In case, you haven’t had a chance to watch this…

I was reminded of our many discussions about why it is in a state’s self interest to adhere to the human security road map when reading this blog post by Dan Drezner discussing the role of global governance in responding to the Swine Flu outbreak.  In it, he quotes John Ikenberry’s defense of the need for global collective action by states.

National governments need to strengthen their capacities to monitor and respond. International capacities – at least the sorts that I propose – are meant to reinforce and assist national governments. This international capacity is particularly important in cases where nations have weak capacities to respond on their own or where coordinated action is the only way to tackle the threat. When it comes to transnational threats like health pandemics, everyone everywhere is vulnerable to the weakest link (i.e. weakest nation) in the system, and so no nation can be left behind.

Human security calls upon states to recognize and act upon this need for global cooperative endeavors to protect and enhance individual security in our most vulnerable communities around the world.  Again, not simply because we should do the right thing by helping those in need, but also because it will serve to enhance our shared collective capacity and as Ikenberry emphasizes, “states need collective capacities so they can make good on their own national obligations to respond.”

That said, as one commenter to Dresner’s blog points out, in our current global community of nations states, this is easier said then done.

There’s a natural tension here between a caste of international mandarins, largely unaccountable, who are supposed to put global concerns over their individual national ones, and the basic accountability that comes from representative national governments.  In the first case, it’s questionable whether international mandarins would adhere to the rules during a true crisis if it meant sacrificing their nation’s vital interests. In the latter case, the accountability that comes from representative governments is supposed to insure that government puts the good of the individual nation’s people above others… and it becomes difficult for these governments to mandate sacrifices, because they can then be replaced through the ballot.

While I acknowledge these tensions, I don’t think they have proven or will prove to be insurmountable obstacles to effective global cooperation. Why?  Because publics around the world recognize their futures will be in part determined by the effectiveness of our global governance architecture — the failure of it in the case of the global financial crisis, the success of it (we like the WHO in HK) in grappling with health pandemics.   People will select their political leaders based on that leader’s abilities to effectively manage and respond to these global realities.  A recent example — the US public elected Obama, despite his clear message of shared sacrifice.


The human security model, while noble in aim, remains fundamentally flawed in definition and implementation.

Supporters claim that its “cultivated ambiguity” allows human security actors to overlook individual disagreements and will bring more participants onto the bandwagon of a particular human security threat, as was seen with the Ottawa Convention’s ban against landmines. Moreover, they claim that it allows a wider paradigm of threats to individual security to be addressed—for instance, infectious diseases, terrorism, nuclear technologies, and environmental threats.

Yet, the actions of the United States in the post-911 ‘war on terror’, and its subsequent wars in Iran and Afghanistan, is sound proof of the danger of the human security model’s ambiguity since it was used in this case to legitimize the US’s own foreign policy agendas.  Indeed, the US war on Iraq points to the vulnerability of ‘human security’ in becoming little more than a puppet in the hands of powerful nations. A Christian Aid study has concluded that “the year 2004 saw $1 billion in aid was diverted to the war on terrorism at the expense of poverty and Millennium Development Goals.”

While it is perhaps too early to see the effects of the economic downtown, the economic climate does not bode well for human security’s development agenda.  In view of the the current worldwide economic fiasco, governments will prioritize saving their economies and well-being of their newly-impoverished citizens over championing the right to clean water in some developing nation.   Moreover, we can also expect that the sentiments of populations will shift from placing priority on human security violations across the globe, to trying to pay their own mortgage.

Optimists have pointed out that there is still hope for the human security model in the current political climate. Indeed with the fast-growing media, more worldwide attention can be brought to human security violations around the globe. The exposure of the hypocrisy of nations manipulating the human security model and the resultant public censure may change the course in which it will play out in the future. And the growth of non-state actors, such as NGOs, INGOs and even the UN, may offer hope for the human security paradigm.

