Human Security and the Quest for Peace in the Middle East

University of Maryland, October 24, 2006

Mrs. Sadat, President Mote, Dean Montgomery, Professor Telhami, ladies and gentlemen:

In 1978, when Anwar al-Sadat and Menachim Begin received the Nobel Prize for Peace, President Sadat reflected on what had prompted his historic visit to Jerusalem a year earlier. “I made my trip,” he said, “Because I am convinced that we owe it to this generation and the generations to come, not to leave a stone unturned in our pursuit of peace.”

I am honoured to be delivering this year’s Sadat Lecture for Peace, a tribute to a fellow Egyptian, a man of great vision and immense courage. Unfortunately, nearly 30 years later, we are still turning over stones, and we have yet to achieve the vision of President Sadat.

I am also honoured and grateful to be receiving an honorary doctorate from so distinguished an institution as the University of Maryland.

Humanity’s quest for peace is not confined to one region. The situation in the Middle East may be the most acute, but the search for security is still the major concern for many people and nations.

Today I will begin by looking at the international security landscape, then focus on the Middle East as a case in point.


The current security picture is paradoxical. As a writer in the Financial Times aptly put it, “The world has rarely been more peaceful or felt so insecure.”

According to a recent report on human security, there has been a sharp decline since the early 1990s in civil wars and other forms of armed conflict. The number of refugees has also gone down, and human rights abuses have decreased. These statistics indicate that the world is becoming more peaceful.

Yet at the same time, the collective sense of insecurity is higher than at any time before, because the forces that drive insecurity remain persistent and pervasive. These drivers of insecurity fit into four categories:

First, poverty, and poverty-related insecurities, for the billions who lack access to reliable food supplies, safe drinking water, adequate health care, and modern energy supplies. This is the rawest form of insecurity — a reality for 40 per cent of our fellow human beings, who live on the edge of survival on less than two dollars per day.

I was delighted earlier this month to see the Norwegian Nobel Committee give explicit recognition to this linkage between poverty and other forms of insecurity — by awarding the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank. The citation read, in part: “Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty,” — and later — “Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights.”

A second category is the lack of good governance — not infrequently linked to poverty — which ranges from corruption to severely repressive regimes whose hallmark is egregious human rights abuses. Democracy recently has made remarkable strides, particularly in Eastern Europe and Latin America. But many tyrants remain, in the Middle East and other regions.

A third driver of insecurity is the sense of injustice that results from the imbalance between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ — the sharp contrasts in wealth and power that we see between the North and the South. This sense of injustice is magnified by the perception that the sanctity of human life is not equally valued — that society grieves the loss of life in the developed world far more than it grieves the greater loss of life in places like Darfur or Iraq — or, for that matter, in Congo — where nearly four million people have lost their lives in civil war since 1996.

Fourth is the artificial polarization along religious or ethnic lines. This is a centuries-old phenomenon, but it continues to flare up recently, leading some to worry about a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Muslims and the West. In my view, it is an utter mistake to think that these tensions arise from clashing religious values. But for people who suffer gross inequities — many of them in the Muslim world — it is easy to be convinced that their suffering is due to religious or ethnic prejudice, instead of the real causes that have existed throughout history, warring people and nations, fighting over power and resources. This conviction can make them more likely to seek refuge in distorted views of religion or ethnicity in order to channel their rage and redress their grievances.

In a few regions — including not only the Middle East but also South Asia and the Korean Peninsula — conflicts arising from a mixture of insecurities have been left to fester for decades. The longer these conflicts and insecurities ferment unaddressed, the greater the sense of injustice and humiliation. It is in these same regions where, over time, we have seen the rise of extremism and the constant threat of internal strife, interstate wars and the efforts by states to seek weapons of mass destruction.

The human security picture would not be complete without factoring in the impact of globalization. Modern society is interdependent as never before. This interdependence is a double-edged sword; it provides opportunities to address these problems more effectively, but can also accentuate them. Television, the Internet and ease of travel have made it easier to exchange ideas, expand trade and interact with each other. But these and other tools of globalization, including greater access to advanced technology, have arguably also made it easier for extremist groups to operate.

