Where has the Sovereign gone? Human Security and the Entrenchment of State Power
Despite the promises of the 1994 UNDP Report, the shift in international security towards a full-on embrace of human security has proven elusive. Instead, the sovereign state has entrenched itself by subordinating individual human security to political interests.
On its release, the 1994 UNDP Report was seen by many as a beacon of hope for shifting the existing approach to international security. The fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of intrastate wars, and the increased recognition of human rights engendered the right dose of political momentum to move past the state-centric view of security to one centered around the individual, vested in the concept of human security. Yet, almost thirty years since its initial release, the extent to which its ideals have beenrealized is hotly contested.
On the side of optimism, Andersen-Rodgers and Crawford’s book Human Security: Theory and Action provides compelling evidence to suggest that human security has indeed moved past the nation-state. It is mainly focused on the top-down adoption of the concept by global actors. On the more skeptical side of the debate, and armed with empirical data, Ken Booth argues that this discursive change towards human security ‘has hardly dented business as usual and in practice, some governments have co-opted the concept to portray themselves as ‘good international citizens,’ while keeping the same old policies. One does not have to venture too far into the empirical record (the recent invasion of Ukraine, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the 2015 Migration crisis) to see that Booth’s prognosis was accurate.
Instead, we have witnessed how the sovereign state has entrenched itself through the externalization of transnational crisis management and the subordination of human security to political interests.
Although human security has entered the mainstream discourse in high-level politics, it failed to materialize the promise that the individual should trump the state. Instead, we have witnessed how the sovereign state has entrenched itself through the externalization of transnational crisis management and the subordination of human security to political interests. In light of this, the EU’s externalization of migration and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan can be seen as part and parcel of this ‘return of the sovereign.’
EU Externalization of Migration
The humanitarian undertone used in the EU’s official communications would suggest that their priority is human security. The Commission’s official stance claims to give utmost priority to a ‘humane and effective return policy’ while making would-be migrants aware of the dangerous and often unforgiving journey traversed to arrive in Europe. However, beyond these rhetorical and normative resources, the EU has de facto orchestrated the entrenchment of the state apparatus and its security through the externalization of migration in Turkey and Libya.
By and large, the creation of FRONTEX in tadem with billions in foreign aid seeks to actively avoid unwanted migrant influxes. This policy has led in turn to two parallel processes of state entrenchment. First, Member States treat EU institutions as instruments of their national interests to prevent would-be migrants from reaching their national borders. By the same token, this policy delegates responsibility to their neighbors while granting them(Member States) extraterritorial immigration control. Second, weaker states without means (or incentives) to effectively control their borders, such as Libya or Turkey, have gained financial means and technical capacity derived from their cooperation agreements with the EU.
The EU has de facto orchestrated the entrenchment of the state apparatus and its security through the externalization of migration in Turkey and Libya.
The externalization of migration in Libya took hold via EUBAM Libya and Operation Sophia. EUBAM’s mandate focused on ‘border management, law enforcement, and criminal justice’ in an effort to disrupt organized criminal networks. Yet it also demarcated the sidestepping of their responsibilities under international law towards would-be asylum seekers by forcing them to stay in third countries. Moreover, Operation Sophia was a military operation in Libya’s territorial waters that ran without ever reducing the number of deaths nor dismantling the smuggling networks. Today, Operation Sophia is no longer in operation, but EUBAM will continue operating until 2023. Both of these policies show that the state’s hard power in responding to security threats gives a prerogative to state security disguised in individual human security claims.
The state’s hard power in responding to security threats gives a prerogative to state security disguised in individual human security claims.
In the case of Turkey, the externalization policy was exacerbated due to the proximity of Syria and the millions of refugees caused by its civil war. Given Turkey’s aspiration for EU membership, the country is sensitive to EU regulations, including those related to migration. In an almost quid pro quo fashion, the EU promised Turkey less stringent visa policies for its nationals and billions of euros in aid in exchange for keeping Syrian refugees. Firstly, The Readmission Agreement allows for the repatriation of third-country nationals from the Schengen Area who used Turkey as a transit route. It also includes technical and financial assistance for the deployment of detention centers and the militarization of its borders. Secondly, The Joint Action Plan contained 3 billion euros in installments for preventing any irregular crossings along the Turkish-Greek border. As shown above, purely discursive approaches by the EU claiming to ensure human security are at odds with their actual policies that respond to political pressures at home.
US Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Informed by political calculations at home and abroad, President Joe Biden decided to carry out the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving Afghan citizens on the brink of starvation and vulnerable to human rights violations. The 2001 deployment of troops in Afghanistan aiming to dismantle Al-Qaeda was a legitimate reaction to the 9/11 attacks, but not a human security effort. However, ex-post, the international community decided to support ‘complex-democracy building efforts’ without much success. To date it is the longest and one of the most expensive wars in American history. The Costs of War Project estimates 775,000 American servicemen deployed, resulting in 176,000 Afghan people killed and 2.313 trillion dollars spent. These staggering numbers caused domestic pressures at home and eventually caused collective ‘War Fatigue’.
In the official narrative, President Biden asserted that after twenty years of boots on the ground and after training more than ‘300,000 Afghan National Security Forces’, it is up to the Afghan people to continue fighting for their country against the Taliban. For some pundits, this address signaled that it no longer matters to the US (if it ever did) ‘whether the Taliban is in power in Afghanistan’. In turn, this decision, informed by political calculations (prioritizing the national interests and concerns of rising China), has come at the expense of the welfare of the Afghan people. Based on her fieldwork, researcher Ashley Jackson has shown that during the War in Afghanistan, the Taliban was able to establish a shadow government by co-opting government offices and aid agencies to provide public goods and services. Additionally, the US has kept frozen billions of dollars in government funds due to sanctions. In December of last year, UN officials confirmed that if the US freeze on Afghan assets continues it would deepen Afghanistan’s economic crisis, putting the most vulnerable on the edge of mass starvation. As of March 2022, it seems that famine has been averted, but economic vulnerability remains alive and well. Not needing to go far into the matter, it is evident that human security concerns have not taken hold in foreign policy.
If the US freeze on Afghan assets continues it would deepen Afghanistan’s economic crisis putting the most vulnerable on the edge of mass starvation.
Old Wine, New Bottles
Both of these cases show that the implementation of human security has taken a turn, by disguising ‘the old wine’ in ‘new bottles’ but showing few signs of an actual shift toward cosmopolitan democracy and democratic cosmopolitanism. Lastly, writing never happens in a vacuum nor is it isolated from the political realities of the day. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has occurred to the disbelief of the international community (myself included). Yet, this critical juncture in international politics is another tell-tale sign that the position of ‘the state’ as an organizing actor remains strong.