Putting the Human back into Security – Part I

Security, not unlike globalization or development, is a very, very big idea.

To talk about about it in any meaningful way, you need to know where to  begin, and what to focus on.

In terms of security, might that be:

National, or international?

Common, or cooperative?

Collective, or individual?




And what of any one of the welter of other, non-traditional security possibilities, ranging from environmental, to resource, to economic, to …?

I set out this catalogue  to illustrate a recurrent point in the discussion 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 in the case when speaking of security, where it is crucial to be specific. Nations resort to violence, and sometimes go to war over perceived threats to security.  When security is thought to be in jepoardy, 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, therefore, it is 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, and 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 an earlier post.  In the case of security, however, I believe that kind of enterprise is unnecessary. The concept of human security provides most of the elements needed to understand the pre-requisites of peace and preosperity in the globalization age. Moreover,  it the widespread absence of human security – and the concommitant presence of fear, want and exploitation and suffering – which in my view lies at the root of much of the instablity and conflict around us.

Security is critical to diplomacy because most diplomats work for states, and the highest calling of the state – roughly speaking, the apparatus of national government –  is to ensure the security of the citizenry.

That is, the population.

In other words, humans.

That would be – us.

Human security puts people first. As an objective, it involves the pursuit of demonstable rights and freedoms, subscription to the rule of law, and the existance of the kind of fundamental human dignity which is sustained and nurtured by met 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 nonetheless 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 nineties, 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 continues. On balance, though, human security as an operative policy tool is now at most a faint shadow of its former self.

What happened?

Therein lies a tale. In broaching those issues, I hope that readers will come to understand why I tried to avoid excessive reference to the term human security in my volume on guerrilla diplomacy, notwithstanding my belief that it remains the concept best suited to understanding the complex political dynamics which prevail in the world today.

A more detailed deconstruction of that paradox comes next.