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International Relations Copyright © 2004 SAGE Publications
(London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi), Vol 18(1): 9–23
[DOI: 10.1177/0047117804041738]

‘We the Peoples’: Contending Discourses of Security
in Human Rights Theory and Practice

Tim Dunne, University of Exeter, UK

Nicholas J. Wheeler, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, UK


This article develops a critical conception of security by showing the limits of tradit-
ional realist and pluralist discourses. It does this by exploring the deficiencies of realist
and pluralist approaches when it comes to thinking about the promotion of human
rights. Realism leads to moral indifference and a myopic approach to security and
pluralism is complacent about how the rules and norms of international society exclude
humanitarian concerns. The article argues for a critical approach to security that places
human rights at the centre of theory and praxis, reflecting the fundamental indivisibility
of security and human rights. The article concludes by reflecting on the implications for
agency of this position.

Keywords: human rights, human security, international society, pluralism, realism,

‘Security is the first word which occurs to me if I look back on my youth –
security not only in family relations, but in a sense scarcely imaginable since
1914.’ This autobiographical reflection, by one of the greatest thinkers in the
history of academic International Relations, is revealing for the way in which E.H.
Carr attached significance to security in a very personal sense as well as the more
traditional notion of security ‘out there’ in world politics. It also concentrates the
reader’s mind on the fact that there has been so much insecurity produced in the
intervening years. And contrary to the hopes of the earliest professors of
International Relations the discipline has for the most part been muted in its
response to the culture of violence that conditions the lives of the majority of the
earth’s inhabitants. The fact that the study of International Relations all too often
sided with the status quo was one of the reasons why Carr abandoned the
discipline in preference for the study of the Soviet Union which at least, in his
view, promised a new and more equal society.

It is regrettable that Carr did not see the emergence of a ‘critical’ approach to
International Relations that first began to stir around the time of his death in
1982.1 Critical theory makes the familiar seem strange, asks how our ideas about
common sense are constructed, and recognizes an imperative to change the world.
In place of the traditional ontology of soldiers and diplomats, one view of critical
theory ‘places the victims at the centre of its enquiries’.2 As this special issue
demonstrates, when applied to security, critical theory provides a radically
different theoretical account of the meaning and production of security. A key


claim of critical security theorists is that the rules, norms and institutions of the
society of states are a permissive cause of political violence because they provide
a protected space in which individuals can be subjected to inhuman treatment with
virtual impunity.

The crucial contribution of critical conceptions of security is to shift the
referent object from the state to individuals who constitute humanity as a whole.
Rather than taking for granted the traditional assumption that the state has a
monopoly over our loyalty and identity, critical security perspectives extend our
moral horizons beyond national-based conceptions of citizenship. This shift in
ontology from an exclusivist ‘us and them’ identity relationship to an inter-
nationalist or cosmopolitan ‘we the peoples’ is embodied in the Preamble to the
United Nations Charter and has subsequently been echoed by various voices in
global civil society. ‘We the peoples’ not only represented a significant advance in
the normative vocabulary of international relations; it also permeated the framing
of the human rights regime that developed after 1945.3 In the various documents
which constitute the regime an explicit link is made between human rights and
security. This is clear from Article 3 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human
Rights (UDHR) that proclaims ‘the right to life, liberty and security of person’ to
all human beings.

The creation of law-making international institutions committed to the pro-
tection of human rights was predicated upon the assumption that sovereign states
would stand guard over the security of their citizens and promote human rights
internationally. The experience of the post-1945 world has shown this to be naive
at best, morally complacent at worst. Realist thinking on security has proved to be
more resilient than defenders of human rights had hoped. After 11 September
2001, and crucially the American response in the form of the ‘war on terror’,
realism seems once again to be in the ascendancy. The ensuing cycle of terror
attacks and attacks on terror prompted the usually optimistic liberal writer,
Michael Ignatieff, to ask if the human rights era had come to an end.4 We argue
that such a judgement is premature: even states engaged in the war against global
terrorism recognize that human rights remain an important objective.5 Rather than
seeing one discourse triumph over another, a more sophisticated account of
security after 9/11 would show how national security and humanitarianism
uneasily coexist in practice, and that critical theory offers a possibility of over-
coming such a tension.

This article begins by showing how the sovereign prerogatives of the society of
states have frustrated the promise of solidarity implicit in ‘we the peoples’.
Having used critical theory to expose such flaws in traditional conceptions of
security, the second half of the article will reflect on the immanent possibilities for
constituting a new discourse of human security. We argue that the project of
unifying human rights and security requires a multidimensional approach to
agency. It is not a matter of humanity versus statism, as Richard Falk once put it,
but instead requires an alliance of states and transnational civil society cooper-
ating to achieve security for common humanity.


