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Rethinking what we mean by security

United Kingdom
War & Peace
Nuclear Weapons

An aerial image of Britain's Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. GCHQ is one of the three UK Intelligence Agencies and forms a crucial part of the Britain’s National Intelligence and Security machinery. GCHQ under a Creative Commons Licence

Andrew Smith considers the establishment meaning of the word relative to social wellbeing, peace and health.

The word security is one that is thrown around a lot by politicians and journalists, but only usually in the context of the military and policing. What does it mean beyond that? What is security? What are the threats to Britain’s security? How should they be addressed? What level of resources, including financial, should be devoted to them?

All too often, security is discussed as though it were synonymous with military strength. It is not. Many imminent and major threats, such as climate change, energy security, global health scares and economic marginalization, are not military. Furthermore, a militaristic mind-set can actually decrease security by prioritizing military solutions to problems, increasing the likelihood of armed conflict.

At the moment the government is in the final stages of preparing its National Security Strategy (NSS), and Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR), both of which are expected to be published this month. The two reviews, which are being undertaken simultaneously, will form the basis for British military and security strategy going forward.

Unfortunately, if the government’s response to the last NSS (published in October 2010) is anything to go by, it is unlikely to lead to any new thinking.

The last report did address non-military threats, but very little changed. It cited international terrorism, cyber-attacks, major accidents, natural hazards and an international military crisis affecting Britain as the priority threats, only the last of which might require a military response. This year’s reports are likely to consider the same factors, but also to focus on Russia and ISIS.

In order to have an impact, the allocation of resources that follows it should match the identified threats. In 2010 it didn’t and the status-quo prevailed. Over the last five years the pro-military lobby, including former government ministers, has ran a high-profile campaign that successfully argued for military spending of 2% of GDP. One result was the government’s decision to continue allocating billions of pounds to expensive long-term procurement projects such as Trident and aircraft carriers.

If the goal is to promote peace and security, the strategy must be to address the factors that underpin these threats, and consider what contributes to and exacerbates them. Furthermore, it should examine whether a change in how the government views Britain’s role in the world would have an impact on the threats.

Human rights, global development and tackling climate change need to be put at the centre of policy. For example, many members of the British public, as well as parts of the media and some politicians, view the current refugee crisis as a major threat. However, the people crossing into Europe from Syria, Eritrea and elsewhere are, in most cases, fleeing conflict or repressive rule. Looked at in this way, fences and security personnel are not the answer. Instead, Britain should commit itself to doing all it can to prevent and stop conflict and push for high international standards on human rights.

The Ebola outbreak has been another terrible reminder that a key priority has to be the promotion of health needs. Infectious disease pandemics can kill thousands, disable millions, and disrupt entire economies. As Julio Frenk of the Harvard School of Public Health has argued ‘The absence of good health, generated by the slow-burning persistence of huge inequities around the world, is one of the major causes of global insecurity. The injustice represented by the millions of unnecessary deaths from preventable causes breeds social discontent that may eventually lead to resentment and extremism.’

As well as taking proactive steps, the government needs to ensure it is not taking actions that exacerbate tensions and make things worse.

This means an end to support for bloody interventions. The invasions of Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq have killed thousands and destabilized the whole region. Similarly, Britain has backed Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen, which has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

A key step toward playing a more peaceful role in the world would be an end to arms exports, which are a major factor in entrenching the cynicism that many have of British foreign policy. Successive British governments have called for universal human rights, but this has been totally undermined by their support for dictatorships around the world and an unbending commitment to the promotion of arms sales.

Simon McDonald, Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office, has recently acknowledged that human rights no longer enjoy the same ‘profile’ in his department as they have in the past. The day after McDonald’s statement, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP told delegates at the Defence and Security Equipment International arms fair in London that his department would be stepping up its role in arms export promotion.

This week, the Medact Health Through Peace Forum in London will bring hundreds of health professionals and academics together to look at all of these issues and more. This event, which is organized by The Lancet, Medécins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and a range of other groups, aims to provide a much-needed alternative to a vision of security that is fuelled by military spending and interventionism.

Ultimately there needs to be a far broader discussion that goes outside the confines of party politics and the military establishment. Only in this way can we work towards a whole new approach to national security; one that isn’t constantly focused on projecting strength, providing military solutions to all threats and taking part in catastrophic foreign interventions that leave a trail of destruction and do nothing to keep us safe.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.

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