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.