Discourses of security

In this section we examine the two dominant discourses of security and the
practices they have legitimated. By discourse, we mean an authoritative narrative
mobilized by political elites to justify a particular set of prescriptions for action (or

Realism and the discourse of national security

All forms of critical theory purport to ‘think against’ the prevailing current. Critical
security studies is no exception. What it wants to resist, transcend and defeat, are
theories of security which take for granted who is to be secured (the state), how
security is to be achieved (by defending core ‘national’ values, forcibly if neces-
sary) and from whom security is needed (the enemy). This understanding of
security was neatly encapsulated by Walter Lippmann writing in 1943: ‘A nation is
secure to which it is not in danger of having to sacrifice core values, if it wishes to
avoid war, and is able, if challenged, to maintain them in a victory in such a war’.7

There is no better example of traditional thinking than the discourse of
‘national security’ which framed US thinking on defence and foreign policy
during the Cold War. Promoting national security implied a desire to prevail over
enemies who threatened the values of the ‘nation’. Security, in this sense, was the
protective shield of American society. The values of that society were thought to
be self-evident, and were subject to minimal reflection by realist theorists. It was
assumed by the realist strategists, that the Cold War was a permanent condition of
international relations, one in which self-help and power politics were the only
games in town. All means were acceptable to attain national security, including
strategies of nuclear war-fighting which were justified on the highly dubious
grounds that the Soviet Union was developing the capabilities to fight and win a
nuclear war. The logic of this was that western deterrence required fashioning a
theory and strategy of nuclear victory for the USA and its allies.

Realists got it wrong. The Cold War was not a permanent condition. Nor was it
a structural necessity; rather, it was a confrontation that they had played a signif-
icant part in creating and reproducing. But the discourse of ‘national security’ has
not died despite the revisioning of East–West relations: the who of security has
remained stable. The state is still the condition for the survival of ‘national’ core
values. The how has become the subject of some debate, however. Not of course
the assumption that the US needs a strong defence, and has to be prepared to use
force. But there has been a debate among realists as to whether the proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction strengthens or undermines national security. On the
side of the former there is the ‘more is better’ brigade which believes that the
benefits of nuclear deterrence should be extended to stabilize relations between
enemy states. In the opposite camp stand realists in the Pentagon who worry about
the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – and their means of ballistic
missile delivery – to ‘rogue’ states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea.


After 9/11 this threat assessment is reinforced by the very real concern that
such weapons could find their way – either through deliberate intention or
inadvertence – into the hands of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. For realists like US
Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, the only means of addressing the threat
posed by rogue states and terrorist groups armed with WMDs is to ensure that
such capabilities are never developed in the first place. This is the logic that drives
the current US strategy of preventive war – first set out by President George W.
Bush in his West Point speech of June 2002, and subsequently elaborated in the
National Security Strategy of September 2002.8 By naming the threat posed by
states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’, the Bush Administration
has sought to legitimate the spending of billions of dollars on developing a
defence posture that is capable of supporting the President’s declared goal of
regime change in these states. This demonstrates how the Cold War discourse of
national security is being reinvented as a struggle between an America that
represents a force for good in the world and the evil enemy represented by global
terrorism and its state sponsors.

Where do human rights fit into this realist picture of security? Realist pro-
ponents of national security do not deny the existence of human rights norms such
as those embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But crucially,
realism argues that they are norms which are not binding on states when they
collide with other interests (such as trade or national security). Hans J.
Morgenthau, the godfather of realism, argued that ‘the principle of the defense of
human rights cannot be consistently applied in foreign policy because it can and
must come in conflict with other interests that may be more important than the
defense of human rights in a particular circumstance’.9 Realists also point to the
centrality of states in implementing human rights standards and the weak or non-
existent enforcement machinery. As a leading representative of the US delegation
at San Francisco made clear, “‘We the peoples” means that the peoples of the
world were speaking through their governments’.10 Amnesty International’s
annual report is a constant reminder that realist thinking on human rights is part of
the fabric of contemporary international society. A recent report summarized its
findings against the backdrop of the war on terror as follows: ‘Governments have
spent billions to strengthen national security and the “war on terror”. Yet for
millions of people, the real sources of insecurity are corruption, repression, dis-
crimination, extreme poverty and preventable diseases’.11 This is nothing new.
Driven by expediency and self-interest, governments have long trampled on their
citizens’ rights in order to maintain the power and privilege of an elite few. In the
language of International Relations theory, what Amnesty is describing is the
problem of statism, by which is meant the idea that the state should be the sole
source of loyalty and values for its citizens.12 Amnesty claims that the majority of
states routinely fail to deliver even basic rights to their citizens. Governments or
agencies acting on their behalf routinely imprison without trial, torture and/or kill
individuals who challenge the regime.

