Defence and Human Security

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor December 1999 Volume 20 Issue 4

“Human security,” defined by the Department of Foreign Affairs as “safety for people from both violent and non-violent threats,” is now advanced as one of the fundamental objectives of Canadian foreign policy. Internationally, “human security” is increasingly recognized as the true measure of state security, and yet, in a world of some three dozen armed conflicts, in which civilian casualties far outnumber military casualties, many hundreds of millions of people today have no experience of safety or security. Entrenched economic, social, and political marginalization perpetrate a structural violence that threatens personal safety, well-being, and security and leads with alarming frequency to widespread overt violence. Lives are imperilled by both kinds of violence, a violence that is all too often perpetrated by the very services and institutions charged with the responsibility of protecting them.

Through the UN, other international agencies, and the efforts of certain national governments, the international community is gradually becoming more focussed on the imperative to provide protection to the world’s vulnerable people. The promotion of human security and peacebuilding has spawned a growing variety of concrete non-military governmental and non-governmental efforts to directly address the welfare and safety of people. The serious implementation of human security policies obviously still requires major and long-term peacebuilding efforts, aided by the significant infusion of new resources, but the acceptance of human security as a formal foreign policy objective is a major step forward.

Human security should also have major implications for defence policies and practices. When diplomacy and peacebuilding, and other economic, social, and political responses, fail and civilian populations are victimized by widespread violence and humanitarian crises, military forces are increasingly called upon to come to their rescue. But, without adapting and modifying military forces and their operations to conform to human security standards and imperatives, the world will continue to bring fundamentally inappropriate and counterproductive military responses to bear on humanitarian and human security crises – Kosovo, Chechnya, and Sudan are among the examples currently making headlines.

For more than a year, therefore, Project Ploughshares has engaged in a series of discussions and roundtables with officials of the Department of National Defence and members of the strategic affairs community, and has participated in similar events organized by others, in an effort to explore in some detail what the defence implications of human security ought to be for defence planning. If human security is fundamentally about protecting people and attending to their safety and welfare, military operations guided by a human security doctrine should obviously give priority to the protection of people over the pursuit of other military and strategic objectives.

The following discussion paper, presented to a conference of military analysts organized by the Canadian Institute for Strategic Studies, explores ways in which current military policy and practice would have to be reshaped to begin to bring human security values and standards to bear upon the mandate and action of Canadian military forces. (Key issues such as the legal dimensions of military humanitarian intervention are not addressed in this discussion, but are part of the broader effort to understand and shape the defence implications of human security.)

Defence and human security

It is to Canada’s great credit that the concepts or principles of human security and peacebuilding are increasingly drawn on to give additional shape and substance to Canadian foreign policy. Through the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Peacebuilding and Human Security Division of the department, Canada has also played an important role in promoting these concepts internationally and in seeking to give them operational expression among governments and international organizations and within a range of foreign policy issues as diverse as development assistance and arms control. The Department of National Defence in Canada too has traditionally understood peacebuilding to be directly relevant to its mandate, long before it became known as peacebuilding. Post-conflict peacekeeping at its best is specifically oriented to do what peacebuilding is designed to do – that is, to contribute to the creation of social, economic, political and security conditions conducive to stability and the durable safety of citizens. While the related concept or doctrine of human security may not be as readily taken on board by military planners, it too is directly relevant to defence policy on at least three counts: 1) it helps to redefine the roots and nature of security (and hence, helps to redefine the threats that need priority attention); 2) human security doctrine expands the security obligations of states beyond their borders and in the process imposes requirements for particular military capabilities; and 3) human security doctrine imposes special limits or constraints on military to make them appropriate to the task of protecting populations in the midst of political, social and humanitarian crises.

