Human Security in the Asia Pacific: Puzzle, Panacea, or Peril?

Human Security in the Asia Pacific: Puzzle, Panacea, or Peril?
Amitav Acharya

A new concept of security is haunting academic and policy-making circles in Asia offering hope and simultaneously provoking skepticism and fear. In the early 1990s, the notion of “cooperative security” dominated debates about a new security architecture in the post-Cold War era. Now, human security is presenting a different kind of challenge, not so much as an organizing framework for a regional multilateral order, but as a frontal challenge to the state- and regime-centric notions of security that had until now held sway in the region

But what is human security? How does it differ from apparently similar and non-traditional security concepts like cooperative security and comprehensive security, the buzzwords of security discourse in the region during the 1990s? What is the scope of human security and how can be operationalised? What are the challenges and opportunities it presents to governments and peoples in the region?

While the concept of human security has attracted much attention in the West, including in Canada, it remains poorly understood and contested in Asia. This paper is an attempt to address these questions by drawing upon recent debates about the concept in the region, including a conference of think-tanks in Southeast Asia (ASEAN-ISIS) in July 2000.

Human Security as a Contested Notion
In Asia as elsewhere, a debate over the exact definition and scope of human security persists. The concept can be, and has been, understood in a variety of ways. The term traces its origin to a landmark UNDP report in 1994 which outlined seven distinct elements of human security: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political. Indeed, many definitions of human security in Asia have adopted a similar broad definition of the concept, including, but not necessarily limited to, human rights, environmental degradation, poverty, crime, terrorism, gender and social biases and health and natural disasters. On the other hand, the very broadness of the concept has been criticised for detracting from the analytical utility of the concept.

Moreover, the definition of human security is marked by important conceptual ambiguities. Perhaps the most important point of departure in understanding human security is its focus on the human being. Human security is a concept that brings to the fore the safety and dignity of the individual human person, as opposed to the power and authority of the state or the regime. This point may also be crucial to exploring the distinctive nature of human security and answering whether this is a new concept or simply old wine in a new bottle. Many Asian scholars argue that the broad range of threats constituting the human security paradigm is a rehash of the old Asian notion of “comprehensive security” developed by Japan and the ASEAN members. That concept too is noted for going beyond strictly military aspects of security and encompassing such non-traditional areas as economic development, political stability and environmental degradation. But it is the emphasis on human rights, which was missing from comprehensive security, which is crucial to a conceptual differentiation between the two notions.

In the view of this observer, the distinction between comprehensive security and human security lies in three areas. First, the difference is between a focus on human need (comprehensive security), as opposed to human rights (human security). Secondly, while comprehensive security answers to the question: which threats to security, the core question of human security is “whose security”? Third, while the political element of comprehensive security focuses on “order” and “stability”, human security is geared more to justice and emancipation. These differences, especially the salience of the “human person”, set human security apart from other, related notions of security that have emerged as an alternative to the traditional state-centric national security paradigm.

Asian conceptions of comprehensive security, as some participants at the ASEAN 2020 conference claimed, have in the past incorporated the human rights dimensions. For example, the definition of comprehensive security adopted by CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific) in a recent memorandum refers to the “dignity of the human person”. One ASEAN-ISIS scholar argues strenuously that this definition of comprehensive security does “take care” of the security of the “individual, community and the state”.

If so, then the question of priorities becomes important. A fair way of appreciating the distinctive nature of human security is to consider the historical context underpinning its emergence. Comprehensive security emerged at a time when regimes looked at economic growth and domestic political order/stability as the chief “ideology” of security, both national and regional. Remember the Indonesian-inspired notions of national and regional “resilience”. Comprehensive security thus served as a tool of national security which was often a fig leaf for regime survival and legitimation. Human security, on the other hand, takes the dignity of the human person as an end in itself, not as an instrument, or by-product, of regime survival or legitimation.

While the meaning of human security remains unclear and controversial, it has gained some degree of acceptability in the minds of the region’s security intellectuals.

