Which human security?

There exist in fact a range of useful definitions, some of which are deployed by governments already, that could serve a far greater number of vulnerable human beings. A more rounded application of human security would have identified the international system as a domain that needs to be rendered ‘safe’.
David Roberts
10 January 2011

Mary Kaldor and Shannon Beebe have recently published a book challenging the existing paradigm of western security, which they argue is outdated and irrelevant in dealing with global insecurity. Professor Paul Rogers writes that ‘there is an urgent need for the kind of analysis [this book] provides.’ He adds that ‘if prophecy is indeed “suggesting the possible” then this book is a much-needed example’. Most of the central claims of the book, however, aren’t new; various academics have in the past pointed to the mismatch between what threatens people and what governments do about this. Moreover, recognising that the pragmatism of this approach might be seen by some as “a recipe for western military intervention to secure hegemonic policy objectives” – Rogers nevertheless sets this concern to one side. He finds the ideas worth pursuing: I can’t fully concur.

Kaldor and Beebe’s book is premised on the notion that there is a huge and counter-productive gap between what governments spend their tax revenue on to prevent insecurity, and what makes people insecure. They are dead right. One might say it’s like fiddling while Rome burns, to buy new aircraft carriers that we can’t afford to put aircraft on, in order to ensure that we can deal with imagined trouble around the world, when the existential threats we face presently involve another flu epidemic. Similarly, think of the mismatch between renewing nuclear submarine fleets to face almost incredible threats when the UK has the worst rates of child poverty in Europe.

This is valuable. It rejects the stentorian academic notion that security is objective. It clearly is not. Security and insecurity are rational emotions – we say that we feel secure or insecure - a counter-intuitive concept for many conservative security thinkers. What made Europeans insecure in the Cold War is not what mainly makes them feel so presently; and what threatens Europeans presently is rarely what threatens people in the global South. The current agenda is committed to securing people in the South in order to protect people in the North, since most threats to the latter are deemed to come from the former. The human security idea places humans, not states, front and centre. Put simply, it concerns what we as people feel threatened by, rather than what our governments decide to protect us from.

But human security means different things to different people. To these authors, it means ‘physical threats’ in ‘conflict zones’ (p.109), and is familiar to us from TV screenings from the Congo, Sudan and so on. Regular people are exposed to armed violence and physical deprivation in such settings, and it is these that Kaldor and Beebe are primarily concerned to secure. They maintain that current security thinking separates civilian and military responses to such crises, and argue against the prevailing flow that a synthesis of reformed military and more mobile civilian experts is better placed to deal with these challenges. They propose ‘engagement brigades’ under civilian jurisdiction.

According to the writers, ‘the human-security officer is a new type of hero with a mandate to help humanity’. The concept is partly, the authors write, a response to Condoleezza Rice’s famous rebuttal that the 82nd Airborne (US Special Forces) shouldn’t be used to escort kids to kindergarten. Kaldor and Beebe’s response is, ‘why not?’ What could be better than using elite troops to protect the most vulnerable of our species from hideous atrocities in the most unstable places on Earth?

I like the idea a lot in principal, especially as it chimes well with a notion of care and profound camaraderie that is deeply embedded in the military. Despite its hypermasculine image, soldiers are trained from the outset to look out for their buddies, visible in the extreme lengths gone to to protect their own from the enemy. Soldiers often give their lives for their fellow-combatants. There is no reason why such a notion could not be extended to vulnerable civilians, if the mandate was granted and institutional reform internalized. Role transformation and extension is not unfamiliar to the military, even if it causes internal fault lines to appear.

Meanwhile, the authors believe that such engagement brigades could deal with some of the most pressing problems of human security. One example they foreground is a programmable machine that builds an exhaustive range of buildings out of metal, with only limited needs for labour. Engagement brigades are the centrepiece of this work: trained militaries working hand-in-hand with expert civilians to protect vulnerable civilians from armed violence and render them secure from the most basic socio-economic threats they face.

It looks and sounds like a good idea. But is it? Yes, and no. If the interventions Kaldor and Beebe imagine were properly tuned to urgent local need, benefits may accrue. This is fine as long as the power the military wields is constrained, so that it does not spend its time securing western ‘hegemonic power objectives’ in a way that sanctions more Al-Qaeda-style conflicts with the west.  In a sense, such morphing has been under way for two decades; the idea of peacekeepers being no more than holders of the thin blue line having been replaced by the demands on the new peacekeeping in places like Cambodia, Angola and so on. But buried in this imagining of human security, in worrying isolation from pre-existing challenges, are a series of problems that need considering carefully.