The Westphalian practice of statism infects international bodies such as the


United Nations. Amnesty International points to the ‘realpolitik’ in the General
Assembly and the UN Commission on Human Rights that it charges as being
‘almost irrelevant to the protection of victims in Burundi, Rwanda, and the
Democratic Republic of Congo’.13 It is not unusual to find that no state has tabled
a condemnatory resolution at the UN General Assembly even after it has been
presented with evidence of gross human rights violations. Consistent with the
charge of statism is the argument that the UN is merely an arena for raison d’état,
a kind of global Westphalian system where the language for the conduct of inter-
national relations has changed but the interests remain the same. Human rights in
this context have represented, in the words of Norman Lewis, ‘nothing more than
an empty abstraction whose function was the legitimation and perpetuation of the
given system of power relations, domestically and internationally’.14

Pluralism and the discourse of international security

Although realism was undoubtedly the dominant discourse of international
politics in the post-1945 period, it was not, as the realists believed, the only theory
to have purchase on reality. There was an alternative, other than the radical
discourses; this was the so-called pluralist or legalist theory which maintains that
security should be provided by international rules and norms. From this
perspective, narrowly defined self-help was not a descriptively or normatively
accurate depiction of international politics. States, according to Hedley Bull, form
an international society because they are ‘conscious of certain common interests
and common values’ and believe themselves to be ‘bound by a common set of
rules and institutions’.15 The social fact of this society is the source of states’
obligations to one another; primary among these is a responsibility to maintain
international order which theorists of international society take to be synonymous
with the provision of international security.

The discourse of security for theorists of international society makes the who of
security – the referent object – the security of the society of states. With respect to
human rights, we have already encountered the standard critique mobilized
against this view by critical security theorists, namely, that the rules of sovereignty
and non-intervention issue a licence for statist elites to abuse human rights from
behind the walls of sovereignty. In response, pluralists would argue that while the
rules are inhospitable to the protection of human rights, making the latter the
referent object for security would place in jeopardy the foundations of
international order. They would further argue that it is too easy to interpret their
privileging of order over human rights as an ethically bankrupt position since the
moral justification for pluralist practices is their contribution to individual
security. Thus, Bull believed that international order is only to be valued to the
extent to which it delivers world order which he defined as the provision of the
primary goals of social life to all individuals such as ‘security from violence’.16

Bull was elusive about the relationship between international order and world
order, but there is no doubt that he made the latter the normative test in judging the


success of the institutions of international society such as diplomacy, law and the
balance of power in providing the how of security.

Advocates of a pluralist view of security would further argue that in the post-
1945 period an important linkage has been established between the provision of
human rights and wider international security. Reflecting on the terrible domestic
and international consequences of the rise of fascism in Europe, the framers of the
UN Charter believed that there was a clear link between good governance at home
and peace abroad. Although practice has tragically turned out very differently, it is
clear from reading the UN Charter that there is no necessary or automatic conflict
between the cardinal rules of sovereignty and non-intervention in Article 2 and the
human rights standards set out in Articles 55 and 56. For the first time in history
governments committed themselves to protect human rights, a significant retreat
from the Westphalian conception of unlimited sovereignty. This was marked by
the Preamble to the Charter which signalled a declaratory shift in legal thinking in
favour of ‘we the peoples’. As Jack Donnelly has argued, the post-1945 human
rights regime represented a significant shift in the normative language of inter-
national politics. Three years after the signing of the UN Charter, the UDHR was
accepted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Although this was
declaratory and non-binding, the document provided further hope to people living
under governments that denied them their dignity. According to Article 28,
‘Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and
freedoms set forth on this Declaration can be fully realised’.17

The manifesto for human rights and international security contained within the
Charter and the Declaration represented, therefore, a considerable challenge to the
traditional realist paradigm. As a consequence of these standard-setting instru-
ments, and the UN human rights regime which developed in the years after 1945
to monitor compliance with them, the way in which a state behaved towards its
own citizens became in R.J. Vincent’s words ‘a legitimate subject of international
scrutiny and censure’.18 While the regime can monitor and report on human rights
violations, pluralists emphasize that the capacity of the society of states to ‘do
something’ depends ultimately on interests and morality coinciding.

The failure of international society to prevent or halt the genocide in Rwanda in
1994 demonstrated the limits of this conception of the relationship between
human rights and security. The mass exodus of refugees across the Rwandan
border into neighbouring states clearly affected regional security, but no govern-
ment in Africa was either capable or willing to intervene to end the atrocities.
However, can it really be argued that the genocide in Rwanda posed a threat to
western security interests that justified sacrificing soldiers’ lives and scarce
resources? Western governments answered this question with a resounding no,
and this is why no action was taken to stop the third genocide of the 20th century
(the other two being the extermination of the Armenians and the Jews).

