Human security


in Bombs and rockets, Daily updates, Politics

Keble College

This evening, I have been thinking about ‘human security.’ This is the idea – very hot right now in international policy circles – that the object of security should be the individual, rather than states (which are arbitrary) or governments (which can be selfish or non-representative). “Protect the Human,” as the Amnesty International campaign asserts. Given the atrocities committed against individuals in the quest to assert higher ideals, a moral system based around preventing such abuses has intuitive appeal.

What I am wondering about is the basis upon which the claim can be made that human security is the important sort. There is the possibility that the realities of human life make human security a valid perspective in a deep way that transcends trends in thinking and the present character of the international system. At the other extreme is the idea that this is just a concept cooked up in some reports and boardrooms that is being applied universally by those groups who have accepted it, despite it not having any fundamental validity. The third and most sensible possibility is that the idea of human security has emerged as the product of a lengthy deliberation among states.

That said, the state consensus view has problems of its own. In particular, the manner in which transgressors are dealt with becomes important. When African states and regional organizations fail to condemn Zimbabwe and Sudan for egregious violations of human rights, are they doing so because the think continued integration is the best way to forward a human security ideal they have already internalized (this would be akin to the supposed ‘sunshine policy’ of South Korea in dealing with the North), or do they remain wary of outside impositions, having been at the sharp end of too many in the past?

The present American administration has, in some ways, made this whole debate more difficult. On the one hand, they assert certain moral values as though they have absolute validity: democracy is good, tyranny is evil. At the same time, they are willing to compromise on fundamental moral questions, ostensibly to serve higher ends. Guantanamo Bay is one embodiment of this attitude. To champion both moral absolutes and a huge level of moral flexibility is enormously problematic. Taking a universal stance and then acting in a way that seems hypocritical leads people to question whether there are moral truths with a strong claim to validity. It also profoundly diminishes the ability to that particular moral actor to act as a model to others, or exert moral pressure. Arguably, situations like the inaction of the international community tars all other states that champion a human security agenda with a similar brush.

One of the more stirring things Michael Ignatieff ever wrote relates to just this issue of universal assertions and hypocritical failures to act:

The liberal virtues – tolerance, compromise, reason – remain as valuable as ever, but they cannot be preached by those who are mad with fear or mad with vengeance. In any case, preaching always rings hollow. We must be prepared to defend them by force, and the failures of the sated, cosmopolitan nations to do so has left the hungry nations sick with contempt for us.

That possibility – that the states of the developing world reject ‘human security’ and similar concepts because of the manifest lack of commitment from the developing world – is another potential solution to the puzzle of the status of such concepts in the world today.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon January 5, 2007 at 9:32 am

Have a look at:

Paris, Roland (2001): Human Security – Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? In: International Security, Vol. 26, No. 2

Antonia January 5, 2007 at 2:28 pm

Looks interesting, however I’m experiencing an ‘out-of-brain, full-of-cold’ problem, so I’ll try to read your thoughts when I can give them proper attention.

Hope all is going well with the other writing.

Lee January 6, 2007 at 9:28 am

See also Tara McCormack’s critique in C J Bickerton, P Cunliffe & A Gourevitch (eds.) Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (Routledge: London 2006). Chris Bickerton’s chapter on ‘Statebuilding: Exporting Failed States’ will also be interesting for your ruminations on state failure. I think you are right to be sceptical of both concepts.

Anon June 10, 2007 at 2:29 pm

“There are, of course, no human rights. Not only is it not self-evident that men are born free and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; these are propositions for which there is no foundation whatever.”

Hedley Bull

Martin Luther King Jr December 7, 2007 at 8:21 pm

Martin Luther King Jr.

“It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”

. June 13, 2008 at 11:17 am

And in the end, this is the fight between the majority and the dissent: Kennedy and the justices who signed his opinion (David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) are worried about the very real risk of a lifetime of mistaken imprisonment. And the dissenters (Scalia, Roberts, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito) are worried about the risk of … what? Not an actual mistaken release, but a day in court. The big threat here is of federal court review that may—somewhere far down the line, and at the moment entirely hypothetically—result in the release of a detainee or (more attenuated still) the disclosure of a piece of hypothetical information that could help the terrorists in their fight against us.

Six years of no trials, in the eyes of the dissenters, is more than justifiable in the hopes of dozens more years of no trials. And it’s precisely that sense of time passing without consequence that so infuriates the majority. Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Souter each observe in their opinions today that the passage of so many years while detainees waited and watched was preposterous. This is not some demented Supreme Court prematurely racing into a war zone with morning breath, uncombed hair, and misguided good intentions. This is a deliberative Supreme Court saying that it’s been standing by for six long years. That’s how long it’s been since the Bush administration started doing battle with the federal courts alongside its battle against the enemy.

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