However, even under the most optimistic conditions, human security requires a tighter definition. Without it, as David Chandler has pointed out, human security runs a risk of descending into a mere ad-hoc, short term foreign policy formulation used to legitimize the global policy interests of powerful states.

Tiffany Lam


Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, “Human Security: The Seven Challenges of Operationalizing the Concept,” paper delivered at UNESCO conference entitled “Human Security: 60 Minutes to Convince,” Paris, September 13, 2005

Roland Paris, “Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?”, International Security, vol. 26, no. 2, Fall 2001, pp. 87-102

David Chandler, “Human Security: The Dog that Didn’t Bark”, Security Dialogue, vol. 39, no. 4, August 2008

Neil S MacFarlane, Carolin J Thielking, Thomas G Weiss,The Responsibility to Protect: Is Anyone Interested in Humanitarian Intervention?Third World Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 5, (2004) pp. 977-992

Long Time No Sea

April 1, 2009

This case study shows that the cause of climate change is not limited to emissions of greenhouse gases; it is also highly related to our attitude and the way we treat natural resources. The Kyoto Protocol has spotted out the main causes of climate change, but reducing emission of greenhouse gases alone cannot solve the problem of global climate change. Over the past few weeks, we saw that over-exploitation of natural resources can result in important threats towards human security, potentially in the form of violent conflicts: “As the world population grows, its escalating resource needs place ever-increasing pressure on land. This creates conflicts among competing user groups, and often results in adverse impacts both to the land and to its living and non-living resources.” But over-exploitation can also lead to climate change, a truly global phenomenon.

We have discussed water scarcity two weeks ago, and we are discussing climate change this week. But did you know that  water itself can have an impact on climate change? This week, we are going to share a real story on climate change, called “Long time no sea”. The “sea” we are talking about is the Aral Sea in Central Asia, an inland sea lying between southern Kazakhstan and northwest Uzbekistan. Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea has been shrinking for the last 40 years because of diversion of its two sources, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya Rivers. By 2007, the Aral Sea had declined to 10% of its original size and split into three separate lakes. Please click here to see how the size of the sea decreased from the 1960s. 


The reason for “long time no sea” was the over-pumping of water for cotton and rice production, causing the remaining water to become highly salinated. As a result, not only did the “sea’s” 24 species of freshwater fish die out, even fishing boats found themselves marooned in the middle of a desert !! The Kazakh and Uzbek had to say goodbye to their beach, harbour and fishing industry. But there is more to it.


As water plays an important role in regulating the climate system,  over-pumping has resulted in distortions in the climate: “with the reduction of the Aral Sea’s size, the surrounding climate has changed, becoming more continental with shorter, hotter, rainless summers and longer, colder, snowless winters. The growing season has been reduced to an average of 170 days a year, while dust storms rage on more than 90 days annually.” The IPCC also suggests that the drying off process and subsequent desertification and salinization of soils resulted in a temperature increase of 1.5 C within 100-150 km of the edge of the sea.  The reason behind this is that “The temperature of ocean helps regulate the amount of carbon dioxide released or absorbed into the water“. Although we may think that 1.5 C is minimal, it can cause serious impacts to the ecosystem including human lives – e.g. the dust storms which are undoubtedly threats towards human security. 


You may be wondering: “Where was the international community?”. Actually, the international community did take actions, but it was too late already: “There have been international and worldwide studies done on the Aral Sea and many different organizations and people have tried various ways to keep the flow of water directed into the Aral Sea. However, it comes down to the fact that it seems it is too late for anything to be done“.


Therefore, Human Security advocates should not limit themselves at pressuring the USA to sign up the Kyoto Protocol in the coming climate change conference; they also work to ensure that our natural resources are properly used. It undoubtedly requires collaboration within the international community. While poorer developing countries rely heavily on natural resources to produce primary commodities and maintain their living standard, they may not have enough knowledge and technology to manage their natural resources. Action should be taken as early as possible by the international community or other cases of “long time no sea’ will keep repeating, resulting in an accelerated rate of climate change…


By Tong Yui Wa Andy & Yu Wai Yan Becky

If you would like to know more about how Aral Sea is going on, you can look at this article for the recent projects to save the sea! 