The Need for Human Security
Why the emphasis on human security now? In the international arena, human security emerged out of the post-Cold War search for a new security paradigm, a process which was pushed by the spread of democratization and human rights norms, including prosecution of war crimes, humanitarian intervention. The declining salience of state sovereignty vis-à-vis the rights of the individual contributed to this shift in thinking about security. Another important catalyst was growing recognition of the severe human costs of violent conflict, including acute human sufferings caused by lanmines, small arms and the proliferation of child soldiers.

But in Asia, recognition of the human security concept appears to have been a response to a more immediate catastrophe: the financial crisis in the later part of the 1990s. The crisis dramatically increased the incidence of poverty, undermined the fruits of decades of development, caused widespread political instability (the most dramatic case being Indonesia), and aggravated inter-state tensions over refugees and illegal migration. It also underscored the need for good governance (to the extent that corruption, nepotism and cronyism was blamed for the crisis) and environmentally sustainable development (especially in the wake of the forest fires in the region attributed to reckless development and corruption). Moreover, the crisis underscored the crucial need for social safety nets for the poor, something ignored in the heady days of growth. In fact, in his opening address to the ASEAN 2020 Conference, the Foreign Minister of Thailand, Surin Pitsuan, stressed the link between the concept of human security and the need for social safety nets in the wake of the regional economic downturn.

These differences in context are extremely important to keep in mind when considering how far Asian policy-makers will embrace the notion of human security. In general, conservative Asian specialists see human security more in terms of its economic and social aspects (social safety nets, poverty alleviation) than its political dimension (e.g. human rights). But others, including younger academics, stress the political nature of human security, arguing for the need to separate it from state and regime security.

Such differences mirror debates about human security at the broader global level. Consider, for example, the substantive differences in interpreting the rationale for human security between Japan and Canada, the two main protagonists of the concept in the world today.

The Canadian formulation defines human security as “security of the people” and identifies the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions as the “core elements” of the doctrine of human security. Although it acknowledges the 1994 UNDP Human Development Report as the source of the “specific phrase” human security, and as such an important contributor to the post-Cold War thinking about security, it critiques that Report for focusing too much on threats associated with underdevelopment and ignoring “human insecurity resulting from violent conflict”. From this perspective, “the concept of human security has increasingly centered on the human costs of violent conflict.” Canadian policy documents have identified the campaign against landmines and efforts to create an International Criminal Court as two prime examples of human security initiatives.

The Japanese conception of human security presents an important contrast with the Canadian notion. While acknowledging that “[t]here are two basic aspects to human security – freedom from fear and freedom from want,” it criticizes those who “focus solely” on the first aspect, and related initiatives such as control of small arms and prosecution of war crimes. While the latter is important: In Japan’s view, however, human security is a much broader concept. We believe that freedom from want is no less critical than freedom from fear. So long as its objectives are to ensure the survival and dignity of individuals as human beings, it is necessary to go beyond thinking of human security solely in terms of protecting human life in conflict situations.

Thus, we have different conceptions of human security today: one focusing on the human costs of violent conflict, another stressing human needs in the path to sustainable development. A third conception, approximating the first more than the second, emphasizes the rights (meaning human rights) dimensions of human security without necessarily linking to the costs of violent conflict. Many some younger scholars in Asia, especially from the relatively more open societies, are now highlighting the rights dimension in the context of the Asian economic crisis. In their view, the Asian crisis brought the notion of human security dimension into sharp focus not simply because it increased the incidence of human poverty and misery. More importantly, the Asian crisis exposed the intellectual poverty of ideas which had held sway in the region earlier. These ideas include “performance legitimacy” (the belief that rapid economic growth and political stability – a shorthand for strong, authoritarian government – would take care of threats to the human person), and “society over self” (associated with the “Asian values” school, which privileged regime security over individual choice). According to this view, the key lesson of the Asia crisis is that human rights and democratization must now be regarded as being indispensable components of human security. To pursue a notion of human security through economic growth and political stability alone and without regard to human rights and political participation, would be counterproductive. Governments which follow such a path could ultimately suffer the fate of Suharto’s Indonesia, featuring a dramatic collapse of human security.

