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Jerusalem Viewpoints


No. 539     3 Shvat 5766 / 1 February 2006

First Do No Harm: A Critique of the Human Security Approach to Arms Control

Gerald M. Steinberg

  • When the President of Iran calls for "wiping Israel off the map," while his country provides weapons and training to terror groups, and the International Atomic Energy Agency officially declares that it is in violation of its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibiting the development of nuclear weapons, what can the advocates of human security and multilateral disarmament offer in response?

  • The idealists who were responsible for the abundance of protocols and treaties after World War I share responsibility for the carnage that followed. They did not prevent German rearmament under the Nazi regime, and mass marches for pacifism that took place in Britain blocked a credible deterrent.

  • In contrast, during the Cold War, mutual deterrence was an essential element in preventing another, even more horrendous, conflagration. Deterrence was far from automatic or simple, but it was the least bad option under the circumstances. Then, as now, the realistic alternative to carefully managed deterrence - including against non-state actors such as al-Qaeda - is not perpetual peace, but devastating conflict.

  • At times, powerful NGOs have become advocates in ongoing conflicts, and promote ideological agendas that reject democratic values. Democratic nations (particularly the U.S. and Israel) are disproportionately targeted, in a display of unacceptable double standards.

  • In regions characterized by deep hatred and protracted conflicts, the legitimate sovereign state and the deterrence that is provided by defense forces remain the only credible insurance against Iranian threats to "wipe Israel off the map."



On November 23, 2005, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR), on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, sponsored a debate at the Palais de Nations in Geneva, sponsored by the Government of Norway, on the topic: "Resolved: Human security should be the fundamental basis for multilateral disarmament and arms control negotiations." This Jerusalem Viewpoints is based on this author's presentation at that debate.


The Idea of "Human Security"

"Freedom from fear" and "freedom from want" have become the catch phrases of an approach to security called human security. Often referred to as "people-centered security" or "security with a human face," human security places human beings - rather than states - at the focal point of security considerations. Human security emphasizes the complex relationships and often-ignored linkages between disarmament, human rights, and development. (UNIDIR website)1


How Will Disarmament Stop Suicide Bombers?

When the President of Iran calls for "wiping Israel off the map," while his country provides weapons and training to terror groups, and the International Atomic Energy Agency officially declares that it is in violation of its commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty prohibiting the development of nuclear weapons, what can the advocates of human security and multilateral disarmament offer in response? Do they have an effective means of preventing suicide bombers from attacking a wedding in Amman, blowing children to bits on Israeli busses, or bombing civilians in New York, Madrid, London, or Bali? Can we accept assurances that civil programs involving dual-use technologies and materials are not being used to hide illicit weapons efforts?

On the 25th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations Institute on Disarmament, in the building that once housed the League of Nations, I do not mean to disparage or diminish the importance of arms control, human rights, or humanitarian assistance. On the contrary, these goals continue to guide our efforts. More than 2700 year ago, the prophet Isaiah spoke in Jerusalem - the "City of Peace" - of the day when "nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn to make war anymore."

But this activity must be realistic, going beyond messianic visions that promise salvation, but that lead to disappointment, disillusion, and genocide. Advocates of disarmament - both the traditional form based on negotiations between sovereign nations, and the more recent attempt to fashion an alternative under the banner of "human security" - are morally bound by the same oath taken by doctors: "First do no harm." Sadly, some activities undertaken in the name of arms limitations, humanitarian action, and human rights cannot pass this critical test. At times, powerful NGO officials, diplomats, and academics become advocates in ongoing conflicts, and promote ideological agendas that reject democratic values, and lead to even more failed states. The goals of human security and arms control are undoubtedly worthy, but implementation has been slow and sometimes counterproductive.


A Realistic View of Disarmament and Arms Control

The proposition before us today has two central components: one dealing with the ends - multilateral disarmament and arms control, and the other with the means - human security. In presenting the case for a realistic approach to the very difficult questions of war and peace, which recognizes the basic moral distinction between free and closed societies (fear states, to use Natan Sharansky's term), I will address the realistic consequences of disarmament first, before considering the questions raised by the human security approach.

As a moral objective, no one will argue against disarmament. But in practice, the anarchic state of nature described by Hobbes - where international laws and rules are unreliable and where security depends on the possession and use of military might - remains an accurate description of the human condition in many parts of the world. Immanual Kant's vision of "perpetual peace," based on a common morality anchored in agreed norms that do not depend on the use of military power, remains a distant dream. In this reality, such idealistic efforts have yielded very meager results, and have, at times, contributed to catastrophe.

