Human Security: A new challenge to sovereignty?

By Andrei Tarasov

Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council (SC) has a right to authorize intervention. But in the 1990s it was a consensus among liberal states that there is a moral right to intervene in radical cases without Security Council sanction. NATO intervention in Kosovo is a clear example of “humanitarian” intervention without appropriate permission from the Security Council.  Such brutal violation of international law was justified by humanitarian means and moral duties. Finally, it was considered by the West as “illegal but legitimate” action. (Gholiagha, 2015: 1076).

The main critique of the humanitarian intervention concept is based on the sovereignty vs. human security dichotomy. Human security as a concept relates to the security of individuals, expressed as both “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want” (Kaldor et al, 2007; 273). This concept was placed on the international agenda in the 1990s. The main reason for the attempt to redefine the meaning of security is globalization. The world faced challenges such as international terrorism, global inequality, hunger, enslavement, etc. Certainly, many of these challenges existed before but the process of globalization made our world even more interconnected. The second reason is that the liberal and constructivist approaches were dominant throughout the 90’s, which led to the construction of a new understanding of security.

The Westphalian Peace created a system of international relations which is based on many principles such as the balance of power, national interest, and the primacy of nation-states. But the core principle was that of state sovereignty in external and internal relations. This concept of absolute sovereignty was the dominant tendency in IR. The definition of sovereignty as independence in the international arena was clearly articulated in the UN Charter and many international legal acts. In reality however, the principles of Westphalian sovereignty were violated many times. For example, The Brezhnev doctrine of “restricted sovereignty” allowed the Soviet Union to intervene in socialist countries to establish “right communism”.

But the globalization challenge creates the opportunity to reframe the definition of sovereignty. Within the globalization framework, states cannot ensure their security by themselves. Global terrorism poses a threat for the international community. States also cannot ensure an effective economy without global cooperation. In addition, advocates of this new concept argue that states can be a source of threat for their citizens because governments can violate human rights (McCormack, 2008;115). Human rights discourse became a focal point in international relations in the 1990s, especially after the US intervention in Somalia which led to the development of the concept of human security. The freedom from fear and freedom from want required both socioeconomic and political development. Now we see how security threats become clustered in the developing world where so-called “failed states” endanger human rights, and therefore ensuring human security requires them to frame their policy in a way that balances human rights, poverty

This state “obligation” to fit the standards of the Western World provoked vigorous debates about “new sovereignty”. Sovereignty is not absolute and it doesn’t mean total independence. As a matter of fact, it is necessary to reduce state autonomy and enter international coalitions. Sovereignty is not the dividing line between internal and external state matters. Both internal and external bleed into each other as the notion of human security provides states with a mandate to protect their own citizens, whereas the protection of human rights is universally recognized as a shared responsibility of the entire international community to all citizens regardless of the country they find themselves in. These new understandings have led to the re-conceptualization of sovereignty and the creation of the Post-Westphalian concept. Within the human security paradigm, state sovereignty is understood as a state’s responsibility to ensure public goods, efficient governance, and decent life standards (Waddell, 2006). In other words, there are effective states which fulfill their responsibilities and “deserve” their sovereignty and ineffective ones that don’t.

Human security provision along with human rights protection impose a moral obligation upon the effective states to “help” the ineffective ones. Kofi Annan once said: “if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” (Annan, 2000: 48). Following Kofi Anan’s allusion to the inalienability of responsibility from sovereignty, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) sponsored by Canada made a significant attempt to answer the call for sovereignty’s clarification. They developed a new concept – the Responsibility to Protect – which was adopted in 2005 at the World Summit by a UN General Assembly resolution. In the final document it was established that the first responsibility which pertains to the protection of a population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity belongs to the state. However, the international community also has a similar responsibility to use appropriate peaceful means to help protect people. In the event that a state fails to protect its citizens, the international community (by means of the UNSC) is prepared to take collective action. (Hofman, 2015: 6). The foundation of this principle lies mainly in the Christian paradigm of universalism from which the liberal theory of IR came from. (Bordachev, 2015) The doctrine stipulates that the care for all human beings is the duty of Christianity. In this wording we see the clear justification for the interventions into internal state affairs for humanitarian purposes.