Human Security and Civil Society
Creating greater space for civil society is crucial to developing human security – with its normative predisposition against exclusive attention to state interests and role – into a workable paradigm. Thailand post-1992 offers a striking example of the positive correlation between the empowerment of civil society through democratisation and the promotion of human security. Following the Bloody May Incident in May 1992, Thailand moved steadily in the path to democratization. Its new constitution, adopted in 1997, followed by a series of legislative measures governing elections, political parties and other democratic reforms, ensured a strong representation of the civil society in the political process and governance. For example, civil society groups are now formally represented in election committees at all levels. They were closely consulted in the drafting of the 1997 constitution, even when they were not members of the official Constitution Drafting Assembly. The result has been striking. At the height of the economic crisis, Thai NGOs pressured the government into allocating foreign loans (including portions of the over US$1 billion from the Miyazawa Fund that Thailand received to help with its economy recovery) to relieve poverty and develop social safety nets (an important element of human security).

The growing assertiveness of regional NGOs, especially since the economic crisis, also suggests how the traditional security debate in the region is changing in ways conducive to the promotion of human security. Over the last decade, an active “Track-III” NGOs network has emerged in the region, mobilising over human rights issues in Burma and East Timor, and environmental disasters such as the forest fires in Indonesia. Most of the NGO community focuses on domestic governance issues, but some have taken up problems with transnational implications. Human security draws attention to precisely the kind of issues which the NGO community has traditionally campaigned for, including human rights, environment, poverty alleviation and social safety nets. Thus, human security offers a suitable conceptual medium through which NGOs can claim entry into policy circles previously closed to them. A growing willingness on the part of semi-government Track-II players to engage representatives from the NGO community is perhaps one of the most striking new developments in regional security dialogues compared to the early 1990s.

One major initiative in this regard is the ASEAN Peoples Assembly to be held in November 2000 in Batam, Indonesia, coinciding with a meeting of ASEAN leaders. While the holding of parallel summits of NGOs in conjunction with ASEAN and APEC gatherings has become commonplace in the region, initiatives such as the ASEAN Peoples Assembly, which would discuss issues such as globalisation, resources and the environment, poverty, social capital, civil society, open society, role of media, status of women, etc., are intended to create a more interactive and cooperative policy coordination channel involving governments and NGOs.

On the whole, however, Asian regional institutions remain distant from the region’s social movements. For example, currently there is no mechanism for NGOs to play a role in ASEAN institutions. The ASEAN Secretariat accredits semi-official groups like ASEAN-ISIS but not human rights or environmental movements. This is different from institutions in Europe or Latin America (such as MERCOSUR), which have developed a social mechanism to ensure NGO participation, not just representation or accreditation, in the policy-making process.

Human Security and the Future of Multilateralism
What role for regional multilateral institutions in promoting human security? Unlike the notion of cooperative security, human security does not carry with it an emphasis on multilateralism. The key principle of cooperative security is inclusiveness (often described as the principle of “security with, as opposed to security against”), irrespective of political or ideological differences among states. But a rights-oriented conception of human security does create a new kind of ideological divide among states, thereby presenting a new challenge to multilateral institutions geared to cooperative security.

The ideal of human security can be pursued through both national, bilateral or multilateral channels. But multilateral institutions can promote new security ideas, popularize norms associated with them, and offer modalities to operationalise them. Such forums can help promote dialogue between democratic and authoritarian regimes over human security. It has been pointed out in Asian debates over the concept that introducing human security as a new paradigm would facilitate more serious discussion of hitherto politically sensitive issues such as human rights and democracy. Governments in the region often refuse to discuss human rights and democratization in open multilateral settings, but they are more willing to engage in debates about human security which incorporate such issues. Even the more conservative members of the policy community in ASEAN, including heads of ASEAN-ISIS group of think tanks, are willing to be engaged in debates about human security, even as they continue to express misgivings about the novelty and the broad sweep of the concept.