Water conflicts are more likely to take place on an individual or community level as a “conflict”, rather than on a state-level as a “crisis”. The last time two states went to war over water was 4,500 years ago (“Dehydrating Conflict”)! However, in China alone, there were over 120,000 recorded conflicts over water quantity from 1990 to 2002. Therefore, there is a need to look at intra-state water conflict management systems.
A look at a few cases in China would illustrate the problems and potential solutions. The Three Gorges Dam is a project subsuming energy development, economic stimulus, geographical reallocation of water and ecological threat. Yet, it has flooded archaeological and cultural sites and displaced some 1.24 million people. Over one billion tons of wastewater is release, annually into the river, causing dramatic ecological changes. The question lingers of whether the human and environmental costs are too great compared to the economic growth achieved.

There is also competition between cities: Beijing, in need to provide sufficient drinking water to its residents, got into conflict with the neighbouring municipality of Tianjin because of a reservoir project that draws water from the upper reaches of the Juhe River which runs through both cities. Both cities refused to compromise, so what can be done in this situation?

When water conflicts are not well-managed, drastic consequences can appear.  In Zhejiang province, villagers got so fed up with the polluting discharges reaching them along rivers from the textile factories in Jiangsu province that they created their own dam in the 50-meter-wide river.

In China, disputes between villages, cities and provinces are often resolved by the central government in an ad hoc, case-by-case fashion. Despite improving environmental laws to allow victims of pollution to seek compensation, no formal institute or private organization has been set up to provide third-party mediation on environmental disputes.

From a Human Security point of view, much improvements could be made in China’s water conflict management strategies.

First, there is a stress on meeting the water needs of each individual, and not just the state. This would prevent disproportionate sacrificing of people’s interests and the environment for the sake of economic growth, as it arguably was done in the Three Gorges Project.

Second, a higher priority would be given to water as an urgent security need. This stems from the ‘freedom from want’ school that access to water is a fundamental basic tenet to human security. This is evident as water is also inextricably linked to poverty. Treating water needs as a priority would imply that the government needs to establish a comprehensive framework for water conflict management, and not just deal with it on an ad-hoc basis.

Thirdly, human security acknowledges the capacity for cooperation and collaboration. This means that all stakeholders should be included in water conflict resolution processes, and not just having the government decide. Moreover, when processes are at a stalemate, as in the example of conflict between Beijing and Tianjin, a competent third-party could be called in to mediate. The World Bank in the case of the Indus Water Treaty was a successful example of third-party mediation.

Given that most water conflicts are intra-state, there is a need to develop a plausible framework to address these conflicts. How can we refine our security framework strategically to resolve the huge numbers and different types of water conflicts, especially those that occur within the state?

By Carmen, Ng Ka Man & Angie, Chan Nga Ki

The Indus Water Treaty is a water-sharing treaty between India and Pakistan, by which it was agreed that the use of water from the Indus River and its tributaries would be divided between the two countries. It is widely agreed by the World Bank and various experts that this Treaty is a success. Firstly, it has proved the effectiveness of involving a third party in negotiation. Secondly, it has shown that cooperation and coordination are possible in resolving transnational river conflicts. However, we argue that the Treaty has yet to provide sustainable solutions for peace maintenance at state level, and more importantly, meaningful protection to the citizens of both countries.

At state level, the Treaty is not entirely effective and remains difficult to implement due to the unwillingness of states to put aside their interests towards the rivers. According to the Security Research Review on the Indus Water Treaty (Subrahmanyam Sridhar, 2005), India has greater bargaining power over Pakistan as it is located in the upper stream of the River, making the treaty difficult to implement. Although India defends that the Treaty clearly states the minimum volume of water that must be transferred from India to Pakistan, in practice dividing the rivers is far more complicated than what is suggested in the Treaty. For instance, Pakistan recently accused India of building a dam which might reduce the flow of water to Pakistan to almost less than half of its original share. By simply regulating the volume of water transferred and the terms of use of the rivers, the Treaty has yet to provide solutions to this complicated issue.