Human security and military operations

Redefining the threat

The point of highlighting the “human” in human security is to redress an imbalance in security discourse that has attached disproportionate attention to the security of the state, with little regard for the safety of persons within the borders of that state. While the security and behaviour of states are obviously central to the security of persons, the inordinate focus on sovereignty, state structures, the military defence of territory, and, in too many cases, straightforward regime survival, frequently comes at the expense of, and with little regard for, the security, welfare, or safety of persons. It is not that the doctrine of human security emphasizes personal security over state security, rather it makes human safety the measure of state security – the extent to which the people of a particular state live in freedom and safety, under just laws, and with their essential needs met, is the extent to which that state is secure. Human security values identify the safety and welfare of people as the central objectives of state security.

It follows that the primary threats to the safety and welfare of individuals are not external military forces bent on imposing their will on an otherwise safe and stable national order. Rather, the primary threats to people are internal and manifest in conditions of economic failure, the violation of basic rights, and of political marginalization. It thus follows, according to the human security doctrine, that the primary guarantor of national security is not a formidable military equipped to keep foreign powers at bay, but favourable social, political and economic conditions – making the promotion of human development, human rights, and democracy essential and primary national security measures.

Military obligations beyond borders

The most radical or demanding feature of the doctrine of human security is its assertion that states have an obligation to protect and serve the welfare of persons wherever they are (not only those at home). When particular states either don’t or can’t meet the basic security needs of their people, or, as is often the case, when state authorities actively undermine the security of segments of their populations in order to advance regime security, then, according to human security doctrine, the international community has an obligation to intervene on behalf of the vulnerable. “We live in a new world,” Vaclav Havel said on his visit to Canada, “in which all of us must begin to bear responsibility for everything that occurs” (Longworth 1999).

In other words, human security is an unabashedly interventionist doctrine – the implications of which are profound. If states, individually and collectively, have obligations to come to the protection of people beyond their own borders, it is within the borders of, and for the citizens of, other sovereign states that these responsibilities are to be carried out. As such it is a doctrine of mutual support and accountability that rejects the notion that sovereignty should be a barrier behind which states can do whatever they want to their citizens.

But therein lies a discomforting irony. On the one hand, human security doctrine certainly asserts that, in the final analysis, the long-term safety and well-being of individuals and communities do not depend so much on military protection as they do on favourable and sustainable social, political and economic conditions. On the other hand, it is human security’s heightened attention to the fate of civilian populations in perilous circumstances that generates much of the pressure for timely military humanitarian interventions. As the comparatively heavy demands on the Canadian Armed Forces during the post-Cold War decade now ending confirm, despite increased attention to conflict prevention measures and to peacebuilding responses to armed conflict, the demand for military forces capable of operating far from home in a variety of challenging, dangerous, and intractable conflict environments has increased rather than declined (this increase is due, not to an increase in the number of armed conflicts, but to increased support for external intervention in such conflicts). The doctrine of human security, while giving prominence to the non-military foundations of security, has nevertheless animated much of the current demand for miliary intervention where individuals and communities are in grave peril and where local social, political, and security institutions cannot protect them.

Obviously the early and primary response to persons in peril – for example, victims of grievous human rights abuses or conflict-induced famine – is diplomacy and humanitarian relief. Peacebuilding efforts are intended to respond to immediate emergency needs and to go beyond that to the effort to build conditions conducive to sustainable peace. The question of military intervention comes to the fore when access to endangered populations is blocked and when conditions are so unstable and violent as to leave large numbers of people at great risk.

There is still little agreement on when and under what conditions, and under whose authority, state sovereignty can be overridden in the interests of persons in grave peril, but the obligation in principle to intervene in support of such persons has growing political relevance (even though it remains an obligation that is only sporadically and inconsistently met).

