Human Security and East Asia: In the Beginning

By Evans, Paul M. | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2004 | Go to article overview

Human Security and East Asia: In the Beginning


Evans, Paul M., Journal of East Asian Studies


Security is the absence of anxiety upon which the fulfilled life depends.

--Cicero

In the pantheon of new security concepts debated in East Asia in the past decade, human security is perhaps the most controversial. It is based on the idea that the individual or community must be at least one of the referent points in answering the eternal questions of security for whom, from what, and by what means.

Asian reactions to human security have been divided and fluid in the past decade, initially somewhere between cool and hostile and recently more positive in civil society, academic, and governmental circles. The conventional wisdom is that East Asia is resistant to concepts of security that, in normative terms, have the potential to erode traditional conceptions of sovereignty and, in policy terms, demand a new allocation of resources to manage an array of nontraditional security challenges well beyond military threats to territorial integrity. Especially in Northeast Asia, a neighborhood where the Cold War is unended, where memories of history and historical legacies are unresolved, where there are divided states, where defense spending is high, and where there is little experience with regional institutions or cooperative security, human security appears to many as an alien and even dangerous transplant.

The case for skepticism is reinforced by the illiberal thrust of U.S. foreign policy in the era of George W. Bush, especially since September 11. The antiterrorism agenda has produced an unprecedented level of state-to-state cooperation, seen in the constructive interactions of the United States and China and the other major powers. Indeed, some see the prospect for a renewed Concert of Powers emerging in response to the North Korean nuclear issue. But U.S. opposition to the major international initiatives to promote human security, especially the antipersonnel landmine campaign and the International Criminal Court, and the diminution of support for human rights in East Asia are sobering for human security advocates.

I focus here on how ideas about human security are being interpreted and addressed by governments and wider policy communities in Asia, especially in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, two regions that I define together as East Asia. (1) The basic argument is that after facing initial opposition, human security is now finding a place in regional discussion and some policy areas. While the preference is for the broader approach to human security that looks at multiple new threats to human well-being, there has been a subtle shift toward acceptance--or at least serious debate--concerning the narrower understanding of human security related to protection of individuals in situations of violent conflict. The most important embodiment of this logic is the idea of the responsibility to protect. At this point, individual states and regional institutions remain hesitant to embrace human security, but the concept is affecting state practice and playing a catalytic role in changing the normative framework related to state obligations and the principles of sovereignty and noninterference.

I present the argument mindful that human security has a precarious perch in the theory and practice of international relations not only within East Asia but also globally. It operates on the margins rather than in the mainstream except in a handful of countries such as Canada and Norway. The concept has been widely criticized as analytically problematic, morally risky, unsustainable, counterproductive, and "so vague that it verges on the meaningless." (2) In the academic world, human security has a growing number of adherents. A 2003 survey of Canadian academics listed more than 145 at thirty-three universities who self-identified as having a research or teaching interest in human security. (3) Yet even a cursory skim of titles and subjects in mainstream security journals in North America and Europe indicates that the phrase still is used rarely.

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