The Key Drivers of Human Security Discourse and the Challenge to Realism

By Stephen James
Cornell International Affairs Review
2011, Vol. 4 No. 2 | pg. 1/2 |

Recently, earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and New Zealand, mudslides in Brazil, a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the fallout from the fiscal crisis in Greece, and refugee flows out of Libya have highlighted the continued relevance of non-traditional threats to state and non-state security, and of human security as a lens through which to understand them better. In March 2010, even a former head of the Australian army, Peter Leahy, while criticizing the Australian government's defence spending, described the world as a friend of human security might:

We've also seen the changing nature of threats, from territory and sovereignty to terrorism, transnational criminals, [and] cyber-warfare. We've still yet to figure it out, but food, water and energy shortages, climate change, pandemics, mass migration, how do we live and deal with that sort of stuff? We also have to deal with failed and failing states. We've intervened in a number of states in our region and there's an expectation that we should … We need to have a very close look at the most effective tools to use in this new security environment, and my view would be that one of those things is let's have a look at high-end equipment being procured for the least likely defence eventuality.1

Thus, like the rich landscape of contemporary human rights discourse, the world of human security is signposted with many of the leading issues in international affairs, including not just the traditional ones of nuclear weapons and arms control, but also drug and human trafficking, pandemics and health security, climate change and environmental security, population movements, food and water security, poverty and homelessness, genocide, and violence against women and gays.2

Just as interesting, though not fully explored in this article, has been the way in which the discourse of human security has elicited spirited responses from members of most of the main schools of International Relations (IR) and security theory, including realists, liberals, cosmopolitans, feminists, constructivists and critical theorists.3

This short article is drawn from a larger research project exploring the origins of human security discourse, its theory and practice, and its meaning and utility for governments, international and regional organizations, the third sector and civil society. The project also investigates the extent to which human security has been institutionalized and operationalized at various levels of governance. It is funded by an Australian Research Council Linkage Learned Academies Special Projects grant with the support of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia), and other partners.

In particular, the project explores the meaning and utility of human security as a response to non-traditional threats to states and human beings—threats that have arisen, and become more visible to, scholars and policy-makers monitoring a globalizing and interdependent world.

My research as part of this project relies primarily on political science and IR literature to explore the main drivers (the subject of this article), precursors and concepts of human security. I am especially interested in the tense "dialectic" between national and human security,4 its overlapping connection with the responsibility to protect (R2P) principle and the ways in which it straddles thinking about peace, development, welfare, human rights and human well-being.

What is human security?

Influenced by the capabilities approach of the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen—including its focus on the fundamental importance of freedom to human fulfilment, autonomy and the satisfaction of the full range of basic needs— the Commission on Human Security (CHS), in its impressive report in 2003, defined human security in the following terms:

Human security is concerned with safeguarding and expanding people's vital freedoms. It requires both shielding people from acute threats and empowering people to take charge of their own lives … Human security complements state security, enhances human rights and strengthens human development … It means protecting people from critical (severe) and pervasive (widespread) threats and institutions.5

The CHS synthesizes the themes of freedom from fear and want pervasive in UN discourse and emphasizes that human security is "people-centred," and must respond to a wide range of "menaces" by making use of many different actors beyond the nation-state. The CHS's report is notable for distinguishing (the nevertheless overlapping) phenomena of human security and human development on the basis that the former is more concerned with "downturn with security" while the latter involves "expansion with equity." This distinction accentuates that any effective human security strategy must protect individuals in crisis.

The CHS takes a broad approach to human security, examining not only conflict prevention, the protection of civilians (and particularly women, children and those with disabilities) in wartime, disarmament, demobilization and post-conflict reconstruction, but also personal violence and other crime, economic and health security, the needs of refugees, the vulnerability of internally displaced persons and migrants, the importance of public welfare systems ("social protection") and the pivotal role of education. The CHS also begins to connect human security with the norms of R2P, a version of humanitarian intervention. This is evident in the CHS's exploration of what infrastructure, resources and governance states need in order to secure their citizens; that is, to be successful rather than "failed" states. It is also reflected in the CHS's endorsement of what has surely become a governing principle of the UN: the conditional nature of state sovereignty.6

The key drivers of human security discourse

Among the key stimulants for the development of the concept of human security are the long-running processes of globalization and interdependence that have affected conceptions of the state, warfare and military defence (to put it crudely), economy and technology, the natural environment, culture and identity, and global and regional governance. While globalization was not born in the 1980s, when it became a popular term in IR theory—in other words, globalization has a history of several decades at the very least— over the last few decades the evidence of the uneven acceleration, magnification, dispersal and interaction of the effects of globalization on the security of states and human beings has undermined the plausibility of traditional realist notions of security.

The combination of these empirical developments, together with new theoretical perceptions, provided the setting for the emergence of ideas of human security. For it was not only the existence of the phenomena of globalization and interdependence that mattered, but the capacity to see them, and to recognize them as significant, that was crucial. Realists have been blind to enduring threats to security that do not fit within its paradigm: for example, genocide and other human rights violations, poverty and food riots, authoritarianism, violence towards women and racial discrimination.7

Map of countries affected by current World Financial Crisis. The darkest shaded nations experienced the worst degree of recession.

Map of countries affected by current World Financial Crisis. The darkest shaded nations experienced the worst degree of recession.

