When to Choose Human Security

By
Aveba, District de l’Ituri, RD Congo : Les enfants ont retrouvé la quiétude après le lancement des opérations soutenues par la MONUSCO.
When to Choose Human Security - James Nadel

Abstract

This paper will explore the concept of human security from theoretical, practical, and case study perspectives. It traces the history of human security through academic discourse and practice, and develops a balance sheet of the concept, assessing the motivations, advantages, and problems inherent in pursuing it in peacebuilding. Specifically, statistical evidence of “indirect deaths” and Azar’s seminal Theory of Protracted Social Conflict provide strong support for the idea, and practice in the field has shown its value in addressing certain inconsistencies in peacebuilding—namely, the tension between Western and local views on values and priorities, and the possibility of local traditions reinforcing inequality. On the other hand, there exist potential problems of co-option, obscuring proper analysis of the drivers of conflict, and overpromising. The final section concludes that human security achieves its greatest utility when pursued by apolitical organizations, such as the United Nations, within missions that are a reasonable match for their capabilities.

The evolution of United Nations peace operations throughout the 1990s and early 2000s traces an important development in security thought. The concept of human security, emerging in 2000 from the experiences of the previous decade, established in various policy circles the necessity of expanding “security” from the level of states to the level of individuals in conflict zones. While this idea is sound and appealing in many cases, it merits caution lest it be applied in inappropriate contexts. This discussion paper will commence with an overview of how human security has developed in discourse and in practice. The second section will then argue that the concept of human security draws compelling motivation from both statistics of war-related deaths and the conflict literature, and confers serious advantages upon peacebuilding by helping to address two inconsistencies: the tension between Western and local views, and the possibility that local solutions might reinforce inequality. At the same time, however, the problems of co-option, limited applicability to economically driven conflict, and raised expectations necessitate caution before explicitly pursuing a human security agenda. The final section will use this analysis to discern the conditions under which human security achieves its greatest utility. We will see that, despite the merits that might seem self-evident in any scenario, a human security approach is most appropriate for multilateral, apolitical organizations such as the United Nations, within lower-risk missions where their capabilities can be most effectively applied. 

The History of Human Security

The concept first appeared in a 1994 UN Development Program report seeking to affect a post- Cold War shift in thinking about security.1 The term subsequently gained prominence in 2000, refocusing UN peace operation discussions on the issues of physical safety, economic needs, human rights, and fundamental dignity of individuals in areas of conflict. While there is no uniform definition, these main themes recur in the seminal UN documents and relevant academic literature that comprise the human security discourse. The UN Millennium Report advocated freedom from fear, freedom from want, and sustainable management of the environment and natural resources as priorities for the organization in the new century. At about the same time, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty made similar recommendations, and Secretary General Kofi Annan highlighted human security in his statement to the 54th session of the General Assembly.2 The famous Brahimi Report on comprehensive peacekeeping reform pointed out that operations must be capable of making improvements in local people’s quality of life early in the mission.3 Finally, the most significant expression of this idea came in the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, introduced in the 2005 World Summit Outcome, which establishes the responsibility of states to protect their populations from mass atrocities (although the final version failed to explicitly endorse a responsibility of the international community to intervene).4 

There is a further stage of academic discourse in which we can observe the influence of a human security focus. Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, and Miall argue that with the global spread of shared humanistic values, a new generation of cosmopolitan peace operations is possible. In this context, and by working heavily at the grassroots level, they envision international actors being able to build peace upon ideas that are seen by local partners as global values, not simply Western ones.5 

In the realm of practice, human security evolved from the need to reconcile greater robustness in peace operations—owing to failures in the early 1990s—with the need for legitimacy. Especially in peace enforcement contexts, if the UN was to be more than simply the civilian follow-up to a military coalition, it needed to be seen as both an authorizer and an implementer. Human security was seen as the globally meaningful norm that would underpin this.6 Additionally, an increasing focus on the needs of individuals in conflict zones is evident in the evolution from second-generation peacekeeping to the third-generation, whose missions are more appropriately termed peace operations. These operations, beginning in the mid-1990s, saw more flexible rules of engagement for the protection of civilians along with the rise of statebuilding—the devotion of mission resources to establishing local institutions that can provide for the needs of the population.7 The relationship of statebuilding to other elements further demonstrates the human security underpinnings of third-generation peace operations, as populations’ basic needs cannot be put on hold for the conclusion of one phase of a mission. Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, and Miall point out that the three main phases in such peace operations—delivering stability, statebuilding, and long-term peacebuilding—must be as closely “nested” as possible, rather than undertaken in sequence.8 

