The Global Challenge of Human Security

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Written by Dr. Cornelio Sommaruga, Guest Contributor

After the first decade of the Twenty-First Century, we have come to recognize that the world has become a dangerous place, with terrorism and bloody local conflicts. Humanitarian efforts and human rights laws are largely ignored and systematically violated. Social inequality, inside states and among states, has increased dramatically, and poverty in the poorest areas is deepening. Consequent increasing competition for scarce resources contributes to unstable political structures and favours eruption of conflicts. Fluctuations in world commodity prices can trigger dangerous destitution and civil strife. Indeed many of the apparently senseless violent conflicts and acts of terrorism in the world become markedly more transparent when such roots are explored.

Aid budgets have regrettably shrunk. Even advances in debt relief have sometimes been at the expense of aid budgets, and, as a result, resources were not necessarily freed and banks were given more advantages than the world’s poor. One has to underline again and again how much issues such as conflict, disease, abuse of power, violation of human dignity, illiteracy and malnutrition are bound up with abject poverty, a stat in which hundreds of millions of human beings live.

In such a state of the world, where there is no humanitarian space, it is not astonishing that there are many factors of human insecurity that create a climate of fear and hate. First of all, there is human insecurity generated by neo-liberal globalization. Despite the many positive aspects of globalization that has certainly benefited people in developing countries, financial mismanagement and market fundamentalism have created a large exclusion of people from the global mega-competition. Many human beings are often caught between criminal organizations and states; this is particularly the case for migrant workers and environmentally displaced persons. The label “illegal” is easily applied to them, because of the lacking international legal basis for a coherent global approach to these serious human problems.

There is a growing insecurity of indigenous peoples, be it in Latin or North America, in Australia, in Eastern Republics of the Russian Federation, in other independent republics of the former Soviet Union, and in several other regions. These people are not only subject to all sorts of discriminations, but they are also affected by government agricultural policies pushing poor peasants out of business to become itinerant agricultural labourers. Their very existence as distinct societies and cultures is often endangered.

There is also human insecurity generated by militarization, the growing impact of the military – and increasingly of the police – on the political economic power relations and on everyday life of the most non lucrative sectors of society. The globalization of military industrial technology relates people’s security to an increasingly powerful source of threat. Militarization triggers interventions in the name of “humanitarian aid”: this creates more insecurity!

It is also obvious that climate change, with a number of evident phenomena, is particularly feared and creating severe insecurity.

A clear reference has to be made to gender insecurity. Violence against women and children creates a high human insecurity for families and individuals. The expansion of the global sex industry, accompanied by trafficking of women and children into industrialized countries from developing and Eastern countries constitutes violence against women and a double discrimination, both gender-based and racial. Despite a number of measures and declarations progress is extremely limited. This remains a preoccupying cause of insecurity in the world.

We have had nine years and more after 9/11 to recognise that the war in Afghanistan and the ensuing violation of human rights around the world (not excluding countries in other times committed to human rights, the aftermath of the war on Iraq, the persistent Israeli-Arab conflict with severe violations of international humanitarian law as well as the repeated corporate management financial scandals) are creating also in Western countries great insecurity. The clear statement of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which sets precise limits to all sort of violence in a mode which is clearly more evident than the Bible, is ignored.

We could go on mentioning other causes of insecurity, but at this juncture one could simply state this: when a hegemonic global system centralizes power, wealth and knowledge in the hands of a minority, when there are few avenues of action to ensure at least a certain degree of accountability on the part of major powers, there is a widespread feeling of marginalization that can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences. The invention of the Group of 20 has not improved the sense of marginalization.

All these factors, including the cultural insecurity often called “islamophobia”, bring individuals to desperation. From there, the step to violence and terrorism is easy to be made.

A Change in Focus

During the Cold War period, the notion of security was indeed in generally understood terms of the security of the State, the preservation of its territorial integrity, and sovereignty against military attacks.

The UNDP Human Development Report of 1993 for the first time indicated in an official document that the individual must be placed at the centre of international affairs. The report expressly says that “the concept of security must change – from an exclusive stress on national security to a much greater stress on people’s security; from security through armaments to security through human development; from territorial security to food, employment and environmental security”.