Against this backdrop, it should be apparent why conventional concepts of security — rooted in the protection of national borders and old concepts of sovereignty — are no longer adequate. Most of the drivers of insecurity I have mentioned are without borders. If a new extremist group emerges in the Middle East, it makes me worry. If a new civil war breaks out in an African state, I will be disturbed. Not only because we are all members of the same human family — but also because of the probability that each of these developments will affect me sooner or later.

In other words, the modern age demands that we think in terms of human security — a concept of security that is people-centred and without borders. A concept that acknowledges the inherent linkages between economic and social development, respect for human rights, and peace.

This is the basis on which we must ‘re-engineer’ security. While national security is just as relevant as before, the strategies to achieve it must be much more global than in the past, and our remedies must be centred on the welfare of the individual and not simply focused on the security of the state.

Until we understand and act accordingly, we will not have either national or international security.


With these concepts of human security as our benchmark, how well do our national and international institutions perform?

In the broadest sense, the United Nations and its system of organizations have a remarkable record of achievement. We have had no world wars in more than 60 years. UN bodies have succeeded in setting norms and overseeing many important aspects of our life — such as labour relations, global health, civil aviation, food and agriculture, and trade.

Despite these achievements, however, the system often falls short in addressing threats to international peace and security. When faced with such threats, the outcomes are neither certain nor consistent.

The Security Council, and the United Nations in general, can point to some success stories as a peacemaker in terms of conflict prevention and conflict resolution, and as a peacekeeper in the aftermath of conflicts. It is through the consistent efforts of the UN that scores of nations have achieved independence after centuries of colonialism. And 16 UN peacekeeping missions are currently operating in almost every corner of the world, containing conflicts and maintaining the peace.

But to understand the urgency of reforming our system for maintaining international peace and security, we must also look critically at situations where it has not been able to adequately fulfil its function. I would mention three aspects in that regard.

First, the Security Council — as well as regional organizations and institutions — have often been unable to intervene in a timely manner in humanitarian crises, and in cases of gross violations of human rights. The most glaring example is perhaps the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which roughly one million people were slaughtered in a period of 100 days — despite advance intelligence, and international media coverage as the atrocities unfolded. The ongoing tragedy in Darfur is another painful case in point.

Second, we have allowed some conflicts to fester for decades, with devastating effects. The Palestinian people, for example, have been subjected to 39 years of occupation, leading inevitably to increased polarization and militancy. These conflicts, like other more recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, could be solved. They persist because the international community, despite intermittent efforts, has not made the necessary investments nor mustered the resolve needed to end these conflicts.

Third, a number of the central tenets of international law — which have been painstakingly developed, and on which our modern civilization depends — have been challenged or undermined in recent years. Consider a few examples. Civilians are supposed to be protected during times of war. Weapons that kill indiscriminately are supposed to be prohibited. The authority to use force is supposed to be centralized in the Security Council, except in the case of a state’s self defence — and then only until the Security Council intervenes. And the Council is supposed to be responsible for putting an immediate end to violence. With these principles at the core of the international security system, perhaps it is not surprising that many saw a dangerous and disturbing precedent in the Council’s recent reluctance to bring the fighting in Lebanon to a prompt end, despite the daily loss of innocent lives.


But with all the vulnerabilities in our security structures, I believe the system can be fixed. For reform to be effective, three things must occur.


Make Human Security the Objective

First, as I have already suggested, we must view both the problems and their solutions through the lens of human security. The international community must rise and come to the defence of the life, freedom and dignity of every individual or group, whether the aggressor is an occupying force or a ruthless dictator. This is not simply a moral obligation; we should be aware that even from a utilitarian viewpoint, we will not achieve national or international security unless every one of us is able to live in freedom and dignity. The ‘sovereign rights’ of the individual must take precedence over the sovereignty of the state. It is therefore imperative to put in practice the international community’s “responsibility to protect” against genocide, ethnic cleansing and other gross violations of human rights, as referred to in the UN World Summit in 2005.