Developments in the peacebuilding phase itself attest to human security’s influence. The concept of peacebuilding from below, prioritizing the empowerment of grassroots approaches to conflict resolution, gained prominence through experience in Bosnia where outside methods proved unappealing to local aspirations.910 Additionally, the establishment in 2005 of the UN Peacebuilding Commission further enshrined human security concepts in the practitioner’s realm. The commission was given a wide mandate for integrating post-war peacebuilding across UN agencies and NGOs, and marshaling resources for these endeavors.11 Jentlesen, however, is not enthusiastic about the amount of practical impact this body will have,12 and Mack acknowledges that the Peacebuilding Commission lacks the executive authority to realistically achieve coordination across agencies and outside organizations. Nonetheless, Mack concludes: “Notwithstanding the very real problems it confronts, the creation of the new Peacebuilding Commission is further evidence of an emerging system of global governance that seeks to address human security issues.”13 

The Human Security Balance Sheet

Peacebuilders who pursue a human security approach can draw motivation from both statistics of war-related deaths and the conflict literature. Additionally, this approach confers serious advantages upon peacebuilding by helping to address two inconsistencies: the tension between Western and local views, and the possibility that local solutions might reinforce inequality. We will see, however, that problems of co-option, limited applicability to economically driven conflict, and raised expectations necessitate caution before explicitly pursuing a human security agenda. 

Data gathered since the end of the Cold War highlight an area of comparative advantage for the concept. According to the 2005 Human Security Report, “indirect deaths”—those caused by health and environmental threats exacerbated by the presence of war—account for up to 90 percent of fatalities in war-torn societies.14 Additionally, 40-50 percent of countries emerging from war relapse into violence within five years.15 The combination of these two conditions argues for an approach that addresses the basic needs of individuals, within a framework that lowers the risk for peace to unravel. 

Foundational academic literature underscores this. In particular, Edward Azar’s seminal Theory of Protracted Social Conflict contends that basic human needs, as well as the extent to which the state is providing or denying them, are the critical factors in prolonged violent struggles around the world. He identifies four “preconditions” for high levels of conflict: communal discontent, deprivation of human needs, poor governance, and destabilizing international linkages. The extent to which these variables interact with “process dynamics”—communal actions, state actions, and inherent escalatory mechanisms—determines the extent of conflict and/or violence.16 It is easy to see how Azar, writing in the 1970s and 1980s, prefigured the concept of human security, particularly with respect to his “precondition” variables of needs and governance. Peacebuilders who value this contribution thus have a strong motivation to approach their work through a human security lens, particularly because, as Ramsbotham et al. argue, establishing good governance and development levels are structural preventers of conflict (and its recurrence). Thus, these objectives address the “preconditions,” while a mission’s operational measures correspond to Azar’s “process dynamics.”17 

Such an approach has a distinct advantage in practice as well, serving as a corrective to certain inherent inconsistencies in peacebuilding. First, we often observe in peace operations a tension between Western and local views on values and priorities, and an overemphasis on top-down solutions has indeed been one of the consistent critiques leveled at peacebuilding interventions since the 1990s.18 The case of Somalia is instructive here. In response to the overthrow of Somali dictator Siad Barre in 1991 and the resulting humanitarian crisis, the UN deployed a “second generation” peacekeeping force under the authority of Special Envoy Mohamed Sahnoun. Statebuilding models, particularly those of the U.S., often prioritize establishing strong central government authority to control ungoverned spaces and reign in piracy and terrorism. While this is a valid objective, promoting central control and Western governance concepts can be counterproductive in countries such as Somalia that have little natural disposition toward them. Special Envoy Sahnoun creatively sought to make peace through the use of indigenous methods, and some accounts point to the impending success of this approach before it was cut short by the ill-fated American enlargement of the mission. More recently, in the wake of the African Union-led peace operation authorized in 2006, Somaliland and Puntland have experimented with governance forms that combine local and Western traditions, yielding new levels of participation more appropriate to the regions’ societal contexts and autonomous traditions. Additionally, other areas of Somalia have shown great creativity in organizing peacebuilding around combinations of unwritten customary law, local shari’a law, and historical values and codes of conduct, including input from women’s groups.19 As shown by the efforts of Sahnoun and others focused on indigenous empowerment, taking a humanist view of what best serves local interests can overcome some inherent Western-local tensions and lead to effective solutions. 

