Not long ago, the concept of “security” had a humanistic bent. It was far more useful that way.
National, or international security? Common, or cooperative? Collective, or individual? State? Personal? Homeland? And what of any one of the welter of other, non-traditional security possibilities, ranging from environmental, to resource, to economic?
I set out this catalogue to illustrate a point, one that is recurrent in discussions of international relations and global issues: the effective confrontation of these sprawling topics requires precise descriptive language. Finding that language, however, can be almost as difficult as identifying possible remedies. Our vocabulary has not kept pace, and that may help to explain why the accurate diagnosis of the world’s many afflictions remains so elusive.
This is particularly true when speaking of security. It is crucial to be specific. Nations resort to violence and go to war over perceived threats to security; when it is thought to be in jeopardy, diplomacy quickly comes to be seen as appeasement and is consigned to the margins. Generals and admirals come to the fore. Fighting trumps talking.
Whenever the the notion of security is invoked, it is therefore absolutely essential to be concrete, to know what is seen to be at risk or under threat. Yet this is rarely the case. In fact, “security” is probably one of the most over-used, abused terms in the lexicon of international relations.
I have written elsewhere of the acute need for new analytical tools, and have tried to come up with a few of my own, such as the ACTE world order model outlined in this blog post. But where security is concerned I believe that kind of enterprise is unnecessary. What is necessary is a change of emphasis: from plain security to human security, a concept that provides most of the elements necessary for understanding security as required for peace and prosperity in a globalized age.
Human security puts people first. As an objective, it involves the pursuit of demonstrable rights and freedoms, subscription to the rule of law, and the existence of the kind of fundamental human dignity that is sustained and nurtured by meeting needs. This goal seems to me unassailable, both morally and practically, and commitment to attaining it carries significant implications across the board, not least in terms of our thinking about development.
Why, then, have we heard so little of the profoundly people-centric notion of human security in recent years? Never very popular with great powers, human security once provided the foreign policy lens, if not grand strategy, favoured by a number of middle and smaller powers. In the second half of the ’90s, the doctrine was championed by Canada, and became the core principle animating a string of initiatives: the land mine ban, International Criminal Court, blood diamonds, children in conflict, small arms control, and the Responsibility to Protect, which seeks to provide a political and legal framework for humanitarian intervention.
Since about the turn of the century, however, human security has been largely exiled from the mainstream discourse. With a few notable exceptions, it lives on mainly in academic circles, international organizations, and in the NGO community. Yes, the Human Security Network still exists, although that institution appears to be on life support; there is still a Human Security Gateway on the internet, and human security reporting and analysis.
On balance, though, human security as an operative policy tool is now at most a faint shadow of its former self – an unfortunate fact, since perhaps no other concept is better suited to understanding the complex political dynamics that prevail in the world today.