Operational constraints

When circumstances do lead to widespread violence against the civilian population and to urgent demands for military interventions to protect them, human security doctrine has much to say about what constitutes appropriate and constructive action. NGOs operating in conflict environments understand that their first and minimum obligation is to “do no harm” (Anderson 1996). At the very least, NGOs must give serious care to ensuring that their efforts to bring relief to suffering populations do not exacerbate conflict, prolong war, or, in the end, make matters worse than they would have been had they just stayed out of it. It is a requirement that is no less applicable to military interventions. Not only human security doctrine but also humanitarian law require that military operations protect civilians. The familiar additional ethical criteria for using military force include the requirement that such force is likely to succeed in achieving its military objectives and, especially, that such success will create conditions more conducive to peace and in which peace is more likely to endure; that the use of force will reduce the danger to civilian populations; that damage will be proportional to the objective; and that force is authorized by a lawful authority. These are in effect moral and social tests designed to ensure that human security – the safety and protection of people in the short and long term – will in fact be advanced by the resort to lethal force. In other words, if military force is to be used in the interests of people in peril, it must use means and practices that themselves serve the interest and safety of people.

From peacekeeping to war-fighting

Peacekeeping intervention

Classical peacekeeping is the form of military intervention with the most extensive operational constraints. It permits only a minimal resort to force, and for peacekeeping to be effective under those conditions essentially requires that the lawful authority that mandates intervention must be the sovereign state on whose territory the intervention is to take place (foreign intervention without the permission of the local authority would inevitably involve much greater resort to force or to the threat of force).

Operating under conditions of consent and with severe constraints on the use of force, traditional peacekeeping in a sense reflects the international community’s deep caution toward military interventions in active armed conflicts. In some cases it also reflects an unconscionable level of tolerance for human suffering as the international community waits for war exhaustion to finally lead to negotiations and a settlement that includes provisions for peacekeeping by consent (following which, post-conflict peacekeeping then monitors the cease-fire and, if all goes well, watches over the process of rehabilitation and reconstruction, and the re-establishing of political institutions and governance systems that enjoy the confidence of, and serve the human security needs of, the people).

Fortunately, human security doctrine and values are reducing public tolerance for non-involvement (at least in the cases that make the evening news). It is becoming less acceptable to wait for exhaustion to end conflicts that are doing enormous harm to civilians in the process. In effect, human security values help to make the attentive public much more conscious of the collateral damage of non-intervention. The refusal to become directly involved, we are being reminded, is far from cost free; every day the costs of the world’s many wars must be counted in the many and largely uncounted lives that are lost around the world. The human security doctrine is trying to sensitise us to the sins of omission as well as those of commission.

Human security considerations are reducing the level of tolerance for inaction, and are increasing demand for diplomatic intervention in intractable conflicts – as a result of which political leadership is now more frequently called upon to make deliberate decisions on whether or not to intervene with military forces when local consent is not available.

Classical deterrence and war-fighting

Unfortunately, when peacekeeping in response to local consent is not available, the tried though frequently not true method of intervention that is turned to tends to be the one at the other end of the spectrum, namely that of deterrence and war-fighting. The chief question that human security doctrine (as well as traditional just-war theory) compels us to ask is whether such war-fighting interventions give primacy to the safety and welfare of people. It is possible to argue that the short-term escalation of violence and destruction that is likely to accompany full-scale combat intervention can be justified if the result is the greater safety and well-being of people in the long run. In other words, under human security doctrine war-fighting is not by definition ruled out as a contribution to the protection of people in peril. Tanzania’s 1978 intervention in Uganda, not without its costs and casualties, is widely claimed to have been successful in the sense that it hastened the demise of a despotic regime and hastened the day when the people of Uganda could begin serious rebuilding and attending to human security needs.

Other combat interventions, like Desert Storm and this year’s NATO war on Yugoslavia, are also widely asserted to be successful, but here it is rather more difficult to conclude that human security was advanced. That the greater safety and well-being of the people of Iraq and Yugoslavia were served – in either the short-run or long-run – by these, is questioned not only by critics in the peace movement. In the context of NATO in Yugoslavia, British General Sir Michael Rose identifies the key obligation that a human security sensibility imposes on combat operations. He writes: “In humanitarian warfare, the main political and military effort must be directed towards preserving the condition of civil populations. It is clear that NATO’s strategic planners entirely failed to understand this shift. They wrongly concentrated their resources on the destruction of the military capability of the Yugoslav forces, with disastrous results for the Kosovo Albanians” (Rose 1999).