While top-down solutions are a pitfall, the converse—prioritizing the empowerment of local methods, or “peacebuilding from below”—can be taken too far as well. Here we see the advantage of a human security approach as a corrective to the second peacebuilding inconsistency: when local traditions reinforce inequality. The 1999 UN Mission in Sierra Leone illustrates this problem. Efforts at peacebuilding from below, focused on community-driven development, encountered traditional structures that perpetuated power in ruling lineages and reinforced the undemocratic and unfair distribution of labor opportunities to subordinate lineages. This failure of local institutions called for greater creativity in finding a middle way that combined the best of intervention and host-nation resources.20 Ramsbotham et al. expand on this, pointing out that local partners’ ability to serve as reliable resources may be compromised by lack of influence, external criminal groups or militias, or the interests of donors.21 A human security approach, therefore, can help not only to avoid the dominance of top-down solutions, but also to help ensure that peacebuilding from below serves all local parties equitably. 

Nonetheless, such an approach contains several inherent pitfalls as well. First among these is the possibility that a human security agenda will unwittingly serve Western over local interests, or be co-opted by a nationally led intervention. The field of international political economy, for example, critiques conflict resolution and development as opportunities for a global security regime to manage threatening spaces and maintain the status quo.22 While this is a good general reminder to think critically about interveners’ motives, it lacks precision. A more urgent warning lies in the UN Assistance Missions in the recent U.S.-led regime change operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which to some signified that traditional peace operation functions were co-opted into the American global war on terror.23 While this should not be seen as lowering the intrinsic value of the work of these UN missions, it is important to keep in mind that well-conceived human security projects may have suffered a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of locals resentful of the U.S. presence. 

Secondly, it is possible that a human security approach in peacebuilding might obscure proper responses to the type of economically driven conflict described by Paul Collier. From economic analysis of intrastate conflicts, Collier theorizes that perceived grievances and desire for power are found in most societies, and it is the economic feasibility of pursuing violent means—the “feasibility of predation”—that determines whether armed conflict will occur. He points out that the rebellion in Sierra Leone took advantage of illegal diamond mining, and so its potency cannot be explained solely by the list of grievances it publicized.24,25 Collier gives his own policy recommendations for peacebuilding in societies emerging from economically driven wars, mainly focusing on lowering rebellions’ economic incentives (such as by bringing rebel leaders into the legal structure of primary commodity export revenues). Finally, he points out the common emergence of corruption from the breakdown of trust in post-war societies, a problem that calls for the building of new and independent institutions.26 Collier’s contributions identify two challenges to a human security approach: First, focusing solely on the needs of individuals may obscure analysis of the feasibility of predatory behavior; and second, addressing long-term issues like corruption requires great political will from the leading organization. 

Raised expectations are the third general problem of the explicit pursuit of human security. Berdal and Ucko point out the limitations of “armed humanitarianism” by the UN, such that civilian protection mandates in peace operations have sometimes created “unrealistic expectations” among local populations who may seek safety with an under-resourced force that cannot fully provide it. They additionally argue that a viable political strategy for establishing peace is the proper context for such mandates, without which a conflict party may forcefully oppose peacekeepers. However, UN Security Council unity in support of political strategies that address the drivers of conflict has historically been elusive.27 While Berdal and Ucko are describing the single issue of physical security, this is certainly a component of human security, and we should expect that announcements of providing the latter may raise similar expectations in host communities. The point about Security Council unity underscores the other side of this problem—that of insufficient political will to deliver what is necessary—and the case of U.S. leadership in Afghanistan shows that political will is finite in nationally led operations as well. 

