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Human Security

by Elmar Altvater Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005 at 6:47 AM

Attention must now shift from security of the state to security of the people-human security The UNDP sees expansion of the security concept as a step to more peace and more prosperity and sets human security in the context of human development and hu rights.


By Elmar Altvater

[These theses presented at the Feminist Institute of the HBS, October 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]


1. Human security means freedom from fear and freedom from want. “Being perfectly happy” is the idea developed by the UN Development Program. The daily threats through sicknesses, hunger, unemployment, crimes, social conflicts, political repression and environmental damages should end (UNDP 1994). The "Commission on Global Governance" also identified these as challenges for the necessary new “global governance” (Neighbors in One World, 1995). The end of block confrontation doubtlessly brought to light new dimensions of threatened human security.

The areas in which human security are directly threatened at the beginning of the 21st century can be easily identified. First, environmental security involves the availability of vital resources like clean air, fruitful soil and clean water. Food security is closely related, the avoidance of hunger and the avoidance of food-conditioned health dangers (“food safety”). Socio-economic security is put in question in all its different facets. Unemployment increases as a consequence of a worldwide repression competition. Precarious labor grows in the shady realm of informality. The important connection of paid labor and social security is loosened for the sake of personally responsible lifestyles. This goes along with a deficient insurance for life risks like sickness, accidents, old age and unemployment and an assured access to education possibilities. There are many reasons for this. The stability-oriented structural adjustment measures of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are very important in the countries of the South and East and the ruinous global tax competition (and the inevitable fiscal crisis of states and communes) in the North and West. Both increase public poverty and promote the tendency to privatizing public services. Finally, the political insecurity in many countries has also clearly increased through armed conflicts involving transnational actors and through financial instabilities sparked and accompanied by currency speculation, capital flight, legal and illegal tax evasion and widespread small-scale and large-scale corruption. In one combination or another, these uncertainties insure that people must seek alternative sources for essential goods and services. In this search, they easily fall into the shady realm of informal activities, illegality and criminality or leave their home and fight their way through life as refugees and migrants.

2. The security idea of the UNDP oriented in human needs more than in the security of nation states has a universal claim. The state is still the decisive guarantor of security. However according to the report of the UN “Commission on Human Security”, “the state often fails to fulfill its security obligations – and at times has even been a source of threat to its own people. Therefore attention must now shift from the security of the state to security of the people – to human security” (Commission on Human Security, 2003). The UNDP sees expansion of the security concept as a step to more peace and more prosperity and explicitly sets the concept of human security in the context of human development and human rights. The triangle of human development – human security – human rights is the field on which globalization can be organized through the provision of public goods.

3. This triangle is not one-dimensional but crosses different planes of interpretation. Human rights are universal and can neither be revoked nor relativized. On the other hand, human security can be produced in different ways under different historical, cultural and economic conditions. Even if human rights include social rights, they do not grasp all the dimensions of human security endangered by uncertainties in the course of global transformations: social security, environmental security, health security etc. Thus the concept of human security is “offshore” to a certain extent to the concept of human rights. The loss of human security can lead to violation of human rights.

4. Human security arises in different ways

(1) Through reliable rules in a community,

(2) Through avoiding instabilities and restoring stable conditions when they have been destabilized – as in financial crises -.

(3) Through “basic provisions” in those passages of human life where individuals or families cannot provide out of their own resources for education and training, preservation or restoration of health provisions for old age or for food, lodging, water supply and sewage disposal and

(4) Through access to all those goods essential for human existence.

In short, human security is guaranteed through the provision of public goods. As a result, the discourse on human security cannot be separated from the discourse on public goods.

5. “Human security” in a society structured by social oppositions does not mean the same thing for all people. Several discussions or concepts can be distinguished in the present security debate. This debate includes: (1) the political-economic debate around the classical security concept in international relations, (2) the expanded security term of military organizations (for example, the German army or NATO), (3) the traditional focus on “corporate” or “commercial” security, (4) the normative term “human security” as discussed by the UNDP includes the political-development debate on the relations between “human rights”, human development” and “human security” and (5) the debate within the International Labor Organization around the socio-economic security in the world of work.

6.1 In the classical (neo-) realistic understanding of international relations, security meant the absence of internal and external threats to territorial structures (nation states) in an anarchistic world of states. The members of a society merge, so to speak, in a unity of “national interest” behind the real or contrived danger to the state. The focus was almost exclusively on the state as an actor and on the balance of rival powers in a (until recently) bipolar world. Even if the (neo) realistic conception of security was strongly modified after the end of the Cold War – on account of critical approaches of neo-Gramscianism, feminism and constructivism -, the nation state and the “pluri-verse” of nation states are still loyal to “methodological nationalism” (Smith 1979). This (neo) realistic security concept also implies security of framing conditions for capital investments of global economic actors and thus follows the goal of commercial security.

