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Human security in Asia
Sunday, 15 April 2012 22:36

What is human security?  And what does it mean in the Asian context? 

Human security is concerned with both safeguarding and expanding people's vital freedoms -- in particular, the freedom from want, the freedom from fear, and the freedom to take actions on one's own behalf.

Over the past couple of decades, human security analysis has come to the fore in light of terrorist attacks, civil war, ethnic violence, epidemics, and sudden economic crises.  The notion of human security is people-centred and goes beyond traditional security analysis which focuses on the ability of the state to defend itself against external threats.  Human security concerns have been behind major humanitarian interventions such as in East Timor.

The concept of human security complements "human development" analysis that we covered in an earlier article by deliberately focusing on life's downside risks and vulnerabilities, which are partly caused by poverty.  Thus, addressing the challenges of human security requires both protecting people from acute threats, and empowering people to take charge of their own lives, especially women who are often the worst victims of insecurity.

Actors who have a role in providing human security include the state, but also international organizations, NGOs and local communities -- in contrast to the idea of state security where the state has a monopoly on the rights and means to protect its citizens.  In reality, in many developing countries, the state often fails to fulfill its security obligations, and in many cases is a source of threat to its own people.

Human security forms an important part of people's well-being, and therefore should be an objective of development.  Lack of human security can have adverse consequences on economic growth, and therefore development.  And needless to say, with globalization, the security of one person may also depend on the actions of others in other countries.

Let's have a quick look at some human security issues as they apply to Asia today:

(i) economic security.  The global financial crisis and European sovereign debt crisis, which have both hit Asia's exports badly, highlight economic security risks to events caused elsewhere in the global economy.  The 1997 Asian financial crisis also highlighted the Asia's vulnerability to volatile capital flows which flooded into the region, only to rush straight back out again.

Further, while unemployment is not a major problem in Asia, over 60% of developing Asia's workforce is in the informal sector where they have very few protections and rights.  Human and labor rights abuses are very frequent in export factories in China and elsewhere, even where workers are paid "above-poverty" wages.  Even in Japan, fully one-third of employees have "irregular" contacts, double that of a decade or so ago.  This economic insecurity is exacerbated by the general inadequacy of social safety nets in Asia.

(ii) food security.  Thanks to Asia's dramatic reduction in poverty, a growing share of the region's population have both physical and economic access to food at all times.  However, the rise in global food prices in 2007/08 threatened such food security, and highlighted the world's likely food security challenges over the medium term in the context of increasing food demand by the developing world's emerging middle class, as well as the world's growing population.

The Asian Development Bank has estimated that a 10% rise in price of food staples like rice and wheat could push almost 30 million more Indians, nearly 4 million more Bangladeshis, and 3.5 million Pakistanis into extreme poverty, below the $1.25-a-day income mark.

(iii) health insecurity.  Again, Asia has seen a great improvement in its population's life expectancy and health condition.  The population has a better protection against disease and unhealthy lifestyle.  But over the past decade the region has been the epicentre of infectious diseases like SARS and avian flu.

HIV/AIDs is also a growing problem.  And the region's emerging middle class is now experiencing middle class lifestyle diseases and conditions like obesity, heart diseases and cancer.

(iv) environmental security.  Global warming is expected to create a range of adverse impacts in Asia and the Pacific. From the Himalayan highlands to the rich tropical forests of Southeast Asia and across the Pacific Islands, many natural ecosystems are vulnerable to climate change and some will be irreversibly damaged.

Measured by future populations that will be exposed to half metre sea-level rises, 15 of the world's 20 most exposed cities are in Asia.  The list of 20 is: Kolkata; Mumbai; Dhaka; Guangzhou; Ho Chi Minh City; Shanghai; Bangkok; Rangoon; Miami (US); Hai Phong; Alexandria (Egypt); Tianjin; Khulna; Ningbo; Lagos (Nigeria); Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire); New York (US); Chittagong; Tokyo; and Jakarta.  Natural disasters.  Asia is also a region which is particularly exposed to natural disasters, be they earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, typhoons etc.

(v) personal security.  While Asia does not suffer from the same levels of physical violence and crime as Latin America, it is a very real problem in light of the growing gap between rich and poor, urban poverty and terrorism.  India and other South Asian countries have high levels of violence due terrorism, religious fundamentalism, and ethnic tensions.

Land mines can be a big risk to personal security in countries like Cambodia.  And Asia's many migrants often suffer human rights abuses in countries like Malaysia, as well as the Middle East.

(vi) community security.  Many groups in Asia experience community insecurity.  Chinese rural peasants can be thrown off their land ("land grabs") with little or no compensation by local government officials and property developers in the context of China's urbanization. Insecurity is also experienced by ethic minorities like the inhabitants of West Papua in Indonesia, and the Tibetans and the Uyghurs in China.

(viii) political security.  With Japan, Korea and Taiwan being the only mature democracies in Asia, the region suffers from many human rights abuses like political repression (notably in China), systematic torture, ill treatment or disappearance, especially during periods of unrest (like in Thailand in recent years).  Nowhere is this more the case than in North Korea, which has probably world's worst human rights record, and whose many political refugees can also suffer human rights abuses upon arrival in China.  In particular, China is reluctant to accord them refugee status.

Another political insecurity derives from government controls on access to information through restrictions on freedom of the media and Internet freedom.  Some governments, notably China, also try hard to manipulate public opinion through hyper-nationalistic discourse.

Overall, the human security lens does provide an interesting perspective on the state of Asian development and the well-being of the region's citizens.  Indeed, it exposes the region's many social fractures and risks of social instability.

But as important as human security is in Asia, national security also remains an important issue in light of the unpredictability and instability in North Korea, China's bellicose behaviour with its neighbors in the South China Sea, border disputes between Cambodia and Thailand, and the ongoing tense relations between most of the countries of South Asia, to name just a few.

In conclusion, Asia has a big agenda in terms of ensuring the national security of its peoples, as well as ensuring their human security.

 

References:

Commission on Human Security.  Human Security Now.  New York 2003

http://ochaonline.un.org/Reports/tabid/2186/language/en-US/Default.aspx

United Nations Development Programme.  Human Development Report 1994.  New Dimensions of Human Security.

http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr1994/

Institute for International Security,  Japan International Cooperation Agency.  Poverty Reduction and Human Security

http://www.jica.go.jp/english/publications/reports/study/topical/poverty_reduction/pdf/poverty_e02.pdf


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