Even the G8 Foreign Ministers in a statement on Human Security issued in Cologne on June 10, 1999 said: “The G8 is determined to fight the underlying causes of the multiple threats to human security, and is committed to creating an environment where the basic rights, the safety and the very survival of individuals are guaranteed…. We regarded the spread of small arms, the danger posed by landmines, international terrorism and transnational crime, drugs and infectious diseases, poverty, economic distress and oppression to be among the most serious threats to mankind. 

Recognizable here are elements of the root causes of violence and terrorism: such as the systematic violation of human rights and the denigration of human values, poverty, hunger, thirst, inequalities, injustice; as well as symptoms, such as arms proliferation and small arms transfers, including landmines, corruption, organized crime. All these elements must be addressed energetically and urgently for an effective answer to terrorism.

Ultimately human security emphasizes that the security agenda and the development agenda are merely different sides of the same coin.

As stated in the 2001 report “The Responsibility to Protect” by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, there is a responsibility to prevent. The failure of prevention can have wide international consequences and costs. Conflict prevention – and this is also valid for terrorism – is not merely a national or local affair. In our Report, the Commission stated that “there remains a gap between rhetoric and financial and political support for prevention… Encouraging more serious and sustained efforts to address the root cause of the problems that put populations at risk, as well as more effective use of direct prevention measures,” remains crucial.

Prevention of violence is promotion of human security. There is a need to constantly emphasize human values and the ethical dimension of economic, social and political life. Political systems indeed give moral instructions through legislation; a nation’s law reflects its underlying moral norms, as a nation’s civics reflects its constitutional mores.

Quoting again the report on The Responsibility to Protect, I should like to refer to the concluding section, which says “If we believe that all human beings are equally entitled to be protected from acts that shock the conscience of us all, then we must match rhetoric with reality, principle with practice. We cannot be content with reports and declarations. We must be prepared to act.”

An Unprecedented Chance to Remake the World

Let us repeat: the world is heading for growing suffering and eventual catastrophe as the climate irreversibly changes, agriculture is disrupted, hunger and division intensify, arms spending escalate and nuclear weapons proliferate. The world’s political establishment – in full contradiction with humanitarian politics – seems unable to grasp both the urgency of the threat, and the potential of the opportunity, brought about by movements of conscience and concern.

Our generation has an unprecedented chance to remake the world in a real form of humanitarian engagement. Matters needed to be addressed urgently are:

  • Poverty: Inequality and poverty are increasing both within and between countries. Humanity possesses both the capital and the knowledge that everyone has enough.
  •  Hunger and Thirst: The number of hungry and thirsty people has risen to more than a billion. Enough is produced every year to feed everyone on earth well, if justly distributed. Increasing production through sustainable agriculture – which restores soil and conserves water – can ensure that this continues to be the case.
  • Climate Change: The planet is warming fast, and rising sea levels and shifting rainfall will drive millions of people from their homes, slash harvests, and disrupt societies. Developing existing clean technologies will do much to produce the sustainable growth required to ensure a future of low carbon prosperity.
  • Resource Depletion: Over-exploiting land, water, fisheries, forests and other natural resources will result in scarcity and and growing conflict – and this threatens to get worse as the population rises to nine billion over the next few decades. Just an eighth of global defence spending would provide massively enlarged programmes to reduce suffering and the mentioned threats. 
  • War and Conflict: World arms spending is rising rapidly, encouraged by deeply entrenched vested interests. There must be a new determination in resolving conflict.
  • Reconciliation, justice and forgiveness are interdependent: We must genuinely commit to human rights and International humanitarian law for all and address seriously injustice and oppression. 

To meet all these challenges a revolutionary world wide coalition of conscientious people is urgently needed. Such a revolution has to start with individuals; however it must be recognized that individual humanitarian engagement is not enough. A movement of people is required to bring about the global transformation that is so desperately needed. We have to unite efforts to multiply effectiveness.

The construction of a renewed humanitarian space depends on it.