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Mainstream, VOL LX No 5, New Delhi, January 22, 2022

Significance of a Human Security Approach for Global Peace and Development | Manoj Kumar Mishra

Friday 21 January 2022

by Manoj Kumar Mishra *

The concept of human security was articulated by Pakistani scholar Mahbub ul Haq in 1994 when he drew attention to the concept in the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Report. Henceforth, human security became a part of academic discourse and the concept required a shift of focus from the physical security of a state to socio-economic security and development of its citizens along with their personal, civil and physical security.

This article is a modest attempt to emphasize how this concept also implied separation of security from the territoriality of a state by shifting the focus from national citizens to the people of the world at large, as the emphasis is on human beings and not on a state’s own citizens.

The Covid-19 pandemic has underlined the interconnectedness of human-beings across the globe demonstrating cases how a specific variant of the virus generated in one country is affecting others within a short span. Further, the developing countries are more susceptible to non-traditional security threats such as poverty, disease and insurgencies on account of their weak political and rickety socio-economic institutions compared to developed countries. Pandemics such as Covid-19 could further destabilize the institutions and engender civil war like situations in the long-term which could in turn impinge on international peace and security.

A report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in 2021 pointed to the glaring fact that while the pandemic had little direct impact on the conduct of armed conflicts in 2020; it led to increases in psychological stress and domestic violence. The pandemic also had major economic and political effects. It led to reduced economic output in all except 20 countries, reversed three decades of progress in poverty reduction, and contributed to widespread deterioration in the quality of democracy. All these effects will in turn have possible future security consequences. [1] More insecurity and instability in the developing world will have serious repercussions on global peace and development.

Need for Shift from Human Rights to Human Security Paradigm

Compared to the human rights perspective, the human security perspective provides a larger framework to contribute to global humanitarian causes for a number of reasons.

First, the international regime of human rights is riddled with controversies, as the developed states prioritized civil and political rights over social and economic rights and the developing countries preferred the opposite. Human security requires all the rights to be protected equally to ensure a secure and healthy human existence. The concept of human security underlines the symbiotic relationship between the two sets of rights. By prioritizing one set of rights over the other, states jettison the concept of rights altogether.

While notions of human rights are particularistic and specific to a state’s belief system and practice, human security can have universal relevance and acceptance. Individualistic notions of human rights with a priority on civil and political rights (as emphasized by the developed countries of the West) have failed to address the socio-economic predicaments of developing countries during humanitarian crises.

For instance, a militaristic turn in US-led Operation Restore Hope in Somalia led to a perception among many Somalis that the mission was a form of imperialism and occupation. The American and other Western troops soon withdrew, indicating their inability and unwillingness to study the socio-economic conditions of the East African country. This led to the United Nations operation becoming primarily a developing countries’ mission.

Second, human rights are considered claims and rights of individuals against their state, but these do not intend to correct the in-egalitarian international structure that leads to many cases of human insecurity. Nevertheless, human security necessitates an egalitarian world order to enable each state to provide security for its own people. A human security perspective on humanitarian crises focuses on the in-egalitarian international economic and social order as a significant source of intrastate conflicts that engenders poverty, inequality and discrimination, and causes disorder within developing countries, paving the way for authoritarian rulers filling the vacuum. In this context, the UN needs to play a pivotal role in economic affairs based on the comprehensive notions of security, primarily because its charter treats all member countries as equal, despite differences in economic and military strength. However, global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are not only mandated to perform most of the economic functions globally, the great powers have institutionalized their economic privileges over the weaker ones in these institutions.

Third, the human rights regime’s preoccupation with enforcement of the rights of individuals may call for international intervention taking an intense form bent on regime change even at the expense of minimum human security. On the contrary, the human-security perspective places emphasis on the socio-economic and security factors of the people during peacekeeping operations. Second, socio-economic and cultural aspects of human life must be considered as important as military and defense concerns.

Emphasis must be placed on achieving peace through persuasion, negotiation and moderation before switching to military means (to be used as a last resort). It can be argued that even while the powerful developed countries of the globe have involved themselves in various UN peacekeeping activities, they have demonstrated a power-centric approach towards these.

The SIPRI report on the pattern of armed conflict released in 2017 recorded the statistics that out of the 49 active conflicts in 2016, 47 were fought within states and over government (22), territory (24) or both (1) indicating a clear trend toward sharp rise in the number of intrastate conflicts compared to inter-state ones. The report further noted that Africa was the region with the highest number of conflicts in 2016 (19 active conflicts) followed by Asia (15 conflicts). [2] The 2021 report of the institute went on to state that just as in preceding years, most conflicts took place within a single country (intrastate), between government forces and one or more armed non-state group(s). The increasing number of intra-state conflicts accompanied by a steep decline in inter-state conflicts needs to be seen from a human security perspective – embracing security as a comprehensive concept rather than a militaristic notion.