In Asia, the chief multilateral security forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum, is now 7 years old. Since inception, the ARF has been generally statist, geared to addressing the traditional security dilemma between states (and the region has plenty of problems which flow from this rather conventional notion), with measures such as confidence-building, preventive diplomacy and at a later stage, conflict resolution. Can human security be adapted into this multilateral framework. If so, how?

The ARF, according to one school of thought, should not be turned into a human security institution that develops expertise on all its component areas. Getting the ARF to address poverty alleviation or disease prevention can overwhelm its agenda and distract it from its vital task of ameliorating traditional inter-state problems. But the ARF can turn to more specialized agencies, or help create such agencies, which could deal with the non-conventional aspects of human security. At the same time, certain issues can be more amenable to the ARF’s agenda, such as environmental security, cross border movements and drugs. Issues of human safety arising from transnational crime are already being discussed through related Track-II forums such as CSCAP. Since APEC deals with issues such as human resources and technology, institutional collaboration between APEC and ARF can be undertaken. One possible step here is the creation of a working group on human security involving ARF, APEC and ASEAN. This could avoid unnecessary duplication and develop synergy, which allowing each institution to focus on its primary geographic and functional roles.

The role of ASEAN and ARF in promoting human security has to be seen in the context of their evolving role in regional order in the wake of the Asian crisis. The crisis highlighted the “timid” state of multilateralism and the inadequacy of traditional ASEAN-led approaches. Demands are now growing for reforms to ASEAN and ARF, before they could be expected to develop a human security role.

At the conference, the ARF was criticized for being too process-oriented. Even if 7 years is a short time to pass any definitive judgment about its performance, better results should be expected. The step-by-step dialogue and process-oriented approach no longer inspires much confidence. The ARF Concept Paper, according to one ASEAN scholar, is now “dead in the water” and policy-makers must now go back to the drawing board to lend the ARF a new lease of life. The ARF needs to be much more institutionalized, especially by agreeing to the development of a small secretariat, and adopting “real” confidence-building measures. ASEAN’s “driver’s seat” position in the ARF should also be reevaluated, although on this point, academic opinions remain at variance with official views in ASEAN (Vietnam being an important case in point here).

While greater institutionalisation of regional security cooperation is called, for, what is meant by institutionalization remains unclear and contested. In the case of the ARF for example, should it involve, in addition to a secretariat, a greater number of meetings, instead of the three or four that is currently being undertaken, or should it involve developing rule-based cooperation backed by some form of sanction against non-compliance? In other words, should institutionalization include greater “legalisation” rather than enhanced interaction (more meetings) per se. It appears that Asian academics prefer the latter. Legalisation in the sense of rule-based cooperation creates uneasiness even at a time when impatience with the ARF’s slow motion approach is growing.

ASEAN faces similar calls for reforms to its time-honoured principles and practices. The East Timor crisis (which ASEAN failed to respond with any collective measure) highlighted the need for a regional peacekeeping training centre, which could become an important aspect of human security defined in terms of reducing the human costs of conflict. ASEAN has initiated some steps recently to pursue a more assertive role in conflict management, the most important being the adoption of a “troika” system of representatives which could offer good offices in a regional conflict. But doubts remains as to how effective will such an instrument be, given the sensitivities about sovereignty prevailing in the region. And will collective regional mediation prove acceptable in some situations involving sensitive bilateral relationships? As one participant put it, will a Singaporean representative in the ASEAN troika be acceptable in dealing with an internal conflict in Malaysia, given the traditional animosities between these two states?

Human Security and the Doctrine of Non-Interference
In so far as the role of regional institutions in promoting human security is concerned, few issues have attracted more debate than the doctrine of non-interference. Surin Pitsuan, the Thai Foreign Minister and a key advocate of the concept, provided a graphic example of the resistance of ASEAN to any change in the doctrine. In remarks to the ASEAN 2020 conference which he himself described as “baring his soul”, Surin described how fellow ASEAN foreign ministers, including a “stone-faced” Ali Alatas, the then Indonesian Foreign Minister dismissed his proposal for “flexible engagement”, when Surin first presented the idea in Manila in 1997. Flexible engagement was not a proposal for human security per se, although it did call for more “frank” discussion within ASEAN about sensitive political, economic and social issues, including human rights problems in troubled states like Burma.