It will seem odd to military leaders that a military operation is criticised for focussing its attacks on opposing military forces, but the point is that NATO military action in Yugoslavia against Yugoslav forces was not preoccupied with protecting civilians. Certainly, the immediate impact, now widely accepted, was increased terror and suffering, and in the longer term Yugoslavs are still denied humane governance and respect for human rights – and to their continuing endurance of those hostile social and political conditions must now be added the hardships of post-war reconstruction.

Though defended by appeals to human security, the NATO military strategy in Yugoslavia was guided more by the doctrine of deterrence than the doctrine of human security – and military deterrence and the protection of civilians are not the same thing. It’s clear that the ultimate deterrent weapon (nuclear) does not lend itself to advancing military objectives that are essential to protection – like controlling territory or turning back opposing forces (without destroying everything else along with them). Deterrent weapons are designed to promise and deliver unacceptable pain and destruction. They are not designed to, and cannot, offer protection. The conventional airborne military forces employed in Yugoslavia were essentially in that same mold – capable of delivering pain and destruction, but not of protecting people. Backed by such forces, it is possible for diplomats to issue threats in the hope that despotic leaders will be transformed by threat and persuaded finally to do the right thing and begin to meet their human security obligations toward their citizens. But when despots fail to be transformed by threat, military action from 20,000 feet up can make good on the threat, but it can’t deliver on the obligation to protect the vulnerable. And military action designed to punish unrepentant despots frequently has the unfortunate consequence of leaving the despots firmly in place and punishing their already vulnerable people instead.

For military interventions to serve human security objectives they have to be on the ground, take physical control of territory, police it in accord with international standards, and thus protect populations. Of course, NATO’s strategy in Yugoslavia was to first inflict pain and to coerce the Yugoslav regime into relinquishing the territory that participating NATO states argued would otherwise have to be won through costly ground battles. But NATO’s failure to prevent mass killings or the massive displacement of the population, and the priority it placed on saving military lives over civilian lives, disqualify it as a human security operation. Henry Kissinger made the same point: “fear of the pictures of allied casualties caused [NATO] to adopt a military strategy that, perversely, magnified the suffering of the populations on whose behalf the war was ostensibly being fought” (Kissinger 1999).

Between peacekeeping and war-fighting

A defence policy for the 21st Century, if it is to give priority to human security and to protecting vulnerable people, requires another model. In instances of egregious violations of the rights and safety of civilians, and in which the prospects for terminating the fighting are remote, either through diplomacy or military action, the challenge is to find a means of bringing protection to those in peril without getting drawn into destructive combat. CARE of Canada has defined this alternative model as “a military operation whose primary purpose is the relief of human suffering. This distinguishes such efforts from peace-keeping, whose basic goal is monitoring political and military accords; and from large-scale warfare, in which relief of human suffering is a goal secondary to strategic, economic and political concerns” (Gordon & Wirick 1995, p. 1, quoting Michael J. Mazarr).

This middle option of military humanitarian intervention, focussed on protecting civilians, implies a capacity to exercise military force in a hostile military environment without actually becoming a belligerent in the war. The point here is not to insist that there can by definition never be instances when an intervening force can become a belligerent and, in the style of Tanzania’s action in Uganda, press for a military solution, rather, the point here is to explore military intervention operations in hostile environments when, as is most often, if not invariably, the case in current armed conflicts, it is clear that no such military “solution” is available.