For over a century - beginning with the Hague Conventions - conferences, petitions, marches, negotiations, and treaties have not led to results worthy of celebration. Instead, the idealists who were responsible for the abundance of protocols and treaties after World War I - some of which were signed in this building - share responsibility for the carnage that followed. They did not prevent German rearmament under the Nazi regime, and mass marches for pacifism that took place in Britain blocked a credible deterrent.2 The moral principle "First do no harm" was egregiously violated.

What has been learned from this tragic history? Fifty years later, there was no effort to deter Saddam Hussein as he acquired the largest army outside of NATO to invade his neighbors, and missiles armed with chemical weapons to "burn half of Israel," as he boasted. In 1991, after the invasion of Kuwait, the military response stopped outside of Baghdad and regime change. In its place, economic sanctions were imposed to prevent Saddam from resuming these activities. But instead of human security, these non-military measures disintegrated in the face of human greed.

In contrast, during the Cold War, mutual deterrence was an essential element in preventing another, even more horrendous, conflagration. We can wish that it were otherwise, but we are not free to ignore the facts before us. Deterrence was far from automatic or simple, but it was the least bad option under the circumstances. Then, as now, the realistic alternative to carefully managed deterrence - including against non-state actors such as al-Qaeda - is not perpetual peace, but devastating conflict.

Indeed, the nuclear arms race ended and substantive arms reductions began only when the Soviet regime collapsed. The opening of the political system, a government that was more accountable to its citizens, and the end of the conflict allowed the objectives of disarmament to move toward reality. Arms control and human security cannot be removed from this essential context.

In many parts of the world, the struggle continues between nations, religions, tribes, and ideologies. Exclusive religious and ethno-national claims, perceived injustices, and deep hatreds have lead to catastrophic violence, both conventional and in the form of mass terror aimed at civilians. Unrepresentative leaders and tyrants exploit such hatreds, using terrorism and threats of genocide to cling to power, and diverting internal pressures outward.3 For the intended victims, such as Israel, deterrence has proven effective in the face of anarchy and the "war of all against all." I doubt that I would be standing here today, were it not for the sobering threat of unacceptable retaliation.

In this environment, while we wait for the logic of cooperative security and arms control (based on rational national interest) to become apparent, can the human security approach ("thinking out of the box") provide a realistic and effective alternative?


The Questionable Role of "Non-State Actors"

The announcement for this debate refers to "leveraging problems of security" using individuals and local communities "as additional referent points," and to "non-state actors" such as "international and regional organizations, NGOs, academic or professional experts, business, and individuals."

Who are these individuals, community spokespersons, and NGOs? How do they form security policies that elected national leaders have missed, without contributing to catastrophes such as in the 1920s and 1930s, or more recently, the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous Oslo process in the Middle East, which led to so many tragic deaths? Who chooses, funds, and legitimates their claims to speak for others? To whom are they accountable?

The human security framework is similar to that invoked broadly under the label of "civil society," and is equally problematic. In democratic political systems, the only legitimate policymakers are those who stand before the electorate, are chosen for this task, and can be replaced by that same electorate. Others may and do participate in the public debate, but have no moral authority to decide, particularly on the most basic issues of war and peace, including arms control.

As a result, the basic constituents of the human security approach - individuals and NGOs - lack legitimacy. It is for good reason that, as some analysts have noted, "When core national security interests are involved, policymakers generally expect to retain tight control over decisions and...publics have been largely content to let them do so," particularly in democratic societies.4 Similarly, John Borrie explains, "it is unrealistic to expect key players in the international system, like the United States, to remain committed to multilateral processes when they perceive their vital interests threatened."5

The problems of legitimacy and accountability in fear societies controlled by closed non-democratic regimes are more acute. In a few important cases, "individuals, local communities and NGOs" may reflect the views and interests of parts of society that are not represented by the governing regime. But in general, particularly with respect to conflict-related issues, "civil society" is closely tied to the regime, and only those individuals and groups that follow the official line can participate in the public discussion.

In the conference of states parties to the Ottawa Landmine Convention a few years ago, the Egyptian, Palestinian, and North African NGO participants echoed a single position which, not coincidentally, repeated the policies of their governments in promoting rejectionism and hatred. This highlighted the fact that many who use the terminology of human security are not interested in my security.