For instance, the authors declare that ‘until the West stops trying to impose what we feel is right for African security and begins listening to what Africans say is relevant, we will never be able to contribute in a positive way …’. Some readers might reasonably assume that this statement offers new insight, especially since it does not refer to any other body of knowledge. They would be wrong. African people’s needs have found ample expression over the last 60 years in a range of literatures and media, but have not been listened to in the security disciplines that inform public policy because they were not important enough. And the notion that postconflict peacebuilding should serve basic needs rather than liberal institution-building has also appeared before. In the end, while the concept of the engagement brigades appears new, there is little of the remainder of this work that deserves this epithet.

This tendency of neglecting existing, important contributions to security debates persists in the authors’ claims that there are no reasonable definitions of a broader form of human security than the one they advance. There exist in fact a range of useful definitions, some of which are deployed by governments already, that could serve a far greater number of vulnerable human beings.  Take the ‘threshold concept’ elaborated by Taylor Owen as an alternative to traditional national security narratives. This kind of imagining does not appear in Kaldor and Beebe’s approach because of what it reveals about the nature and location of power in the international system, and the role of liberal hegemony in perpetuating the economic asymmetries that condemn millions of civilians to easily avoidable deaths. Lethal impoverishment or gendered violence, for example, are dismissed as untreatable (p108-111), when there is no effect without cause. This work constrains the potential of what human security can mean and do, which, in its broader imagining, is to invert the prevailing dysfunctional conventions that allow millions of people to continue dying from entirely preventable causes – as esteemed journals like The Lancet and the British Medical Journal, amongst a raft of other works, have pointed out. Given the promotional energy behind work and its accessibility, this is an unwelcome outcome, tempered by the hope that it might make some policymakers actually think about deploying some adjusted version of human security in the field.

This leads me to a third criticism. In excluding the broader imaginings of human security and their causes, the authors fall into the very conundrum they identify at the outset of their book. In the same way that government policy is mismatched to public needs, ‘engagement brigades’ are mismatched to the breadth and root causes of human insecurity. They are sticking plasters on severed limbs that conveniently exclude from the equation the role of the international financial system in the perpetuation of structural inequality. There is no doubt that many people in the places the authors identify would benefit from a constabulary that hobbles crooks; but millions more need a rule of law that ensures their most fundamental right – to life and water, food and shelter. Instead, this Sisyphean endeavour offers unending treatment with no cure in sight and with it, a justification for staying in the global south until ‘the moving feast of strategic threats that liberal order is constantly menaced by’ have been subdued.

A more rounded application of human security would have identified the international system as a domain that needs to be rendered ‘safe’, so that farmers in Africa (for example) can sell produce to Europe competitively and make enough money for life-saving hand soap (to minimize millions of diarrhea-related deaths ), water and food, instead of having the competitiveness of their goods undercut by the Common Agriculture Policy and innumerable other ‘legitimate’ protectionist rackets that keep Africans and Others poor and insecure in perpetuity. The authors could at the very least have acknowledged such well documented structural inhibitors of human security, pointing us back to a core problem of the work, which is its disinclination to acknowledge that the basic ideas underpinning it have been examined before and found lacking.

Perhaps the best outcome would be a synthesis, whereby a carefully-constrained reformed role for the military, under the supervision of civilians, could co-exist with a recalibration of international institutions and practices to reduce the causes of human insecurity – rather than just tinkering with the effects. 


Further reading:

Black, M (2008) ‘We Need To Talk About… Toilets’ New Internationalist 414.

Black, R. (2003) ‘Where and why are 10 million children dying every year?’ The Lancet, 361(9376), pp.2226–34

Gordon, D. (2007) ‘Poverty, death and disease’, in P. Hillyard, C. Pantazis, S. Tombs and D. Gordon, Beyond Criminology: Taking harms seriously, London: Pluto, pp. 251–66

Jones, G. (2003) ‘How Many Child Deaths Can We Prevent This Year?’ The Lancet, 362(9377): pp65–71.

Mackenbach, J. (2007) ‘Sanitation: pragmatism works’, British Medical Journal, 334(7) pp.1–3

Piachaud, J. (2008) ‘Global Health and Human Security’, Medicine, Conflict and Survival 23, pp. 1–4.

Roberts, D (2010) Global Governance and Biopolitics: Regulating Human Security. London: Zed

Sen, A (2009) The Idea of Justice. London: Allen Lane, 2009


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