Security, but not as we know it

The fifth Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) sponsored by the UN has just been published and, once again, it looks set to stir up controversy. This time the report is about security in the Arab countries: not the war-on-terror kind of security as defined by Bush and the neocons but human security.

“Human security”, as Wikipedia explains, “is an emerging paradigm for understanding global vulnerabilities”. It challenges traditional ideas of security by focusing on individuals rather than the state. “Human security holds that a people-centered view of security is necessary for national, regional and global stability.”

The “human security” approach first came to prominence in 1994 when it was adopted in an UNDP report, and it has also attracted the interest of the World Bank, among others. Needless to say, security traditionalists don’t like it and claim it provides a vehicle for all sorts of activists to promote their own particular agenda.

By adopting this framework, the AHDR’s authors have plainly set themselves on a collision course with the neocon/Zionist axis, but the same framework also allows them to take a strong swipe at Arab regimes and their security apparatus. For example, Chapter Three begins:

The state, in its normative role, wins the acceptance of its citizens and upholds their rights to life and freedom. It protects them from aggression and lays down rules that guarantee them the exercise of their essential freedoms. The state that fulfils this role is a “legitimate state”. It adheres to the rule of law, which serves the public interest, not that of a particular group …

While most Arab states have embraced international treaties and adorned their constitutions with clauses that enjoin respect for life, human rights, justice, equality before the law, and the right to a fair trial, their performance shows a wide gap between theory and practice. Factors such as weak institutional curbs on state power; a fragile and fragmented civil society; dysfunctional elected assemblies, both national and local; and disproportionately powerful security apparatuses often combine to turn the state into a menace to human security, rather than its chief supporter. 

Another likely cause of controversy is that the AHDR has strayed somewhat from the UN’s original 1994 definition of “human security” which covered seven key areas: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security and political security. A whole chapter in the new report is devoted to “Occupation, military intervention and human insecurity”. While it seems reasonable, in a Middle Eastern context, to widen the concept of “political security” to include this, it is obviously not going to please the American/Israeli right.

Interestingly, though, the AHDR is already facing Arab accusations of soft-pedalling on the question of occupation and military intervention. Arab traditionalists, and the regimes in particular, love to blame foreign meddling and use it as an excuse for not tackling all their other problems. Of course it’s a major issue but not by any means the only one.

Mostapha Kamel El Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo university and the report’s lead author, has disowned it in advance. Part of his grouse is that the chapter on occupation and military intervention has been placed and the end or the report, not the beginning as he preferred. This, he said, “undermines the impact of Israeli occupation in Palestine and American occupation in Iraq to human security".

He also revealed that Capmas (the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics) had refused to cooperate with a survey for the report. Capmas is the military-controlled body in Egypt which stifles freedom of research. I’ll write more about Capmas some other time but as far as I’m concerned its non-involvement can only be a good thing.