Great powers’ missions abroad have been conceived more as counter-terrorism or regime-change operations than long-term socio-economic engagements. The difficulties in managing post-war situations in Iraq and Afghanistan highlighted the importance of long-term socio-economic engagement and the problematic nature of over-reliance on military operations.

The UN initiatives in the post-Cold War period have often been more punitive in nature, with more frequent use of economic and military sanctions, as seen in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. The need for quick action and a lack of unanimity within the UN Security Council motivated (and gave tacit legitimacy to) the security organizations of the developed countries such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and global powers such as the US to take immediate steps in order to address situations around the globe. In cases such as Iraq, Libya and Syria, the US and its allies threw their weight behind UN Security Council resolutions that implicitly promoted the US/NATO’s active role in strengthening anti-regime forces, helped them push the agenda of democracy and assigned them militaristic roles without exhausting all the peaceful options. However, apparently, the militaristic approach toward intervention has very often led to militaristic shifts in humanitarian missions and state-building exercises. On the contrary, the widely publicized loss of 18 American soldiers during a humanitarian mission in Mogadishu to facilitate the delivery of aid during the civil war led to Rwanda, another African state, being left to its fate when it faced a major humanitarian crisis. Washington’s reluctance to get involved came to be known as “Somalia bodybag syndrome.” Similarly, it was the 9/11 attacks on the American mainland that prompted the US to intervene militarily in Afghanistan. Washington had ignored the civil war ravaging the country and the human rights violations committed by the Taliban regime until then because it considered it a stabilizing force. The hardline regime was helping to advance US geo-strategic interests by assisting it in laying down the alternative Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline bypassing Iran and Russia.

Differences in approach between the UN, which largely represents the developing countries, and NATO, which represents the developed ones, were palpable in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The differences in institutional perspectives on the use of military power between the UN and NATO were clear when NATO stressed the effective application of military power even when used in a limited fashion, but the UN emphasized optimal restraint.

Fourth, the human rights perspective cannot address global problems like climate change, environmental pollution and terrorism, which compromise the rights of individuals as well. On the other hand, the human-security perspective takes all these global problems into account for the secure and sustainable lives of individuals.

Therefore, the human-security perspective locates the problem of human insecurity in structural inequalities between the developed and developing countries, in the negligence of the developing and under-developed countries’ security concerns during peacekeeping operations and in global problems like environmental pollution and climate change.

Fifth, from a human security perspective, the preservation of territorial integrity and the strengthening of state institutions remain priorities for the security of individuals. On the other side, the human rights perspective asks for enforcement of individual rights in failed states but remains reticent on a prior strengthening of the state institutions so that they do not fail. The issues of failed and rogue states must be addressed before they arise and the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is invoked. There are far too many cases of sophisticated weapons systems supplied by great powers being misused by rogue states. A human security perspective, in this context, requires continued extreme caution and an understanding of the implications of such military contracts for the security of human beings, as well as long-term measures that can address the problems of failed and rogue states.

However, the concept of human security rejects an obsession with territorial and military security and assumes that the foreign policy of a country should also seriously strive to attain other important goals for improvement in the quality of life of citizens.

The people of a country not only have the right to freedom from fear, they are also entitled to freedom from want. While the conventional notion of security emphasizes the former, human security respects both. Freedom from fear and freedom from want are interrelated because it is only in a relatively peaceful environment that people can achieve developmental objectives and, conversely, people deprived of basic needs and minimum benefits of development would be constantly involved in fighting for scant resources.

Citizens of a particular country can live a peaceful life with dignity only when the surrounding region and the world at large become safer without serious conflicts, the socio-economic concerns of the third world countries are addressed and an egalitarian international order is established.

The state institutions of developing countries need to be strengthened and they must be properly represented in international organizations to ensure the security of their citizens. There are also many global problems such as terrorism, environmental pollution and climate change that require the attention of the developed and developing world alike, and a human security perspective can address them.

In sum, it is pertinent that a state’s foreign policy must incorporate the changed understanding of security in its relationship with other states. Citizens of a particular state can realize freedom from fear and from want through security and development only within a peaceful world mediated through a peaceful region. While the adoption of a human security perspective can go a long way in bridging the gaps between developed and developing countries on security, a reformed UN Security Council could provide the multilateral body with the requisite mechanisms to check the hegemonic tendencies of the world’s most powerful countries. A reformed and strengthened UN could check the militaristic approach of the powerful countries, which is often expressed through security organizations like NATO.

(Author: Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra, Lecturer in Political Science, SVM Autonomous College, Jagatsinghpur, Odisha)


[1SIPRI Yearbook 2021, Available at https://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2021

[2Armed Conflict and Peace Processes”, SIPRI Yearbook 2017, https://www.sipri.org/yearbook/2017/02

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