Without a less stringent view of its non-interference doctrine, ASEAN may find it difficult to develop a meaningful approach to human security. Yet, the need for such an approach has never been stronger. The challenge to ASEAN’s non-interference doctrine comes from three sources. First, the global political context which made the norm so crucial to ASEAN during its formative years has changed. The norm was adopted from the UN Charter at a time when the newly independent ASEAN members still harbored vivid memories of colonialism and saw themselves as potential or actual victims of superpower rivalry. Non-interference provided a shield against the Cold War and offered an important basis for conducting intra-regional relations without challenging the post-colonial territorial status quo that would have proven especially destabilising. But with international norms, including those of the UN moving away from a strict adherence to non-interference, ASEAN can ill afford to remain inflexible.

Secondly, ASEAN’s founding members were relatively strong states who could cope with internal instability through a measure of repression and economic performance. Today, ASEAN counts a number of weak, or “near-failed” states as its members, states which require positive and pro-active assistance from other ASEAN members even if this will entail some degree of interference in their domestic affairs. Finally, ASEAN needs to deal with a host of new problems which were not salient during the initial years of its existence. Some of these problems may originate within the domestic realm of its members, but could have a clear regional implication and cause serious tensions among them. The haze problem, or the contagion effect of falling currencies resulting owing to domestic economic mismanagement by a member state, clearly falls within this category. A strict adherence to non-interference can ill position ASEAN to deal with such challenges.

Overall then, the need to rethink non-interference should be seen not as an abstract moral concern associated with human rights protection, but as a matter of “practical” necessity without which ASEAN cannot stay relevant and address real world changes and challenges.

Possible Perils
In Asia, state responses to the human security paradigm remains cautious. There remains a strong belief that the state will retain a crucial role in promoting human security. Moreover, state security remains an important goal of many governments. As some Asian specialists point out, sometimes the state too faces genuine security challenges. For the weaker states such as Cambodia or Laos, for example, building state capacity is crucial to addressing issues such as poverty, environmental degradation and other threats associated with the human security paradigm. Neglecting the state or opposing state action can be a prescription for misery and anarchy.

Moreover, throughout Asia, notwithstanding the economic crisis, a communitarian view of politics, governance and security remains important. Some Asian analysts also think in terms of a positive co-relationship between state and human security. While the concept of human security arises from the belief that state security is insufficient at best and detrimental at worst and while there may be an inverse relationship between increased state security and promotion of human security, state and human security can also be mutually supportive. Ultimately, the relationship depends on the nature of the state. If a state is genuinely democratic, valuing its own people, protecting minority rights, it can enhance human security. At the same time, enhancing human security would strengthen the legitimacy of the state.

Due to the above considerations, governments in the region continue to be ambivalent and divided in their attitude towards human security. Official attitudes of Vietnam and Laos, for example, towards the norms of human security are marked by a fair degree of suspicion. Their representatives stress the need for the ASEAN to “stick to its principles”, especially those of non-interference and comprehensive security. Their governments see human security as a challenge to regime survival.

In a region where traditional conceptions of sovereignty remain paramount and where the pace of democratisation lags behind other economically dynamic part of the world, such as Latin America, Asia will take its time in embracing the notion of human security. Asian security discourses remain at a flux, reflecting divisions between the traditional statist and the emerging people-oriented conceptions of security. Drawing upon the debates at the ASEAN 2020 conference, this paper has identified and distinguished between three conceptions of human security: emphasising “human need”, “human cost” and “human rights”. The need to reconcile these differences and develop a common understanding of the human security remains an important challenge for Asian and Western governments and peoples. Over the long-term, the advent of human security can make an important difference to they theory and practice of regional cooperation in Asia. But more dialogue and debate is needed for this to happen.