Ad 2. The hope that peacemaking answers to non-military problems could be found in the future was connected with the end of block confrontation at the end of the 1980s. The opposite has become reality. In the last decade, the number of armed conflicts has risen. The peace dividend expected in 1989 that could have improved the social balance in the world did not occur. Rather the security concept of NATO formally expanded in April 1999 reinterpreted the North-South conflict as a “global security problem”. This term is applied to many non-military dangers, to environmental catastrophes, organized crime, drug trade, terrorism, illegal encroachments on the Internet and poverty-conditioned deficiency-symptoms. These are identified as threats to the security and stability of the western world of states and should now be kept “at a distance”. Financial, economic and political-development measures are offered along with military means helpful to “our own interests”. This concept also includes “resource interests” that assure the prosperity in industrial countries, that is raw materials like oil, gas, diamonds (and other so-called “strategic raw materials”), vital elements like water and securing sea routes for goods important to political security.

From the view of the political-military security discourse, the we3akening of nation states means firstly that wars are de-nationalized and distinctions between peoples, armies and states are blurred, secondly that stable alliances are more difficult and thirdly that the use of military power does not prove effective in many cases. For this reason, a new “development-security-complex” is formed in which “governance networks” of non-governmental actors assume the tasks of conflict resolution.

Violence today is increasingly privatized violence exercised by non-governmental actors who cannot be impressed with traditional means of “deterrence”. Nevertheless governmental actors react very conventionally to this new phenomenon of non-governmental terror. On one hand, they rely on military responses to other states and ultimately – as in those “new wars” described by Mary Kaldor (1999) – toward the population of countries suspected of granting shelter to these private actors. On the other hand, democratic rights of freedom are restricted in war-making countries. It is suggested that the security of the population can be guaranteed by intensifying control, surveillance and punishment. To protect its own population, “emerging threats” should be averted through “military prevention” and “defensive intervention”.

Ad 3: In the neoliberal understanding, “order” should provide security and reliability for business- and consumer decisions. But whether “corporate security” is always congruent with “human security” may be questioned. Adam Smith saw the purpose of “public works and public institutions” in “facilitating the trade and change of society”. Embassies abroad are necessary for promoting British foreign trade and supporting British trading companies. This is in effect for the “civilized world”. The establishment of military “forts” is envisioned for “barbaric” nations to support British “commerce”.

Ad 4: The concept of human security is a clear counter-concept. The term focuses (1) on the everyday uncertainty of people resulting from the interplay of different dimensions of insecurity, flowing for example from the cumulative deficits in environmental- and food security. Measures to produce military security tend to undermine all other foundations of human security. “The fundamental problems of security in the insecurity experienced by individual persons, their search for more secure life situations, their personal initiatives and their right to expect states and other public institutions to care for their “quotidian” security needs become an integral part of the definition of human security. Otherwise, the judgment on what constitutes human security could be monopolized by external decision-makers who often lack gender sensitivity and concern about groups of people in situations of extreme insecurity.”

Although human security (2) must be guaranteed for all people and communities, special efforts should concentrate on removing the causes of insecurity for the “most vulnerable people”. “The justness of a society should be measured by how it cares for the vulnerable. The security of society is dependent in the long run on making security possible for the vulnerable.” This may not be understood as a paternalistic public function but as a self-confident act of “empowerment” in social conflicts. The identification of constellations of human insecurity and efforts directed at their removal must (3) be committed to the principle of pluralism. Measures to produce human security cannot be forced through unilateral “humanitarian” pressure and “top-down” methods but require (4) multilateral efforts of individuals, groups and people on one side and mobilization of civil society forces on local, national and international planes on the other side “in full cooperation with the UN which should be strengthened to serve as the institution representing multilateralism par excellence.”

Unlike the state-centered concept of national security that couples masculinity and the role of guardian of the community, women and the family, the concept of human security offers a framework for discussing the everyday security interests and needs of women and advancing their empowerment: security against bodily and sexual incursions, social security and security from human rights violations. “One missing element, however, in human security discussions has been an understanding of the fundamental differences and inequalities between women’s and men’s security. To address gender equality goals and objectives efficiently, five interrelated issues need to be incorporated in the discussion of human security: violence against women and girls, gender inequalities in control of resources, gender inequalities in power and decision-making, women’s human rights and women (and men) as actors, not victims.”