If our strategies are focused on achieving human security, then we will quickly see the advantage of finding solutions through dialogue and negotiation rather than through confrontation and the use of force. In bygone eras, when a country could view itself as a self-sufficient entity, war may have been a reasonable strategy for protecting its interests. But in an interdependent world, my enemy today could very well be my partner tomorrow — we will have to share resources, combat common environmental and health issues, and interact with each other on many levels. By settling differences in a fair manner that balances the interests of all parties, we create the necessary environment for lasting peace and future cooperation.

Similarly, if we are committed to achieving human security, we will seek collective solutions. If security for one country is achieved in a way that results in insecurity for another, the system will eventually break.

If our focus is on achieving human security, then we will seek to correct the global imbalance in wealth and power through a system of ‘distributive justice’. We will ensure that the tools of globalization are used to enhance the lot of poorer nations and peoples, rather than widening the gap between rich and poor. The least developed countries will be viewed not as weaker neighbours to be exploited, but as a wealth of human resources to be tapped for mutual benefit. By establishing an equitable and generous system for finance and trade, and creating a level playing field, these less privileged can be given the opportunity to ‘trade their way to development’.

Reform Security Mechanisms and Institutions to Achieve Human Security

Second, our security mechanisms and institutions must be reformed. They must evolve to match current threats. To that end, we cannot leave existing vulnerabilities unaddressed.

At the IAEA, for example, we are working to address a number of vulnerabilities that exist under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. One such important vulnerability is that we have at times ignored the linkage between nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. In an environment in which we have continuing reliance on nuclear weapons by some countries, in which scant progress is being made on nuclear disarmament, and in which efforts to bring a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty into force have been stymied for years, the recent nuclear weapon test by North Korea, while inexcusable, was nonetheless predictable. Inaction, too, has its price.

A much needed evolution is for our security institutions to be more agile in conflict prevention and conflict resolution. The old adage in medicine says, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and so it is with responding to security threats. If multilateral and regional approaches to conflict prevention are viewed as inherently sluggish, the alternative — unilateral action — may seem more attractive. That is a lesson that must be unlearned. Multilateral and regional mechanisms must become effective and timely in their capacity to pre-empt and contain crises.

Reform to institutions and mechanisms can be prompted by the engagement of civil society, and by putting human security first. To paraphrase a famous quote, “Human security is too important to be left to governments.” A good example is the process that led to the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines. Using the pressure of public opinion, non-governmental organizations and members of civil society made clear that these landmines could not be tolerated as a weapon of war. In my view, the same argument is even more valid for nuclear weapons. It is unconscionable to continue living under the nightmare of annihilation through the use of nuclear weapons, intentional or otherwise.

Address Longstanding Conflicts

Third, we must commit to resolve longstanding conflicts. It is not enough to engage intermittently or in a piecemeal fashion. Which brings me to the Middle East, where a number of the drivers of insecurity I have referred to continue to feed on each other.

A Case in point: the quest for peace in the Middle East

The Arab–Israeli conflict, at its most basic level, comes down to two passionate peoples claiming the same piece of land. These claims are rooted in religious belief and differing views of history. The sense of entitlement is fervent on both sides. For the Jewish people, reclaiming their ‘Promised Land’ symbolizes a positive end to centuries of pogroms that culminated in the Holocaust. The Palestinians, on the other hand, cannot conceive why the ‘Jewish Question’ had to be settled at their expense, and why, after living there for one or two millennia, their land had to be divided into two states.

The State of Insecurity

Israel lives with a constant sense of insecurity, in a neighbourhood in which it is largely boycotted and isolated. In less than 60 years, there have been four wars, two intifadas, and many smaller conflicts involving the loss of innocent lives. Only two countries — Egypt and Jordan — formally recognize and have peace agreements with Israel. The peace that has existed for most of that time has more or less been a ‘Cold Peace’ — a ‘formal’ peace only minimally supported by interaction between people. And the wisdom of that peace is often called into question by critical voices in the two countries, as well as in the Arab world at large, in the face of the continued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Meanwhile, many of the Palestinian refugees have for decades lived in squalor — unable to own land, for example, or to obtain proper travel documents — conditions that have added to their humiliation.