Whereas Rwanda highlights the ethical limitations of international society’s
framing of human rights and security, there have been some important successes
in conjoining human rights and security. One of the most notable is the Helsinki


process in the 1970s and 1980s. This was justified on the grounds that a critical
relationship existed between respect for human rights in the eastern bloc and
improved interstate relations between East and West. The Soviet Union accepted
that the price for western legitimation of the postwar status quo in Central and
Eastern Europe was its signing of the human rights provisions in the 1975
Helsinki Final Act. However, what the Soviet Union and its allies interpreted as
rhetorical commitments became important weapons in the struggle of human
rights activists in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary and the German Democratic
Republic. Their courageous struggle to hold eastern governments accountable for
their human rights abuses was supported by western governments who used
human rights as an instrument of Cold War diplomacy. These efforts on the inside
and the outside played a key role in robbing the Communist regimes of their
legitimacy which led to the revolutions of 1989.19

The limits of traditional discourses of security

One entry point for critical security thinkers with respect to human rights is to
reveal the limitations of the morality of states discourse by showing how the UN
Charter system systematically fails to deliver on its promise to provide both
international security and human rights. Whereas outright rejection is an appro-
priate critical security response to realism for normative reasons, pluralism needs
to be engaged because of its immanent universalism. The fact is that if all states
followed the principles and rules of the ‘international bill of rights’, then there
would be no individuals without food, democratic governance, legal protection,
education, national identity, property and an adequate standard of living. How-
ever, one major reason why this does not happen, according to proponents of
critical security studies, is because states only obey the rules of international
society when power and interest make it prudent for them to do so. Thus, Britain
and the US carried the banner of civil and political rights against the Soviet Union
because it served their power political interests, but both felt more than justified in
supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa which practised racial hatred and
massively violated the economic and social rights of the majority, as well as
conducting campaigns against neighbours that resulted in massive casualties. The
lesson is when human rights collide with the goals of either national or inter-
national security, these interests win out every time.

Western governments are particularly (although not exclusively) guilty of
inconsistently complying with the human rights standards they trumpet with
missionary-like enthusiasm at the various multilateral social gatherings. This
argument is frequently and eloquently made by the public intellectual Noam
Chomsky. From Vietnam to the Vienna Declaration on Human Rights, he casti-
gates the US for its hypocritical approach to human rights in foreign policy. He
attacked the decision of President George Bush Sr to forcibly return Haitian
people seeking asylum (in contravention of Article 14 of the UDHR). Presidential
candidate Bill Clinton fiercely condemned this policy, but according to Chomsky,


‘his first act as President was to make the illegal blockade still harsher’.20 Or, take
the US government’s persistent suspicion of economic and social rights, which
UN Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick once described as ‘a letter to Santa Claus’.21

The US vetoed the right to development in 1992 despite Article 25 of the UDHR’s
commitment to ‘a right to a standard of living’ adequate for ‘health and well-
being’. Only the US and Somalia have not ratified the 1989 Convention on the
Rights of the Child. For Chomsky, these practices illustrate Washington’s largely
rhetorical commitment to ‘the universality of human rights’, except as a weapon
used selectively against others.22

The most fundamental weakness of the pluralist discourse on security and
human rights relates to what it excludes from consideration as security problems.
What issues get named as ‘security’ ones is crucial to whether individuals survive
or perish. Pluralism is silent on the politics that produces the following litany of
global human wrongs:

• Every day more than 30,000 children around the world die of preventable
diseases, a total of over 11 million a year.

• The richest 5 percent of the world’s people have incomes 114 times those of
the poorest 5 percent. The richest 1 percent receive as much income as the
poorest 57 percent.

• 2.8 billion people live on less than $2 a day, with 1.2 billion of them
subsisting on less than $1 a day.

• In 1997–9 an estimated 815 million people were undernourished.
• During the 1990s the number of people in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan

Africa rose from 242 million to 300 million.
• By the end of 2000 almost 22 million people (now updated by the UNDP to

24.8 million) had died of AIDS, 13 million children had lost their mother or
both parents to the disease and more than 40 million people were living with
HIV. Of these, 90 percent were in developing countries and 75 percent were
in Sub-Saharan Africa.

• There are 100 million ‘missing’ women who would be alive but for infant-
icide, neglect and sex-selective abortion.

• Every year there are 300 million cases of malaria, 90 percent of them in Sub-
Saharan Africa.

• More than 500,000 women die a year as a result of pregnancy and

Even for the survivors, life can be nasty, brutish and short. What causes this
production and reproduction of gross and systematic human rights abuses is
strongly disputed by liberals and Marxists. But what is clear is that the massive
structural inequalities generated by global capitalism have not been given
sufficient attention by theorists of international society. For the last two decades,
leading states in the system such as Britain and the US have promoted a neoliberal
economic ideology that centres upon the following principles that have governed


the debt and aid policies of the IMF and World Bank in the 1980s and 1990s: free
trade, deregulation, reduction of public spending and freedom of choice for
individual consumers. International institutions and regimes, such as the G8 and
the various International Financial Institutions (IFIs) have internalized these
neoliberal norms. From a global humanitarian perspective, the consequence of
these policies has been twofold: first, a redistribution of wealth from the
underdeveloped to the developed world (the ‘trickle-up’ effect); and second, a
decline in the ability of states to provide economic and welfare rights to their
population. In short, the scope for a state to deliver a system of justice which
would be acceptable to the least advantaged has diminished considerably. The
consequences of both these factors have been to undermine the provision of
economic and social rights.

