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Securi(tizi)ng Rights: Towards a Critique of Human Security

Prof. Samir Kumar Das has requested that there be a debate on this issue and therefore this is being put in the Research Article section.  A forum will soon be created and then the process can start on the pages itself.  Till then you can correspond with Prof. Das at


The question that I propose to raise in this paper is: What do we gain or do we gain at all in the bargain by way of switching over to the alternative paradigms of security particularly the non-traditional ones? I may sound awfully discordant insofar as I propose to draw our attention to the flip side of the alternative paradigms of security that are being bandied around in the existing literature on security particularly since the early 1990s. My purpose here is more to problematize these alternative paradigms and sound a word of caution before we happen to embrace them - than to push us back into the traditional paradigm of security. My argument is: non-traditional security in fact securitizes some of our very traditional concerns for rights, justice and democracy and brings in values that are associated with it. The present note seeks to drive home the argument with reference to a series of ethnographic works conducted in different parts of contemporary India on the subject under review.  


Securitization as a New Mode of Power


Security including human security as I argue has become a new form of power in today’s world. Security is an interventionist term that not only calls for intervention – whether by a state, or by a superstate like the USA that arrogates to itself the power of being the global policeman or by a coalition of them (like President Bush’s favourite ‘global anti-terror coalition’) or by other multilateral agencies and thereby gives them the power to intervene in situations wherever human security is at stake but also contributes to a certain depoliticization of the society.


A distinction is made in Contemporary Political Theory between the power of law and the power that one acquires by way of promising to provide or even by simply providing security. Giorgio Agamben, for instance, points out: “while the law wants to prevent and prescribe, security wants to intervene in ongoing processes to direct them.  In a word, (law) wants to produce order, while security wants to guide against disorder.” The mechanisms of security try to control the series of random events - the imponderables and unforeseeables that could occur in a living mass. While law seeks to discipline our behaviour into a set of patterns sanctioned by it and obtains certain degree of uniformity of behaviour, security is meant for tackling deviations by way of making exceptions to these laws. Security in other words is the ‘rule of exception’.


The power of security because of its very nature is exercised as a counterforce that constantly encroaches on people’s democratic rights and freedoms. It expresses itself through the sovereign power of making exceptions to the Constitution and the rule of law. That is the reason why much of India’s troubled northwest and the northeast is ruled by extraordinary legislations. Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 is only one of the many such acts that keep the Constitution of India and the normal law of the land in a limbo. In the situation of constant reference to a state of exception, the measures of security – as I argue - depoliticise the society, in the long run they are irreconcilable with democracy.


Security discourse produces the desire for order in a world characterized by embedded insecurity and disorder – ‘a war of all against all’ as Hobbes would have put it. In the new global arrangement the strongest menace is that power will desert leaving chaos behind. The new form of terror is no longer the attack (by the enemy), but the one of the accident. When you are under attack you mobilize to face the enemy. When there is an accident on the route you try to quickly find a detour and bypass the mess. In the first case you resist, in the second you succumb and tend to look upon someone else – whether the state or a global multilateral force (like NATO in Afghanistan) as the provider of your security. Insofar as we keep broadening the scope of security, we tend implicitly to securitize spheres which had hitherto belonged to the realm of rights and public action.



Securitization versus Public Action 



As we depend on others for our security, rights, justice and democracy turn into deliverables to be delivered to the people. What if the rights are not delivered? Do the people have ‘the right to rebel’? This reminds me of John Locke – the father of classical liberalism – who pointed out in his Second Treatise that chronic inability of the state to guarantee our right to ‘life, liberty and pursuit of happiness’ entitles us to the right to rebellion against the state albeit under certain conditions. But, the present discourse on human security permits civil society activism – more as a complement to state functions than as a counterpoint. The opposition between state and civil society that is a guarantee against any form of state authoritarianism is thereby tamed and translated into a simple complementarity and division of labour between them. All the relevant UNDP documents or those of other multilateral bodies on human security envisage some form of a complementarity between state actions and civil society activism – not any possibility of friction – let alone rupture between them.


Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their book on Hunger and Public Action (1989) make a distinction between collaborative and oppostitional public action – the latter closely approximating what we describe as civil society activism in this context – and show with massive empirical evidences culled from India, China and other countries of the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa that “the scope for effective public influence on the activities of the state tends to be greater in political systems that make room for opposition and criticism” (1989: 278). Such public actions are oppositional – but may not necessarily amount to what Locke calls ‘rebellion’.



Right to Security as Securitization of Right



One way of resolving the dilemma is to claim security as a matter of right. Indeed, in its more non-traditional incarnations, there is a tendency to treat security as another right. The problem with these incarnations is that claiming security as a right has its implications for many other rights, which we consider as vital to our social life. In the name of guaranteeing our right to security, the state may and more often than not does, curtail and abrogate these rights including the right to freedom of speech and expression or that of movement etc. The state in fact has abrogated the above rights in times of emergency. Unlike other rights – which are claimed against the state and its interference with our affairs, security is a positive right insofar as it concerns what the state does and can potentially do while ensuring our security. Claiming security as a right has this problem of unwittingly widening the state’s sphere of influence and interference.


Thus to cite an example, while polio inoculation campaign is universally perceived by the nation-states and other multilateral agencies (more by the latter than by the former in Asia) as a potent threat to health and global human security, it is considered as a form of encroachment on the right to freedom of religion by a section of religious minorities in India and therefore boycotted by them. The negligible headway such campaigns have been able to make in particularly some Islamic countries including Bangladesh is held responsible for the continuing menace of polio in the world. Security defined in this maximal sense lies at the root of a community’s perceived threat to rights. As one of our respondents who refused to get her child inoculated pointed out: “You do not provide us with two square meals a day, and now you have come to vaccinate us!” For her, right to food is much more important than the right to be vaccinated against contagious diseases.    



Separating Human Rights from Human Security



Hence, it is important that we keep security outside our everyday exchanges and transactions with the state. Our everyday transactions and exchanges with the state are supposed to be conducted in the language of rights. The state in its functioning according to the Constitution and laws of the land should not do anything that abrogates or curtails our rights and freedoms as much as our obligation is implicitly limited to the state that respects our rights and freedoms. The state’s claim to our obligation stems from its ability to secure – and not securitize them. Claim-making politics bases itself on an oppositional template of course with a wide range of variations. By contrast, I propose to reserve the concept of ‘security’ to refer to those extraordinary situations in which the state feels it necessary to offer reasons in support of the abrogation and curtailment of the spheres of everyday exchanges and transactions with its citizens and their rights for preserving the overall societal order. Homoeostasis is meant for managing the diverse elements within a given order. ‘National interest’ as a concept seeks to capture the overall nature of our interests. The reasons are held as necessary by the state because it otherwise finds it impossible to ensure security without abrogating and curtailing the rights enshrined and guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the land and maybe the international law. It is an extraordinary situation that calls for extraordinary response. Not all of us are always prepared to buy the reasons offered by the state. The security reasons – as we see - find their strongest critics amongst the human rights activists. In simple terms, we feel that the security reasons and the reasons of citizens’ rights are distinct and it is important that we keep these two reasons apart. Unfortunately however, under conditions of acute insecurity, these two reasons are messed up as I pointed out - and the state is licensed to kill thousands, maim millions and render even a greater number of people homeless in the name of security. I propose to define security only in this rather narrow and restrictive sense of the term insofar it allows itself to be subjected to the critiques of the rights-based reasons.


All that I say here is not meant for taking us back to the traditional notion of security. But by extending the scope of security, we are in effect ruling out the reasons of rights, justice and democracy and subsuming them under the reason of the state and human security. My intervention is only to emphasize the point that what is called non-traditional security implies securitization and therefore undoing of some of the very traditional concerns of Social and Political Theory – like rights, justice and democracy.