After coming into office promising to refocus attention on “the good war,” the Obama administration’s 2009 review of Afghanistan priorities focused on counterinsurgency, government and security force capacity building, reducing corruption, and local development (highlighting the development role for the UN).28 In a 2014 assessment, however, the Government Accountability Office found that, after $100 billion in allocations by U.S. agencies (apart from military expenditures) between 2002 and 2013, there had been modest improvement in security, but little progress on anti-corruption and increasing the Afghan government’s capacity to serve the population.29 As President Obama made clear in his October 2015 statement on the drawn-down but continuing presence of roughly 10,000 U.S. military personnel for training and counterterrorism, the US is strictly in a supporting role not only for security, but also for Afghan government efforts to combat corruption and improve service delivery.30 Even the world’s sole superpower has very finite limits on political will. Fourteen years into the war, they will no longer stretch to accommodate explicit American-led efforts at governance reform. Both the UN and U.S. cases demonstrate that politics impose inevitable constraints upon executing long-term humanitarian strategies. 

Discerning a Successful Context for Human Security

We can ignore neither the important theoretical and practical contributions of the human security concept, nor the complications that may arise in employing it. Therefore, we must use these constraints to judge the conditions that maximize its positive impact and minimize potential problems. The previous section demonstrated that co-option by interveners’ national interests, inadequate analysis of economic drivers of conflict, and overpromising when political will is insufficient are the biggest pitfalls. This initially calls for analysis that is capable of discerning when conflict arises from economically fueled predation, and when it arises from the deprivation of basic needs. The other, more important, lesson is that human security seems most appropriate for multilateral, apolitical organizations such as the UN, pursued within the missions that are most achievable. 

The response of the UN to violence and displacement in East Timor in 1999 is instructive here. While a second crisis emerged in 2006, the UN made notable achievements in stability and building peace in the turbulent first years of East Timor’s independence. A 2014 Brookings Institution study highlights the success of the transitional administration’s community reconciliation program, which was underpinned by local practices. This program in turn provided peacebuilding lessons that enabled the safe return of internally displaced persons. The return to conflict in 2006, the report concludes, simply arose from a failure to plan for this success and anticipate the eventual competition over land and jobs resulting from the mass return of IDPs.31 While the second stage of the conflict cannot be ignored, we should see it in the context of a preventable institutional mistake, rather than as a failure of the earlier humanitarian efforts. Thus, the UN transitional administration’s peacebuilding after the initial conflict in 1999 demonstrates the successful application of human security principles, but within a specific context—namely, a mission of lower risk, in which the UN could maximize the effectiveness of its capabilities. 

Conclusion

This paper has explored the concept of human security from both theoretical and practical perspectives. In Section I, it traced the history of human security through its emergence in official and academic discourse, and in the practice of the recent generation of UN peace operations. Section II developed a balance sheet of the concept, assessing the motivations, advantages, and problems inherent in pursuing human security in peacebuilding. Specifically, statistical evidence of “indirect deaths” and Azar’s seminal Theory of Protracted Social Conflict provide strong support for the idea, and its practical application in the field has shown its value in addressing certain inconsistencies in peacebuilding—namely, the tension between Western and local views on values and priorities, and the possibility of local traditions reinforcing inequality. On the other hand, the section identified the potential problems of co-option by interveners’ national interests, inadequate analysis of economic drivers of conflict, and overpromising amidst insufficient political will as the biggest pitfalls of a human security approach. From the synthesis of these findings, Section III determined that human security achieves greatest utility when pursued by multilateral, apolitical organizations such as the United Nations, within missions that are a reasonable match for their capabilities. 

Three implications arise from this discussion. First, governments or multilateral organizations must make an honest appraisal of the cost of delivering human security in a given context, and be equally honest with themselves about the amount of political will they possess for the endeavor. Additionally, conflict analysis must avoid conflating conflicts driven by the deprivation of human needs with those driven by political groups’ predatory economic behavior. Finally, the inherent value of creating security for individuals should encourage intervening organizations to pursue it where possible, but this same value stands as a reminder that when human security is explicitly invoked, it should be done so for its own sake—not as a cover for an intervening national government’s primary interests.

