On the central issue of global security, it is important for global civil society forces to unite behind the terminology and outlook of ‘human security’, thereby placing peoples and their concerns at the centre of security discourse. At this point, within UN circles, especially the Security Council, the notion of security, despite some willingness to acknowledge its wider reach, remains focused on war and violence as related to the security of sovereign states. Even with the greater willingness to discuss the responsibility of the UN to protect vulnerable peoples facing genocidal threats, the political will of the organisation depends on support from major states, and whether this support is forthcoming depends on national interests. The situation is more encouraging in the setting of natural disasters, exhibiting more sense of human solidarity, and a willingness of states, regions, NGOs, and international institutions to work together for shared humanitarian goals. The response to the humanitarian catastrophe produced by the Indian Ocean tsunami at the end of 2004 is illustrative of levels of cooperation and rapid response unimaginable in the context of a human rights crisis. It is instructive to compare the responses of the world to genocidal threats in Rwanda, Sudan, and even Bosnia with the response to the tsunami.

UN reform from the perspective of global civil society

Aside from participation and influence within the UN system, or what is being identified here as ‘vertical reform’, the relations between the UN and global civil society, there is the overall concern with the future role of the UN: seeking to prevent aggressive war, to promote a more equitable and sustainable world economy, to respond more quickly and effectively to humanitarian and natural disasters, to uphold human rights and the rule of law, and to contribute to the emergence of a humane and democratic structure of global governance engages members of global civil society as world citizens. The foundation for such a discussion is provided by the report of the High-Level Panel convened by the Secretary-General issued under the title A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (UN 2004b). The report is comprehensive, and can be discussed only selectively, in relation to its central concern with expanding the understanding of and approach to the core responsibility of the UN to facilitate collective security. The report is written from a statist standpoint, with issues of feasibility in mind, and only tangentially refers to or reflects the influence of global civil society perspectives. Civil society activists concerned with global policy should read this report both for its conceptual contributions and as an expression of the best intergovernmental thinking about the role of the United Nations in the twenty-first century and of how to depict ‘security’ as a central preoccupation. The strong endorsement of the findings of the report by Kofi Annan also makes its impact likely to be strong in relation to the discussions of UN reform at the 2005 session of the General Assembly dedicated to the implementation of the Millennial goals set five years earlier (Annan 2005).

The UN Secretary-General: balancing contending forces

The Secretary-General, as political leader and moral authority figure, has struggled to balance the contending forces and aspirations of the organisation. To gain help and support he constituted two prominent panels to study reform prospects, and to deliver reports in 2004. The first of these panels was composed of ‘eminent persons’, chaired by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, and charged with looking into the relations between the United Nations and civil society. It issued its report, We the Peoples, on 7 June 2004 (UN 2004a). It covers the subject matter comprehensively, offering 30 proposals for reform. The second initiative was charged with reconsidering the role of the United Nations with respect to peace and security. It was similarly constituted, chaired by Anand Panyarachun, former Prime Minister of Thailand, and submitted its report on 4 December 2004 to the Secretary-General (UN 2004b). The high-level panel report is exclusively dedicated to the substantive issues associated with the current global setting, and does not directly acknowledge the role or significance of global civil society, but its language and approach do reflect to some degree civil society perspectives, including especially its call for reconfiguring security as ‘human security’ rather than as either ‘national security’ or ‘collective security’. At the same time, both panels were chaired and composed of individuals whose qualifications were based on their statist credentials, having held high positions in governments or intergovernmental institutions; and their recommendations for reform are sensible but not bold or imaginative. The reports also reflect pressures to be geopolitically credible and balanced. For instance, the most interesting and widely noticed discussion in the High-Level Panel on Security is its acknowledgement that anticipatory self-defence may be justifiable in a post-9/11 world, but that the legitimacy of such a claim depends on Security Council authorisation, thereby acknowledging the substantive merits of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war while reaffirming the UN procedural role in identifying appropriate circumstances. Credibility with civil society audiences is less crucial but not entirely irrelevant to the prospects for exerting influence.

This is where global civil society comes in. The idea of human security can connect many of the global civil society activities described in this introduction, from social justice and climate change campaigns to disaster relief and campaigns against political violence. Because the concept applies to the community of human beings, it offers the potential for expressing a global precautionary principle. In Global Civil Society 2004/5 we redefined global civil society as the medium through which one or more social contracts are negotiated by individual citizens and the various institutions of global governance (national, international and local) (Kaldor, Anheier and Glasius, 2004/5:2; Held 2004) This is an ongoing process involving debate, argument, campaigning, struggle, pressure, information, and a wide range of groups and individuals. One scenario is the further instrumentalisation of global civil society as a partner in a top-down effort to contain risk. The alternative scenario is a combined effort to confront everyday dangers of poverty, insecurity and environmental degradation. Human security could be a powerful framework for global civil society in framing these risks in transformative ways.

One concept that brings together many of these concerns is that of ‘human security’. The term has been popularised by yet another report, that of the Commission on Human Security (2003), and is applied in the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. But although the term is beginning to be used in development discourse, its potential may not yet be fully realised. It is a term with which global civil society activists can confront the current preoccupation of governments and public opinion with terrorism, entering the security debate with strategies that go beyond repression. This could be more realistic and productive than just lamenting the current security paradigm.

The central concerns of the 2005 reports are poverty and security. Their key conclusions are summarised in the Box 1.4. Perhaps the most significant idea that comes out of the all the reports is the connection between poverty and security, between – to use the language of this introduction – dangers and risks. Terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are presented, in these reports, as ‘other tsunami’ in the sense that they are represented as a potential risk to us all. As in the case of climate change, connections are made between terrorism and inequality. But here the dominant argument is not that terrorism would hit the poor harder, but rather that inequality itself increases the risk of terrorism. Thus, the connection becomes one of self-interest, and is not the preserve of a radical social justice movement. It has become common ground, at least in the rhetoric if not in the policy of Western states, and expressed in these reports, that poverty and inequality are security risks, and poverty alleviation can therefore be a form of anti-terrorist policy.