Some argue, of course, that there is in fact no operational space between peacekeeping and war-fighting. Once you go beyond classical peacekeeping and the shooting starts, you are involved in acts of war, and military forces go to war in order to prevail. Once they are committed, military forces must be able to apply whatever resources are needed to meet the defined objectives. But that begs the question of just what the objectives are, and ignores the reality that there are always externally defined limits to military action. It is always constrained by a host of political and operational, and sometimes moral, considerations. The NATO attacks on Kosovo did not follow some fundamental military logic; they followed a political plan. The NATO action in Yugoslavia was severely constrained in order to meet certain imposed political requirements (no allied casualties, and don’t get drawn into a fight that doesn’t have a clear exit strategy). And the politically defined objectives specifically did not include the immediate protection of civilians. The stated objective was to punish the regime, and the primary target was said to be the Yugoslav military in the expectation that such attacks would persuade the regime to change its behaviour. And even though hundreds of thousands of civilians were driven from their homes in the meantime, there was obviously no move to change the NATO battle plan.

All military action is under political constraints, and the issue is what those constraints are to be, and to what ends they are to be imposed. It is entirely possible to make a political decision in advance that the objective of a military action is not going to be the defeat or punishment of an offending regime, but that it will be the protection of civilians (as already noted, in Yugoslavia, NATO explicitly focussed on punishing the regime and excluded the protection of civilians as a primary objective, but, had NATO been guided by human security considerations, it could have reversed those objectives, and a very different kind of military operation would have had to follow). To accept and plan for limited objectives and for strict limitations on military options – limits that are externally and politically defined – is not unusual. And to posit a genre of military action that fits between peacekeeping and war-fighting simply proposes that the military objectives and military constraints that are a feature of all military endeavours be defined in a particular way. Military humanitarian operations clearly move in the direction of policing, which also obviously is intended to operate under strict conditions and restrictions designed to respect the rights of civilians while bringing protection to them. Mary Kaldor puts it this way: the military objective in humanitarian intervention, she says, “is to protect people rather than to engage an enemy. Humanitarian intervention is defensive and non-escalatory by definition. The focus of humanitarian intervention is the individual human being not another state. It represents a new form of military action, whose aim is to minimize casualties on all sides even if this means risking the lives of soldiers” (Kaldor 1999).

The specific and restricted objectives (protect civilians) and operational constraints (avoiding belligerent status) on humanitarian intervention reflect the pragmatism and realism that are at the core of the human security doctrine. They are a recognition that in most cases of current warfare, the intractable conflicts at their core are not amenable to quick military fixes or diplomatic heroics. Such conflicts tragically persist and persist, and to deal with them effectively the international community requires long-term peacebuilding strategies that address the fundamental social, economic and political failures that fuel them. In the meantime, the human security doctrine reminds us, the international community must also become more focussed on and better equipped to come to the aid of those civilian populations most grievously affected and imperiled.

A Canadian defence policy relevant for the 21st Century must include, as a priority, doctrinal, training, and equipment changes designed to meet the human security obligation to help bring basic protection to civilians caught in the deadly crossfire.


Anderson, Mary 1996, Do No Harm, Supporting Local Capacities for Peace through Aid, Collaborative for Development Action, Cambridge, Mass.

Gordon, Nancy and Wirick, Gregory 1995, “Humanitarian Intervention as an Instrument of Human Rights,” paper presented to the Seminar on “States Without Law: The Role of Multilateral Intervention to Restore Local Justice Systems,” University of British Columbia, December 9.

Kaldor, Mary 1999, “If war knows no bounds, why should we?,” The Guardian, July 18.

Kissinger, Henry 1999, “The End of NATO as We Know It?,” Los Angeles Times Syndicate, August 15.

Longworth, R.C. 1999, “A new kind of war,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August, Vol. 55, No. 4.

Mazarr, Michael J. 1993, “The Military Dilemmas of Humanitarian Intervention,” Security Dialogue, vol. 24 (2).

Rose, Michael 1999, “Peacekeepers fight a better war than the bombers,” The Sunday Times, June 20.

Spread the Word