The critical theory of security advanced here opposes the pluralist conception
of security on three main grounds: first, it argues that states conform to the
internationalist and humanitarian rules of the UN Charter only when it is in their
selfish interests; second, it argues that pluralism in its focus on the rules and
norms of international society ignores most deaths by political violence; and third,
the normative practices of the society of states leave untouched the structural
causes of the economic and social injustice rooted in the deregulated capitalist
world system.

The last two factors converge in the case of the trade in weapons, which arms
the aggressors, authoritarian regimes and torturers of the world. Writing in the
early 1980s, Bull described the superpowers as the ‘great irresponsibles’. In the
context of the post-Cold War period, there is probably no better illustration of this
apt description than the arms trade. The permanent members of the Security
Council, responsible for maintaining ‘international peace and security’, account
for approximately 90 percent of the world’s arms exports, the US with a share of
49 percent.24

When discussing the arms trade, it is important to bear in mind that arms sales
can be justified on the grounds that all states have a legitimate right of self-
defence. This right is enshrined in customary international law and codified in the
UN Charter. This principle is acknowledged by human rights organizations like
Amnesty International, and their opposition is to arms sales that bolster govern-
ments that repress human rights inside their borders. One of the most worrying
aspects of the arms trade is the lack of concerted control exercised by exporters to
ensure that weapons are used for legitimate defensive purposes. Once again, the
pluralist rules regulating the trade in weapons are either weak, non-existent or
ignored altogether. The wider issue raised by the arms trade concerns the degree
of militarization found in the developing world in particular. Child soldiers (under
15 years of age) have been used in combat in civil conflicts in Russia, India,
Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia,
Columbia, Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Burma and Vietnam. Although there has
been a marked decline in the trade in major weapons, the trade in light weapons –
the kind used in civil conflicts – has spiralled out of control.


Human security

A critical security approach to human rights opens with a fundamental belief in
the indivisibility of security and human rights. How does this ‘indivisibility’ play
out in practice? The human security discourse would maintain, for example, that
there can be no security for the individual if their right to life is being threatened
by their government. Similarly, security is absent when an individual is denied the
rights to subsistence, such as food, clothing and housing. If security is defined as
protection from harm, then it is clear that the infringement of fundamental rights
signifies the presence of insecurity.25

Just as its prescriptive orientation emphasizes indivisibility, the human security
discourse recognizes the multidimensionality of the sources of harm. There are
military and non-military producers of harm, national and transnational, private
and public. Harm can be the outcome of intentional acts (employers using child
labour) as well as unreflective acts (children in the West buying a football that has
been manufactured by slave labour in India). Rights may be secured by one agent
while simultaneously being threatened by another. For example, the citizens of a
social democratic society may have all their human rights protected by the state,
but that does not necessarily mean their community has security. It could, for
example, have borders that are contiguous with a predatory state committed to an
expansionist foreign policy. Another threat could be transnational and uninten-
tional, such as that posed by high levels of radioactivity caused by an accident in a
nuclear power station (for example, the disaster at Chernobyl).

We would argue that the interdependence between security and human rights is
at its strongest when the focus is upon what Henry Shue, and later R.J. Vincent,
referred to as ‘basic rights’.26 ‘Security from violence’ and ‘subsistence’ were
defined by Shue as the key basic rights. On the surface, this might seem to rely on
a narrow definition of rights but we define subsistence as covering a range of
economic and social rights (such as work, property, social security) while security
from violence includes many civil and political rights (protection from torture,
racial hatred, slavery and asylum).

If, as we have argued above, the litmus test for human security is success in
delivering basic rights, one challenge is to identify the agents who can bring this
about. In the critical security literature, global civil society is often represented as
being the crucial agent of emancipation. There are many good reasons for
investing hope in transnational civil society. Groups like Amnesty International,
Médecins Sans Frontières, the International Red Cross, Oxfam and Save the
Children exist to raise the consciousness of the security ‘haves’ about the plight of
the ‘security have-nots’. Their success is measured in terms of membership,
donations and a level of public support which enables their voice to carry weight
in the corridors of power. By ordinary acts such as writing letters on behalf of
prisoners of conscience, individuals living in the secure sphere of world politics
keep alive the hopes of victims of human rights abuses around the world. The
moral obligation or duty to assist distant strangers in need demands a commitment


to action which goes beyond feelings of pity, since sentimentality is not enough by
itself to produce a ‘more intense moral or practical commitment’ to human
security.27 What is required is the growth of a cosmopolitan moral awareness such
that we come to empathize with and respond to the sacrifices made by those
fighting for basic rights in repressive regimes. The annual Amnesty International
report and its ‘website’ are replete with references to local human rights organiz-
ations fighting for human security. One such group is the pro-democracy move-
ment in Burma led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Although Burmese civil society
remains firmly locked in the steel-hard cage of the brutal government, the
opposition has won enormous support from world public opinion. Moreover,
leaders of human rights groups in South Asia such as Suu Kyi have taken a stand
against governmental elites in the region, who as part of their attempt to keep hold
of power have argued that human rights are alien to ‘the’ Asian way of life.