Bibliography

Berdal, Mats, and David H. Ucko. 2015. The Use of Force in UN Peacekeeping Operations. The RUSI Journal (160:1): 6-12. 

Brahimi, Lakhdar. 2000. Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations. New York City: United Nations. 

Collier, Paul. 2007. Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their Implications for Policy. In Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World., eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall, 197-216. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press. 

Interagency Policy Group. 2009. Report on U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Washington, D.C.: The White House. 

Jentleson, Bruce W. 2007. Yet Again: Humanitarian Intervention and the Challenges of “Never Again”. In Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World., eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall, 277-298. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press. 

Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Afghanistan: Oversight and Accountability of U.S. Assistance, Testimony Before the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, 2014, 1-12. 

Mack, Andrew. 2007. Successes and Challenges in Conflict Management. In Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World., eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall, 521-533. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press. 

Obama, Barack. 2015. Statement by the President on Afghanistan. Washington, D.C.: The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. 

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Hugh Miall, and Tom and Woodhouse. 2011. Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts. Third ed. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press. 

Ul Haq, Mahbub. 1994. Human Development Report 1994. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Wassel, Todd. 2014. Timor-Leste: Links Between Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Durable Solutions to Displacement. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution. 

Notes

1 Mahbub Ul Haq, Human Development Report 1994 (New York: Oxford University Press,[1994]), 22. 

2 Oliver Ramsbotham, Hugh Miall and Tom and Woodhouse, Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts , Third ed. (Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011), 164. 

3 Lakhdar Brahimi, Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (New York City: United Nations, [2000]), 6. 

4 Bruce W. Jentleson, “Yet again: Humanitarian Intervention and the Challenges of “Never again”,” in Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World, eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007), 285. 

5 Ramsbotham, Miall and Woodhouse, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 165. 

6 Ibid., 163. 

7 Ibid., 199. 

8 Ibid., 210-211. 

9 Ibid., 233-235. 

10 While peacebuilding from below speaks to the concern of what is best for host-country groups, there is a possibility that it can be compromised by local traditions that may contain injustice— this will be addressed in Section II. 

11 Ibid., 230. 

12 Jentleson, “Yet again,” in Leashing the Dogs of War, 285. 

13 Andrew Mack, “Successes and Challenges in Conflict Management,” in Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World, eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007), 532. 

14 Ibid., 523. 

15 Ibid., 528. 

16 Ramsbotham, Miall and Woodhouse, Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 99-102. 

17 Ibid., 131-132. 

18 Ibid., 227. 

19 Ibid., 167-169. 

20 Ibid., 236-237. 

21 Ibid., 244. 

22 Ibid., 105. 

23 Ibid., 206. 

24 Paul Collier, “Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and Their Implications for Policy,” in Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World, eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2007), 199-200. 

25 The unequal local structures in Sierra Leone discussed above may have been a secondary cause of the type of conflict Collier describes. If so, this does not mean human security has no explanatory value, but rather reinforces the need for the nuanced use of the concept that will be articulated in Section III. 

26 Ibid., 213-216. 

27 Mats Berdal & David H. Ucko (2015) The Use of Force in UN Peacekeeping Operations, The RUSI Journal, 160:1, 10-11. 

28 Interagency Policy Group, Report on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan (Washington, D.C.: The White House, [2009]), 1-6. 

29 Charles Michael Johnson, “Afghanistan: Oversight and Accountability of U.S. Assistance,” Testimony Before the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa (Washington, D.C.: Government Accountability Office, [2014]), 1-12. 

30 Barack Obama, Statement by the President on Afghanistan (Washington, D.C..: The White House, [2015]). 

31 Todd Wassel, Timor-Leste: Links between Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Durable Solutions to Displacement (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, [2014]), 14-19. 

James Nadel is a first year Master of Arts candidate at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, concentrating in Strategic Studies and pursuing a minor in Conflict Management. Prior to SAIS, he served as the Director of Operations and Global Education Programs for WorldBoston, the World Affairs Council serving Eastern Massachusetts. James has additionally interned at the Department of State, served in research capacities at the National Defense University and Army War College, and been a Pamela Harriman Foreign Service Fellow.