. The policy was developed with NATO partners and in consultation with the United Nations and other relevant international organisations, and is an integral part of NATO’s human security approach. In recent years, NATO has made considerable progress in implementing the policy at both the political and military levels; it has achieved this through tailored training (that includes partners), by integrating the protection of civilians into NATO exercises, and by ensuring its integration into NATO’s doctrine and planning.

In 2018, a NATO Military Concept on the Protection of Civilians was endorsed. It puts the NATO Policy for the Protection of Civilians into practice and includes four objectives:

  • understand the human environment, such as the culture, history, demographics, strengths and vulnerabilities;
  • safeguard civilians from harm by belligerents;
  • facilitate access by the population to basic needs and services; and
  • contribute to a safe and secure environment through support to the local government and its institutions.

NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept states that human security, including the protection of civilians and civilian harm mitigation, is central to NATO’s approach to crisis prevention and management.


Protecting cultural property

NATO recognises cultural property protection as an essential consideration in the military environment and a critical indicator of community security, cohesion and identity. As demonstrated by the conflicts in the Western Balkans in the 1990s, the destruction of cultural symbols can have significant political dimensions and become a tactic used to weaken affected communities. Recognising the linkage with the broader protection agenda, cultural property protection is an important aspect of NATO’s human security approach to operations and missions and a valuable component of NATO’s efforts to build peace and security.

NATO’s obligations regarding the protection of cultural property stem from both its values and international law. The preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty states that NATO Allies are “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples”. In terms of the legal basis, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its protocols provide the core regulatory instrument on cultural property protection.

The 2016 NATO Policy for the Protection of Civilians (see above) clearly states that the protection of civilians in NATO-led operations and missions can include the protection of not only persons but also objects  and services.

NATO applies its mandate to protect and support cultural and religious sites in all of its operational areas. As part of its directive in Kosovo, the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) protects heritage sites, like monasteries, until the security situation improves on the ground and responsibility is handed over to the Kosovo Police. Over time, responsibility for the Gazimestan Monument, the Gracanica Monastery, Zociste Monastery, Budisavci Monastery, Gorioc Monastery, the Archangel site, the Devic Monastery and the Pec Patriarchate have been handed over to the Kosovo Police. Only the Decani Monastery remains under KFOR protection.

In Afghanistan, NATO forces participated in initiatives and projects on an ad hoc basis, such as offering cultural heritage courses, building temporary facilities to store archaeological finds, rebuilding the National Museum of Afghanistan and protecting cultural heritage in Ghazni.

During Operation Unified Protector in Libya, NATO used the data provided by several sources, including UNESCO and academia, in order to integrate cultural property protection into the planning of NATO airstrikes.

Various training institutes have developed training on the concept of cultural property protection and on its applicability in operational contexts. The NATO-accredited Civil-Military Cooperation Centre of Excellence in The Hague, the Netherlands coordinates these training efforts.