Today the Arabs continue to show little readiness to accept Israel as long as there is no resolution to the Palestinian issue. Israel, on the other hand, continues to consolidate its occupation in the face of its perceived existential threat and the absence of peace in the region. This is the Catch-22 James Baker referred to last year, from this podium, as “a tragic version of the old chicken or egg question”.

If the recent history of the Middle East teaches us nothing else, it should teach us that these conflicts cannot be solved through military force. Every type of violence has been tried, from occupation by force and outright military confrontation, to oppression, terrorism and targeted assassination — without a single instance that brought either party closer to peace or security. Each act of violence in the region only begets more violence and added insecurity.

The solution will not lie in reconstructing history. And it will not lie in redressing all past injustice. If we are to solve the central conflict of the Middle East, we must begin by looking forward, not backward, by being ready to reconcile and recognize mutual rights, and above all by finding in our hearts the ability to forgive.

One thing is clear: the status quo is not acceptable. The threat of other regional states acquiring nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction will continue to be a grave international concern. The rise of extremist groups originating in the Middle East — and the ease with which they recruit in the region — will continue to be high on the list of international insecurities. The dependency of many countries on Middle East oil and natural gas will continue to add a dimension of global economic risk to any conflict. And when events in the region give rise to perceived religious and cultural divisions between the Muslim world and the West, the repercussions will continue to be felt everywhere.

Reasons to Hope

In spite of this rather gloomy state of affairs, I believe there is a glimmer of hope. Lost in the middle of all this conflict and violence are two major psychological breakthroughs.

The first is the readiness of the Arab countries, as expressed in the Arab League Summit of March 2002, to have full normal relations with Israel, provided that Israel would withdraw to the June 1967 borders, ensure a just solution for Palestinian refugees and recognize the establishment of a Palestinian State. This is a far cry from the Arab Summit decision of 1967 in Khartoum, which formulated its policy towards Israel as “no peace, no recognition and no negotiation”.

The second is the recognition by Israel of the right of the Palestinians to have their own independent state. This is also a far cry from Israel’s previous position, which for many years questioned the right of the Palestinians to independence or even their separate identity. In June 2002, President George Bush articulated for the first time the formal support of the United States for a Palestinian State, laying out the principles of what would be called the ‘road map’ to achieve that goal.

For security in the Middle East to be realized will naturally require more than just finding a solution to the Israeli–Palestinian issue. The need to achieve stability in Iraq and Lebanon, to normalize relations with Iran, and to address pressing issues of development, governance and modernity throughout the region are only a few of the substantial challenges that must be dealt with.

But if the Palestinian question were to be resolved, a decades old burden of Arab–Israeli tensions would be lifted that would improve immeasurably our ability to deal with these and other challenges.

Moving Forward

I would like to offer, in closing, a few suggestions on how to move forward. By this I do not mean a new roadmap or what a final accord should look like. In fact, what is ironic about this longstanding conflict is that the basic outline and even most of the details about how to resolve the conflict have already been worked out since 1967 — in Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), and in numerous initiatives that aimed to give effect to the principles outlined in these resolutions.

Just earlier this month, the International Crisis Group published a statement, signed by 137 prominent leaders from every corner of the globe, entitled “Towards a Comprehensive Settlement of the Arab–Israeli Conflict”. The statement made clear the goal of such a settlement: “security and full recognition to the State of Israel within internationally recognized borders, an end to the occupation for the Palestinian people in a viable independent, sovereign state, and the return of lost land to Syria”. And, I should add, a just settlement for the Palestinian refugees who have been living in a state of uncertainty for two generations, and now number more than four million.

As the International Crisis Group statement noted, “Everyone has lost in this conflict except the extremists throughout the world who prosper on the rage that it continues to provoke.”