Without transnational human rights groups like Amnesty International and
Human Rights Watch monitoring human rights abuses, governments would find it
even easier to evade their humanitarian responsibilities to ‘we the peoples’.
Indeed, one of the most significant changes in the human rights regime in recent
decades has been the involvement of transnational civil society in standard-
setting. For example, Amnesty International and the International Commission of
Jurists had significant input into the UN Declaration and Convention against
Torture. Other successes in promoting new standards for protecting human
security are evident in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child which
owed a great deal to the lobbying of women’s human rights NGOs in particular.28

David Beetham has also convincingly argued that NGOs can make a significant
contribution to drawing the attention of world public opinion to abuses of human
security in the economic and social realm; for example, their work on famine
relief, refugee alert and support, and their wider contribution to promoting eco-
nomic development.29

There is no doubt that global civil society is playing an increasingly important
role in the standard-setting and monitoring of basic rights. Yet the post-Cold War
period has given us good reasons for not investing too much hope in transnational
civil society as a vehicle for providing human security. The first and most obvious
problem is that, when facing supreme humanitarian emergencies, aid agencies
only have at best a limited capacity to deliver food or medical supplies. When
warring governments (or factions) do allow them to operate in conflict situations,
NGOs often become pawns in the wider game of power politics, as was all too
clearly the case with the Hutu-run refugee camps in the Great Lakes region of
Africa in 1995/6. One of the difficulties here is that aid agencies generate most of
their income through the response of public opinion to the kind of ‘loud
emergencies’ they are least able to deal with. Small-scale community projects to
do with promoting welfare, health and food security are rarely under the media
spotlight and consequently do not rise to the top of NGO agendas.

It is also important to guard against the assumption that transnational move-
ments necessarily promote human security. At the Cairo conference on Population


and Development for example, there were groups committed to providing
contraception to enhance human security for women. But there were also trans-
national religious groups opposed to this measure despite AIDS being a huge
threat to human security in the developing world. We should not be surprised that
transnational forces can be reactionary as well as emancipatory: contradictory
normative tendencies are at work in all forms of social organization. The right to
life entails different claims (and politics) for Catholics, secular liberals and
Hindus. Like all other actors in world politics, NGOs and civil society groups are
part of the conversation and struggle about the meaning and interpretation of
norms in international relations.

A further concern with global civil society as an emancipatory actor relates to
the construction of humanitarianism. In the liberal West, there is a tendency to
treat ‘security have-nots’ as distant objects of our liberal sympathy. Apart from
failing to see the insecurity of our neighbours, the problem with the discourse of
humanitarianism is that it is ultimately for us and for some purpose, to adopt
Robert Cox’s aphorism. We may sometimes imagine ourselves in the shoes of the
dispossessed, and we may tell our loved ones sad and sentimental stories of
suffering others, but how many of us make any real sacrifices? As the late Rabbi
Hugo Grin once put it in the context of the Second World War, ‘we cared about the
Jews, but we didn’t care enough’.

Conclusion: agency and human security

This article has put the victims of global politics at the centre of our academic
inquiry. The act of bringing together human rights and security provides an
opening into a holistic and indivisible approach. At the level of theory, it is
possible to make a convincing case for a Kantian synthesis; a violation of security
in one part of the world ought to be a violation of security everywhere. And a
violation at one level is a violation at all levels. In keeping with the spirit of
Critical Security Studies, we have mobilized a case for changing the referent for
thinking about security from that of states to ‘we the peoples’. The reason for
making this move is that all too often states have failed to act as moral trustees for
their citizens, creating a situation globally where millions of people have more to
fear from the violence or neglect of their own governments than they do from that
of neighbouring states. Yet even in those parts of the world where citizens can
place greater hope in the rule of law and the provision of basic rights, there has
been a failure on the part of governments to live up to the humanitarian obli-
gations imposed by the Charter. The pursuit of these values has been crushed by
the power of realism’s moral indifference, and numbed by a set of legal rules
which have narrowed our moral imaginations.