Instead, in many cases, the individuals and NGOs that claim to promote universal human rights, humanitarian norms, and international law exploit the rhetoric to pursue a biased post-colonial ideology. Democratic nations (particularly the U.S. and Israel) are disproportionately targeted, in a display of unacceptable double standards.6

Their legitimacy is further weakened by tendencies toward dogmatic absolutism and political manipulation. Meaningful moral judgments require context and a hierarchy of values. In contrast, the universal "one size fits all" approach to security in general, and disarmament in particular, cannot distinguish between free states and fear states; between totalitarian aggressors and democracies; between actors and victims. This was a fundamental moral failure of the disarmament movement during the Cold War.

Under these circumstances, in a Hobbesian world in which conflict and hatreds are endemic - the human security approach to arms control7 cannot replace the centrality of nation states and the strategy of deterrence.

In some areas, such as land mines and trade in small arms and light weapons, non-state initiatives can supplement traditional national security.8 But the Land Mine Convention, while an important achievement, was an exceptional case. The weapons in question were "of relatively minor importance from a military security perspective."9

Indeed, the attempt to turn the human security approach into the foundation for nuclear and other forms of disarmament is based on the perilous hope that "the security of the individual" can replace "the traditional unit of security - that of the state."10

The concept of security is inseparable from modern nation states, which provided the only protection from a highly anarchic environment. No reliable system of regional commerce was possible without "hard" security, and the centralized police powers of the state were essential in overcoming these obstacles. Post-nationalist ideology is not only illusory - it is a recipe for yet more catastrophic warfare, resulting from the false belief that the state and deterrence have become irrelevant.

If the real goal of the human security movement is to replace the nation state, in the context of this ideology, this should not be disguised as a quick path to peace. In a state of anarchy, the legitimate sovereign state and the deterrence that is provided by defense forces remain the only credible insurance against Iranian threats to "wipe Israel off the map." Arms control and the important contribution of UNIDIR and other institutions in this process can only begin when new leaders in Teheran and elsewhere recognize that their own survival depends on cooperation and communication with Israel, based on the principle of sovereign equality.

Similarly, the hope that NGOs and like-minded individuals can somehow find a fast track to nuclear arms control or even disarmament, or produce a breakthrough covering other weapons of mass destruction, by closing their eyes to real obstacles, is misplaced. In regions characterized by deep hatred and protracted conflicts, and where freedom has yet to be achieved for most people, the attempt to erase the security provided by deterrence and defense violates the basic rule - first, do no harm. Citizens of states whose survival is threatened are not going to entrust their core security requirements to unaccountable and often biased NGOs or international bodies.

But this is not a hopeless situation. Human security and arms control can accomplish a great deal by directing energies realistically to strengthening free and functioning states. Democracies that share basic moral values are less likely to attack each other or engage in genocidal campaigns. They do not need huge arsenals, or to divert public opinion. It is in this context that organizations such as UNIDIR can have a major impact - when accountable governments recognize the value of cooperative security and of reducing the instabilities of deterrence in their own self-interest. These conditions provide the most reliable foundation for security - and toward the day when "nation will no longer lift up sword against nation."

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Notes

1. United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research website; http://www.unidir.org/html/en/human_security.html
2. E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919-1939 (London: McMillan, 1939).
3. Gerald M. Steinberg, "Realism, Politics and Culture in Middle East Arms Control Negotiations," International Negotiation, vol. 10 (2005).
4. Cathleen S. Fisher, "Reformation and Resistance: Nongovernmental Organizations and the Future of Nuclear Weapons," Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 67, cited by D. Atwood, "NGOs and Disarmament: Views from the Coal Face," in "NGOs as Partners: Assessing the Impact, Recognizing the Potential," Disarmament Forum, no. 1 (2002):5-14; http://www.unidir.org/pdf/articles/pdf-art5.pdf
5. John Borrie, "Rethinking Multilateral Negotiations: Disarmament as Humanitarian Action," in J. Borrie and V. Martin Randin (eds.), Alternative Approaches in Multilateral Decision Making (Geneva: UNIDIR, 2005), p. 7; http://www.unidir.org/bdd/fiche-ouvrage.php?ref_ouvrage=92-9045-172-6-en
6. Gerald M. Steinberg, "The UN, the ICJ and the Separation Barrier: War by Other Means," Israel Law Review, 38 (2005):1-2.
7. John Borrie, "Rethinking Multilateral Negotiations," pp. 7-37.
8. Atwood, "NGOs and Disarmament"; Borrie, "Rethinking Multilateral Negotiations."
9. Atwood, "NGOs and Disarmament."
10. "New Dimensions of Human Security," UNDP Human Development Report 1994 (New York: UN Development Program, 1994), pp. 22-46, cited by Borrie, "Rethinking Multilateral Negotiations."

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Gerald M. Steinberg, a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University where he directs the Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation.


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