Conceptions of Security

By Lydia Gitanjali Thiagarajah

We are currently living through unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned our world upside down, bringing to the fore the deep cleavages and yawning gaps that exist within communities, inefficiencies and challenges in governance, and economic, political, and societal challenges. This pandemic has also demanded a re-examination of the predominant perception and implementation of security. When thinking about the concept of security at a national or global level, we are prone to think of wars, invasions, and the balance of power politics. Indeed, this is the way in which most countries approach security. In all such interpretations, the state is the referent object and security issues are purely of a military nature. What is meant by “referent object” is essentially the question of whose security is under threat. I give a bit of global context in the audio below to explain why I care about this, or why it’s important.

Scholars and activists have been contending this dominant approach and exploring alternative conceptions of security since the end of the Cold War. The UNDP annual report of 1994 identified the concept of human security emphasizing the concern for human life and dignity. Human beings at the individual or societal level are the referent objects in this notion of security. The introduction of the concept of human security polarized scholars and practitioners. On the one hand it was argued that it is fundamental that the state remain the main referent of security, and on the other it was upheld that it is indeed people who ought to be the main referent of security.

The concept of non-traditional security, born out of the developing world, thus emerged to bridge the gap by acknowledging the complexity of security issues, and the reality of multiple referent objects. Non-traditional security issues include (but are not limited to) health security, food and water security, climate change, environmental security, transnational crime, irregular migration, and economic security. Defining features of non-traditional security are the non-military nature of the security issues, and the transnational nature of these threats.

Indeed non-traditional security issues have the potential to evolve or escalate into military conflict. Non-traditional security issues demand comprehensive solutions and regional or multilateral cooperation. Further, non-traditional security involves the process of securitization which commences with a “speech act” where an issue is designated as an “existential threat” that demands urgent action and/or special measures, and also requires the acceptance of such a designation by a significant audience. It is evident now more than ever that issues like pandemics, climate change and irregular migration are indeed issues of non-traditional security.

At the time of writing this blog post worldwide cases of COVID 19 stands at over 60 million, and deaths are inching close to 1.5 million. Unless there are drastic measures taken to address and curb the impact of climate change, it is estimated that between 2030 and 2050, climate change can cause approximately 250000 additional deaths per year. It is apparent that conventional approaches to dealing with security are insufficient in addressing the pressing issues that countries across the world are experiencing. Non-traditional security provides an avenue to evaluate and deal with these security challenges in a comprehensive and holistic manner, while emphasizing multilateral cooperation and responsibility sharing.

Lydia Gitanjali Thiagarajah recently moved to Canada from Sri Lanka, where she spent a lot of years doing research and analysis in post-conflict zones independently as well as with non-governmental organizations.

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