Expanding humanity’s moral horizons requires recognizing both the indivis-
ibility of human rights and security, and the concomitant responsibility to rescue
those trapped in situations of violence, poverty and ill-health. This might require


the use of force in exceptional cases like genocide and mass murder, but the best
way of avoiding such a drastic remedy is to utilize the instrument of preventive
diplomacy as soon as there is evidence of abuses. Such measures applied on a
concerted and international basis might prevent a deterioration of the human rights
situation, avoiding recourse to more costly actions.

Since governments have manifestly failed as guardians of human rights, the
question is whether they are – like Nietzsche thought – ‘cold monsters’? Or, is it
simply that it is too soon to tell whether states can live up to the moral vision that
inspired the framing of the Charter? The argument advanced here is that statehood
is not an undifferentiated political category; states can be good or bad inter-
national citizens just as individuals can be in domestic society. This leads to a
rejection of the dualism of agency that pits the state against transnational civil
society; we would argue that moral boundaries have frequently been widened
when state actors and global civil society have pulled in the same direction. It is
not our claim that state leaders are always in the vanguard of this, but as some
humanitarian NGOs readily attest, big battalions – measured in military, political
and economic terms – are sometimes required to promote their ends. By recog-
nizing the interconnectedness of states and global civil society, the article argues
for a multidimensional approach to agency in the same manner that critical
thinking on security has pioneered a multidimensional conception of ‘threats’. The
best recent examples of this process of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ pressures are
the emergence of a new norm banning landmines30 and the development of the
International Criminal Court.31 Enlightened state leaders were crucial in realizing
the normative potential of these ideas. But without the pressure exerted by what
Geoffrey Robertson calls the global ‘human rights movement’,32 it is unlikely that
these political projects would have secured the widespread support that they
achieved in the society of states.

The pressures exerted on governments by agencies such as Oxfam, Amnesty
International and CARE are strengthened the more that these groups can mobilize
public opinion to hold governments accountable for their actions. But there has
not been enough pressure from below to transform the foreign policy agendas of
liberal governments so that human rights become as powerful a constituency as
commercial and political interests. As Michael Ignatieff argues, citizens exposed
to media images of ethnic cleansing and starvation, living in what he calls ‘the
zones of safety’,33 are quite good at reaching for their chequebooks and dropping
money into collection boxes. However, this is often selective, both in terms of the
proximity of the crisis and the definition of what counts as a supreme human-
itarian emergency.

Liberal societies express outrage at the treatment of Kurds, Rwandans or
Kosovo Albanians at the hands of state power, but accept as natural the death
elsewhere of millions through poverty and malnutrition. They are good at being
charitable, but they have been very bad at making even those modest changes to
lifestyles that could lead to the eradication of global poverty and give real sub-
stance to ‘we the peoples’. The West punishes those states and terrorist networks


which break the rules – Iraq and al-Qaeda being obvious examples – but it has
been bad at healing the deep rifts that exist between the West and the rest. Yet as
the attacks on 11 September showed, it is not possible to hermetically seal liberal
societies from the violent consequences of insecurity in other parts of the world.
Had human rights concerns guided the West’s relations with post-Soviet
Afghanistan and the Taliban, that country would not have become a safe haven for
al-Qaeda. Moral exhortations are important in persuading publics and govern-
ments in the West to change the who and the how of security thinking. But the next
stage for a critical approach to human security is to advance and win the argument
that an unjust world will be a disorderly one for all of us.


We would like to thank Pinar Bilgin, Anne Harris, Paul Williams and Maja Zehfuss for their very
helpful comments on an earlier draft; also Ken Booth for his challenging and patient editing.


1 Carr was of course a critical thinker but he was not a proponent of critical theory. For critical
‘readings’ of Carr, see K. Booth, ‘ “Security in Anarchy”: Utopian Realism in Theory and
Practice’, International Affairs, 67, 1991, pp.527–45; A. Linklater, ‘The Transformation of
Political Community: E.H. Carr, Critical Theory and International Relations’, Review of
International Studies, 23, 1997, pp.321–38; M. Cox (ed.), E.H. Carr: A Critical Appraisal
(London: Palgrave, 2000).

2 R. Wyn Jones, ‘“Message in a Bottle?” Theory and Praxis in Critical Security Studies’,
Contemporary Security Policy, 16, 1995, pp.299–319.

3 Significantly, the phrase ‘we the peoples’ was used by Kofi Annan to frame his millennium
report. See Kofi A. Annan, ‘We the Peoples’, http://www.un.org/millennium/sg/report/ch0.pdf

4 M. Ignatieff, ‘Is the Human Rights Era Ending?’, The New York Times, 5 February 2002.
5 A good example of this is the UK where Prime Minister Tony Blair has argued that Britain’s

participation in the war on terror is compatible with liberal internationalism. See T. Blair’s speech
to the Labour Party Conference, 2 October 2001 and The Fifth Report (Session 2001–2) of the
Foreign Affairs Committee Human Rights Annual Report 2001. See the Committee’s website at:

6 B. Crawford and R.D. Lipschutz, ‘Discourses of War: Security and the Case of Yugoslavia’, in K.
Krause and M. Williams (eds.), Critical Security Studies: Concepts and Cases (London: UCL
Press, 1997), p.167.