At the same time, from a human security perspective, we doubt whether the Treaty is effective in protecting the citizens of the two countries. In fact, while the Indus River remains a valuable resource for both states, the Treaty has limited the use of the river to the locals. The case of Kashimir is especially revealing. According to the IPS News Agency, economic development in Kashimir was hindered because only 40% of the cultivatable land can be irrigated. Moreover, there is still 25% of Kashmiris living without electricity and 55% living without safe drinking. Quoted from S. Chakarapani, a freelance journalist in India, around 65% of primary schools in India still lack basic drinking water facilities.” While the World Bank insists that the Treaty is beneficial, it seems that it only brings benefits to the big players, and has no use in solving distribution conflicts at domestic level.

The Treaty cannot be said to be success unless it can effectively improve the living conditions of locals, who afterall should be the focus in a Human Security context. We suggest international inspection and close monitoring to ensure the river resources are used in their full potential. More work has to be done in ensuring the Treaty is implemented within a Human Security framework.

The treaty is just an initial stage in fostering cooperation between India and Pakistan, and more than just rivers should be laid on the discussion table. But more importantly, cooperation between these states and their own citizens has to be enhanced, and subsequent treaties should pay more attention to this basic principle of Human Security.

— By Eric Kong and Fiona Wu

HIV/AIDS: Whose Agenda?

March 10, 2009

With the comprehensive media coverage exploring the issue of HIV/AIDS, and the endeavor of HIV lobbies and activists in promoting the disease, many nations, be they highly-afflicted ones or the seemingly less-afflicted ones, have fully understood the contention of “A threat to one is a threat to all…” and recognized their responsibility in combating against this overwhelming battle. As a result, international HIV/AIDS assistance, in form of funding via bilateral, regional or multilateral mechanisms, has surged. Undoubtedly, massive funding dedicated to HIV and countries plagued by HIV/AIDS is a good attempt in mitigating the deadly impact of the epidemic. The question is, are we funding the right health care problem and in a right amount?

As a matter of fact, though HIV causes 3.7% of mortality, it receives 25% of international healthcare aid and a big portion of domestic expenditure. Among the annual aid of 9 billion, questions have arisen over whether has the relief been used effectively and allocated sensibly.  What about other diseases such as infant deaths or heart disease in developing world which cause more deaths than HIV/AIDS? Are we diverting resources from interventions against other diseases? Who should have a say in our agenda to ensure sensible and effective use of resources?

Apart from the above, we should step forward to think about what receiving countries want actually. We incorporate the issue of HIV/AIDS in our agenda and prioritize resources based on our perspective. Yet, are our plans precisely catering for the needs of the recipients? Could money alone address the problem? Mozambique’s health minister once stated that, “The reality in many countries is that funds are not needed specifically for AIDS, tuberculosis, or malaria. Funds are firstly and mostly needed to strengthen national health systems so that a range of diseases and health conditions can be managed effectively”. Developing countries have also expressed their concerns that they need skills and human resources which further empower their national governments and improve the general health services. This in turn enables them to handle crisis more effectively and have their own discretion on setting actual disease priorities. After all, they, countries plagued by HIV/AIDS, may not be as dependent as perceived and we, human security advocates, may not be as helpful as imagined either.

By Selena,Wong Sai Yin & Tiffany, Cheung Hiu Wai


England Roger (2007). Head to head, Are we spending too much on HIV? Available online at:, accessed March 9, 2009.

England Roger (2008). The writing is on the wall for UNAIDS. Available online at:, accessed March 9, 2009.

Laurie Garrett, “HIV and National Security: Where are the Links?” Council on Foreign Relations: 2005.

UNAIDS (2008). 2008 Report on the global AIDS epidemic. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS.

World Bank Operations Evaluation Department. Committing to results: improving the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS assistance., accessed March 9, 2009.