When questions of human security are thematicized from a gender perspective, women appear as important actors in the production of human security. In conflict regions, women are often the only persons not worn down in armed conflicts between the fronts and unlike many children not forcibly recruited and brutalized by war events. Women are entangled less often than men in active or passive corruption and are far more difficult to instrumentalize by extremist forces. In economic crisis situations under the conditions of transnational migration and where the are of terminally ill persons is shifted from the public health system into families (as in countries of southern Africa who suffer under the AIDS-epidemic, the reproduction of society as a whole depends in large part on women securing their own survival and the survival of people dependent on them (children, the sick and seniors) through paid and unpaid labor.

A series of objections are raised against the concept of human security popularized by the UNDP. Critics emphasize that the UNDP

· plays down classic security risks and the important role of nation states;

· blurs the boundary between human security and human development. Clarity can only be gained by limiting the security concept to “freedom from physical, direct force”;

· is in danger of instrumentalizing new legitimation sources for military interventions to protect security (from environmental risks, AIDS, migration etc) through the expansion and pluralization of the understanding of security;

· risks transferring the logic of military thinking to non-military areas with its security concept and promoting an antagonistic worldview through the security discourse in which others are seen as potential threats and an atmosphere of solidarity and peaceful coexistence is undermined;

· artificially inflates the concept of security so it loses analytical meaning. The normative character of the UNDP concept is hardly suited for understanding the new/old risks and implementing claims for protection. If the goal of the Human Development Reports of the UNDP was empowerment and social justice, these claims should be bound to concrete rights. Human rights are already regarded as universal and indivisible.

Is the security concept problematic, as Claudia von Braunmuhl (2002) explained, because it implies protection against others or from others? This argument draws its plausibility from the new role assigned to development cooperation as an instrument of conflict prevention and conflict management. Recourse to an expanded understanding of security can be instrumentalized to legitimate defensive measures against undesired migrants. Claudia von Braunmuhl doubts the soundness of the human security concept. In her opinion, questions of global solidarity and justice are raised much better within the human rights discourse than within the security discourse. The confusion of security and protection has its roots in the ambiguity of the terms security and insecurity in the German language. The term insecurity describes the feelings of uncertainty, unsteadiness and defenselessness. These distinctions disappear in the debates over the ambivalences of an expanded security concept while they have central importance for the analytical usability of the concept of human security. When the emphasis is on uncertainties, the psychosocial dimension of experiences of unsteadiness is highlighted. These experiences follow unknown developments in the future that are bound with different kinds of risks. These experiences need not cohere unconditionally with losses of socio-economic security. However they are usually interwoven with a diffuse and alarming feeling of helplessness. Cultural models of orientation and action that become less important under the pressure of the globalized modern age play a great role. Experiences of unsteadiness are strongly marked by gender and age. Regarding uncertainty in the sense of defenselessness, security can easily be expected from walls, gates and iron bars or from guards, police or other armed peacekeepers. Security would be possible in the inclusive “gated community” against the excluded.

Ad 5: Most dimensions of human security refer more to the third meaning of the security term: social and economic security. Firstly, this security can only be produced through institutions whose order and security function is accepted by the concerned. Secondly, this security involves institutions that must be democratically re-legitimated again and again. Thus social and economic security in the broadest sense is only possible through the constant feedback of institutions guaranteeing that security to the needs and interests of concerned persons.

A growing number of persons are confronted with ever-greater deficits in socio-economic insecurity even where life, health and property are not (or not yet) endangered by physical coercion and military force or undermined by deficiencies in public goods. Therefore human security should not only be defined by whether and to what extent the intactness of body and life is guaranteed. The contexts of labor, paid income and security are central. These contexts are characterized by 1. Labor market security – that is, adequate employment possibilities on the formal labor market, 2. Employment security – protection from unlawful dismissal, 3. Training security – an education- and apprenticeship system that promotes the acquisition and maintenance of transferable skills and knowledge, 4. Job security – in the concrete activity guaranteed by the professionalism of labor, 5. Job safety – through a developed industrial safety- and accident protection, 6. Income security – through minimum wage laws, wage indexing, a comprehensive system of social security in case of sickness, old age, unemployment, invalidity and progressive taxation of income, and finally 7. Representation security – the guarantee of collective representation on the labor market through independent unions and employee associations, collective bargaining, right to strike etc.

7. Joining the discourse on human security (the “demand side”, so to speak) with the discourse on public goods (the “supply side”, so to speak) is necessary not only to bring together “epistemic communities” but to find starting points for considering the norms of human solidarity in practical policy for providing public goods to people

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