I do believe, however, that a solution to this conflict is within our grasp, provided that the conditions are created to enable this solution to come into being. To extend the metaphor Mr. Baker used last year: if the parties involved can look beyond the pointless question of which comes first, the chicken or the egg, perhaps the peace process can finally get the needed period of incubation, and can give birth to a new era in the Middle East.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel: The first key to success, in my view, will be to ‘start from the endpoint’ — in other words, to begin with the blueprint of the settlement, and then work backwards towards the details of implementation. As the International Crisis Group statement suggested, this could be the focus of “a new international conference, at which all the elements of a comprehensive peace agreement would be mapped, and momentum generated for detailed negotiations.”

There are two reasons to start from the endpoint and work backwards. First, because there is already a great deal of agreement on what that blueprint would look like; agreement is not far away. Second, once the blueprint is clearly in place, highlighting the benefits to all parties — the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, so to speak — it should draw attention away from contentious issues, and provide incentives for mutual accommodation.

Steady commitment: The second key condition is steady commitment by all parties. To date, a key failure has been the tendency of the international community to work on this issue by fits and starts. This must change. The resolution of this conflict is too urgent, its impact too important, to allow it to be sidetracked by changes in leadership, or to be derailed by intervening violence. By allowing the process to be sidetracked or derailed, we only further ‘arm the hardliners’.

As we know from other cases, such as Northern Ireland, successful negotiation in the cause of peace requires the investment of considerable time and influence. The peoples of the Middle East must develop the needed trust in the process. For that to happen, they must regain faith that the outside world cares and is ready to give peace in their region the sustained support and engagement it deserves. This investment will result in ‘arming the moderates’.

The Security Dimension: In parallel with the dialogue on the peace process, there should be a dialogue on regional security. This discussion should cover the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, limitations on conventional weapons, and an array of confidence building measures. These security dimensions have yet to be fully discussed as part of the peace process; however, they are essential to undergird peace in a region that has been beset for over 100 years by wars, hatred and suffering.

Dialogue Among All Parties Involved: Another important condition is that all parties with a stake in the solution be engaged in a dialogue. Much of the process will involve changing the mindset on both sides away from stereotyping and past grievances towards mutual acceptance and future cooperation. For this mindset to change, dialogue must be seen as the only alternative — dialogue conducted on the basis of mutual respect.

It is time to move away from thinking of dialogue as a reward for good behaviour —and to recognize it instead as an essential tool for effecting such behaviour.

True peace requires dialogue and interaction between peoples, to enable them to know, understand and accept one another. The peoples of the Middle East are nearly all the children of Abraham — distant cousins, if you like — estranged by decades of retribution. Here we have suffered from a more fundamental Catch-22: the less we interact, the more we believe in negative stereotypes; and the more we believe in negative stereotypes, the less we interact. Ironically, deep in our hearts, we all know that we share the same core values: the desire to have a chance to live with our families in peace, freedom and dignity.

But these shared values will only emerge through interaction. The political framework must certainly be settled; but in the end, it is normal human interaction that will become the basis for an enduring peace.

The Religious Aspect: Finally, I think it is important to mention the religious overtones that at times enter the debate over a Middle East solution. Christians, Jews and Muslims all have sites in the ‘holy land’ that are considered sacred. Like any other aspect of cultural diversity, these religions should be treated with mutual deference.

However, the effort by some parties to inject a religious dimension into the Israeli–Palestinian issue should be resisted, by all means — because policies rooted in religious beliefs leave no room for compromise.


Nearly 30 years ago, President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem was a leap of faith to shatter deeply entrenched psychological barriers of fear, distrust and rejection. His achievement of peace with Israel proved that peace in the Middle East could be realized, no matter how difficult. Unfortunately, the circumstances at that time did not lend themselves to the fulfillment of Sadat’s wider vision.

May we have the courage, wisdom and determination to achieve President Sadat’s dream for a just and lasting peace in our troubled region.

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