As Joseph Camilleri has argued,8 it is not only the armed attack of one nation-state upon another, using organized military forces, that can cause physical and psychological insecurity for human beings and undermine states.

Proponents of human security argue that threats come from a diverse range of sources and actors, that there is a wide variety of possible responses by many different actors to those threats, and that the fundamental purpose of those responses is to secure human beings, not the state. The rationale for human security embodies a number of claims:

  • Internal sources of insecurity for people and states are as important as external ones.
  • The aspects of people's and states' security that can be threatened are complex and multidimensional: they can be objective (for example, environmental integrity, life and limb, nutrition and health), subjective (for example, emotional well-being, economic confidence, perceptions of government legitimacy) or a combination of the two.
  • There is a wide variety of military and nonmilitary threats to the security of human beings and states. These threatening forces involve diverse agents and causes, including non-state (or "transnational"9) actors interacting with national, international, global, regional and local developments in, for example, economic, environmental, political, cultural and technological fields.
  • Insecurities are dynamic and interactive (for example, political repression may increase the likelihood of famine; economic insecurity can undermine health; global warming can produce climate change refugees; population flows can contribute to economic insecurity, environmental degradation, violent conflict and disease).
  • The state can not only enhance security (for example, by national defence, provision of public goods, legal regulation, opportunities for political participation) but also be a major threat to it (for instance, by killing, torturing and imprisoning people, by coercive programs of economic modernization, by provoking war with other states, and by corrupt administration).
  • Even states with the best of intentions have limited capacities to provide security for their citizens, other human beings or even their state (for example, structural adjustment conditions might reduce the capacity of a state to provide for healthcare; a state might be unable to combat a regional or global financial crisis; a state will often be ill-equipped to deal with global, borderless, threats to its natural environment).

Human security and the challenge to realism

How do globalization and interdependence—evident in relation to the state, war and defence, economy, technology, environment, identity and culture, and global and regional governance — render realist claims empirically dubious and normatively undesirable? First, there is ambiguity about whether the term "state" means the government, nation or nationstate.10 Globalization has been joined by fragmentation as, for instance, ethno-nations trapped within the borders of a nation-state seek independence or at least autonomy.

Second, the realist assumption of the state's monopoly on the loyalty of its residents, and even citizens, based on a homogeneous nationalism is usually falsified by competing local, tribal, ethno-nationalist, multicultural, religious, cultural and transnational identities. Moreover, these alternative identities are facilitated by porous borders through (or outside of) which various cultural influences flow, aided by television, radio, the internet and YouTube.

Third, the realist approach overestimates the ability of states to solve national, let alone global, problems. Finally, the realist approach neglects how states work with and have their sovereignty constrained (and sometimes enhanced) by various non-state agents such as International Governmental Organizations (IGOs), NGOs, International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs), social movements and other individuals and collectivities.11

The effects of globalization on the security of states and human beings have undermined the plausibility of traditional realist notions of security.

Peter Willetts has pointed out that while there are around two hundred governments in the world, there are more than seventy thousand transnational corporations (TNCs), roughly ten thousand national NGOs and more than seven thousand INGOs. He concludes that these numbers suggest that policies and decisions are made by various transnational actors within "complex systems" that are much richer than the interstate world that realists assume.12

Likewise, Scholte, Camilleri and Slaughter have identified the constraints and opportunities that the bewildering range of global, supranational, transnational, international and regional organizations, institutions and regimes present to nation-states. These systems can positively or adversely affect and respond to the requirements of human security in all its complexity. They provide opportunities for advocacy, cooperation, coordination, confidence-building,regulation, harmonizaton, and subsidiarity, the pooling of sovereignty and the adjudication and enforcement of sanctions.13 In this "complex multilateralism" (one augmented by emerging multipolar configurations: for example, the consolidation of the European Union, the rise of China and India) states become, in Slaughter's words, "overlaid by non-state actors."14

In relation to two of the preoccupations of realism, military defence and warfare, it is clear that the security of human beings and states can be threatened by a state's preparation for war. A state's efforts to enhance its national security by preparing for war can undermine human security due to the distortion of the economy: what might be called a war deficit (spending on military hardware, for example) takes resources away from satisfying vital human needs like food, housing and health.

The preparation for war often involves coercion, restriction of civil liberties, and economic adversity. Also, the security of states and human beings can be undermined as much by internal threats (for example, civil wars, ethnic cleansing, secessionist conflicts, riots, coups d'état, revolutions, and sectarian battles) as by external ones. These threats also demonstrate that there is no necessary correlation between a state's clear and well-defended external borders and societal security (Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and South Africa are good examples).15

United States soldiers build a security fence in Muehla, Iraq.

United States soldiers build a security fence in Muehla, Iraq.

Security for a state or nation does not mean security for (all) its inhabitants: poverty, persecution, repression, and disease may remain endemic within it. But states have a reduced capacity even to defend their external borders given the proliferation of extremely destructive conventional arms, as well as nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The risks associated with these weapons are increased by the possibility that they will be used accidentally, without state authority, or cause harm while being transported, stored or dumped. Defensive territoriality and sovereignty are also eroded by the location of foreign military bases on state soil, as military autonomy is constrained through joint military exercises, shared intelligence, coordinated strategies and command structures.

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