Mary Kaldor (2007) explains the main rules of humanitarian interventions which fit into the R2P. These foundations are: respect for human rights (which entails “minimizing loss of lives”), the establishment of legitimate political authority, multilateralism, a bottom-up approach, and regional focus. Despite being as respectful to human life as possible, all of these liberal rules pose a danger nevertheless. They clearly re-conceptualize political intervention into moral obligation. In an ideal situation, the honest cooperation between NGOs, business, civil society, states, and international organizations would be the key for ensuring human security. But in the reality of our anarchic world, all actors – especially states-  follow their own interests. States can use humanitarian interventions to their advantage in order to spread their hegemony, businesses tend to violate human rights more so than to protect them (sweatshops, corporate greed), NGOs in many cases do not have enough power to carry-out humanitarian projects, etc.

Moreover, in reality, human security has very weak implementation. By implementation I mean not only the de facto realization of this concept but also the way in which the real actions fit with the ideal aims of such interventions. In the case of Libya, during the implementation of the SCR 1973 NATO went far beyond the UNSC mandate. Despite the stated objective of protecting the civilian population, in reality, NATO provided military support to one side of the armed conflict. Civilian targets were struck and third-country ships were inspected on the high seas without informing the UN Security Council. (Gevorgan, 2012). Less than one month after operations began, the leaders of France, the UK and the United States argued that they should replace Gadhafi because of the impossibility of transitioning to democracy with him in power (Obama, Cameroon, Sarkozy, 2011). It is questionable how the regime change complies with humanitarian aims. In fact, peace negotiations had been halted as military operations began and emphasized the great human costs that large-scale military operations inevitably entail (Tourinho, Stuenkel &Brockmeier, 2016: 136) The principle of “do no harm”  also seems to be violated. The post-war situation in Libya demonstrates the serious problem in R2P’s practical realization.

If we were to go deeper, we can see that instead of empowering “voiceless groups” and being an emancipatory framework that gives sovereignty to people, human security justifies the gap between advanced countries and underdevelopment ones. It establishes the formal hierarchy of states when powerful ones can interfere in the affairs of the powerless. The concept of Human security puts a global liberal order and its values first. It gives advanced states moral justification to protect human rights in the world by deeming intervention to no longer be a political violation but rather the duty to care for all humans. The argument however, is that no one has the right to claim universal moral superiority. Justifying the R2P in terms of human security can be a dangerous veil behind which the pursuit of Western hegemonic interest takes place.

Finally, it is necessary to mention that the concept of human security as an idea that theoretically puts people first, is an imminent feature of globalization as conventional war becomes less relevant in the face of new emerging global challenges. But, as McCormack (2008) states “the internal focus of human security also excludes the context that gives rise to societal instability”. The de facto realization of international obligations on the interstate level is not correct and requires a different approach. Human security has transformative potential and it has already challenged the traditional conception of Westphalian sovereignty. But this transformation can have negative consequences such as the deepening of the North-South divide, interference into the internal relations of the state, the re-conceptualization of political interference as moral obligation, westernization, etc. The future of human security as a just concept will only be possible if all actors at different levels cooperate honestly. The history of the real world however tells us that it is almost impossible.


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Chandler, David (2008) “Human Security: The Dog That Didn’t Bark,” Security Dialogue 39(4): 427–438.

Duffield, Mark and Nicholas Waddell (2006) “Securing Humans in a Dangerous World,” International Politics 43: 1–23.

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Kaldor, Mary et al. (2007) “Human security: a new strategic narrative for Europe,” International Affairs 83(2): 273–288.

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Tourinho, M., Stuenkel, O., & Brockmeier, S. (2016). “Responsibility while protecting”: Reforming R2P implementation. Global Society30(1), 134-150.

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Геворгян, К. Г. (2013). Концепция «ответственность по защите». Международная жизнь, (8), 71-84.

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