7 W. Lippmann, US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (Boston: Little, Brown, 1943), p.51.
Quoted in M. Ayoob, ‘Defining Security: A Subaltern Realist Perspective’, in Krause and
Williams (eds.), Critical Security Studies, p.124.

8 The Bush Administration has not explicitly admitted that it is declaring a strategy of preventive
war. Instead, it employs the language of pre-emption, claiming that its policy is in accordance
with an interpretation of international law that is suited to the changed conditions of the world
after 9/11. For a discussion of these issues, see M. Byers, ‘Preemptive Self-defense: Hegemony,
Equality and Strategies of Legal Change’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 11, 2003, pp.171–90
and D.C. Hendrickson, ‘Toward Universal Empire: The Dangerous Quest for Absolute Security’,
World Policy Journal, Fall 2002.

9 Quoted in J. Donnelly, ‘Security, Human Rights and East–West Relations: Theoretical Bases of
the Linkage’, in V. Mastny and J. Zielonka (eds.), Human Rights and Security: Europe on the Eve
of a New Era (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991), p.22.


10 Leo Pasvolsky, in the Committee on Foreign Relations, 1945. Quoted in N. Lewis, ‘Human
Rights, Law and Democracy in an Unfree World’, in T. Evans (ed.), Human Rights Fifty Years
on: A Reappraisal (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998), pp.87–8.

11 Amnesty International Report 2003, http://web.amnesty.org/report2003/index-eng
12 This view of states informs much critical thinking on security. See K. Booth, ‘Human Wrongs

and International Relations’, International Affairs, 71, 1995, p.121.
13 Amnesty International Report 1998 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1998), p.68.
14 N. Lewis, ‘Human Rights’, p.89.
15 H. Bull, The Anarchical Society (London: Macmillan, 1977), p.13.
16 This is most explicitly spelt out in Bull, The Anarchical Society, p.22.
17 UDHR, Article 28.
18 R.J. Vincent, Human Rights and International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University

Press, 1986), p.152.
19 For an insightful account of the human rights–security relationship within the Helsinki process,

see M. Kaldor, ‘Transnational Civil Society’, in T. Dunne and N.J. Wheeler (eds.), Human Rights
in Global Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

20 N. Chomsky, ‘The United States and the Challenge of Relativity’, in Evans (ed.), Human Rights,

21 Quoted in Chomsky, ‘The United States’, p.32.
22 Chomsky, ‘The United States’, p.31.
23 United Nations Human Development Report 2002 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),

pp.10–30. These figures are used by Steve Smith in his ISA 2002 address. See his article
‘Singing Our World into Existence: International Relations and September 11’, International
Studies Quarterly, forthcoming, June 2004.

24 This makes something of a mockery of Warren Christopher’s claim at the World Conference on
Human Rights in Vienna in 1992 that ‘the worst violators [of human rights] are those who
encourage the spread of arms’. Quoted in Chomsky, ‘The United States’, p.27.

25 The idea of ‘human security’ has been discussed in a variety of publications. See, for example,
the UN Human Development Report 1994. According to the report, human security includes
safety from ‘chronic threats’ such as disease, hunger and repression. See also K. Booth, ‘Three
Tyrannies’, in Dunne and Wheeler (eds.), Human Rights in Global Politics, p.59, and D.J.
Puchula, ‘The United Nations and the Myth of the Unity of Mankind’, in Y.S. Choue and J. Shik
Sohn (eds.), Peace Strategies for Global Community and the Role of the UN in the 21st Century
(Seoul: Institute of International Peace Studies, 1997), p.175.

26 H. Shue, Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and US Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1989), pp.18–22.

27 This critique of viewing morality as only an education of the sentiments is developed by N.
Geras, Solidarity in the Conversation of Humankind: The Ungroundable Liberalism of Richard
Rorty (London: Verso, 1995).

28 G. Ashworth, ‘The Silencing of Women’, in Dunne and Wheeler (eds.), Human Rights in Global
Politics, p.270.

29 D. Beetham, ‘Human Rights in the Study of Politics’, in D. Beetham (ed.), Politics and Human
Rights (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp.1–9.

30 For an excellent study of this process in relation to landmines, see R. Price, ‘Reversing the Gun
Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines’, International Organization, 52(3),
Summer 1998, pp.613–44.

31 For an excellent discussion of this process, see D. Wippman, ‘The International Criminal Court’,
in C. Reus-Smit (ed.), The Politics of International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, forthcoming 2004).

32 G. Robertson, Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (London: Allen Lane,

33 M. Ignatieff, The Warriors’ Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (London: Chatto and
Windus, 1998).


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