South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Security, whether it is abstract or tangible, cannot be confined to a single definition. This is because the concept of security is subjective and relative.
South Asia is not a homogenous region. South Asian nations have similarities and differences. On social development indices, the disparity among South Asian nations is tellingly evident. On health, literacy and education, some countries are far ahead of others. The geo-strategic values of each South Asian nation too vary depending on their geographic locations and defence capabilities. Each South Asian nation’s alliance formation policieis also differ. Therefore, the security needs of no two South Asian nations are the same.

Social justice is security: A girl carries flat bread for lunch as she walks past makeshift tents in a slum in Karachi, Pakistan July 12, 2016. (Reuters/Akhtar Soomro)

Traditional and non-traditional approaches
To understand the wider security picture, we need to look at security from both traditional and non-traditional perspectives. Though there is no perfect definition of security, it can be described as a condition that assures an individual, a community, a state, a region, an international order and humanity at large freedom from fear and want. This is the core of human rights. As such, human rights and security are one and the same.

While traditionalists are largely concerned about the security of states, the international system and even the individual, non-traditionalists go beyond this scope and include in security studies issues such as ecocide, natural disasters, population explosion, food security, outbreak of epidemics and pandemics, economic recessions, poverty, crime, corruption and democracy deficiency. They believe that the search for peace and security should be directed towards social justice, economic justice and environmental justice.

People-centric approach
Every global event, big or small, near or far, affects the people. Even a landslide in distant Peru can affect the economic security of Sri Lankans. If the landslide cuts off transport for weeks or months, preventing copper ingots, Peru’s main export, from reaching ports, world copper prices will rise, forcing Sri Lankans to pay more for copper products. We need hardly say that the slowdown in the economic growth of China will have drastic global repercussions.

Just as global events affect an individual’s security, the collective actions of individuals in one country or region can have global ramifications. For instance, the rise of racism expressed at individual level in the United States and the rising popularity of nationalistic politics in Europe certainly pose serious security questions at global level or could even lead to a clash of civilisations.

Though State is an abstract concept, it is a collection of individuals within defined borders. In the final analysis a security threat to a state is, to all intents and purposes, a security threat to the people of that state. Thus it is more meaningful if solutions to the security problems are made people-centric rather than state- or region-centric. This is more so because what lies at the core of any security issue is the survival of the individual.

Threat to South Asians from within the region
Often the security of the people is undermined by developments within the very state that they are citizens of. Civil wars, archaic or draconian laws, corruption and lack of good governance and even democracy itself add to the physical, economic and social insecurity of the people. It does not need long explanations to say that large-scale corruption is a hindrance to the economic takeoff of a country and, therefore, it affects the economic security of the people. But why democracy? Adolf Hitler was a product of democracy. Moreover, if a democratic process is not properly regulated it only paves the way for lawbreakers to become lawmakers. The laws they make and decisions they take will not be in the best interests of the citizens. Their imprudent or impetuous decisions may even expose the peope to invasions and wars.

In a sense, no region in the world has achieved perfect security or is completely free from factors that threaten its security. Western Europe may not have seen a major war since the end of World War II, but can we say Europe is a peace zone when Nato countries and Russia are engaged in a military build up.
South Asia is a region that has seen both inter-state and intra-state conflicts. Peace and security in the ideal sense still eludes the region. Certainly, the Kashmiri crisis is potent with the possibility of a major war between India and Pakistan. It only needs an irrational leader at the top to trigger a region-destroying nuclear war.

Mutual suspicion and political expediency exacerbate the Kashmiri crisis, prolonging the suffering of the people. Security buildup has taken the form of a costly arms race which the two countries can hardly afford, given the social security needs of the teeming millions living in abject poverty. High defence expenditure has added to the insecurity of the individual in terms of opportunity costs. The money, which should have been spent on health, education and infrastructure development ,goes into weapons purchases. But state leaders believe huge budgetary allocations for defence are a necessary evil. This is a security dilemma that many states face.

Regional cooperation as a mechanism to promote peace has so far not yielded the desired results. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has suffered largely because of India-Pakistan disputes and is on the verge of disintegration. SAARC mechanisms such as South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) are gathering dust without seeing their proper implementation. The message that peace can be achieved through close trade links is lost on South Asian leaders. Their failure to make SAARC a powerful economic union has eroded the economic security of more than 1.5 billion people.
The Kashmiri conflict is not the only conflict that threatens South Asians’ security. The continuous conflicts in Afghanistan since 1979 have not only killed peace and security together with tens of thousands of people in that country, but also given rise to instability in Central Asia and also the rest of the world. It is not an overstatement to say the conflict’s ramifications are global, given the involvement of Nato which is prosecuting a war on terror in that poverty-stricken country — and also other regional and global powers such as India, Pakistan and China.

The threat to regional security from the conflict in Afghanistan comes in many forms. Terrorism is one. The refugee problem is another. The flourishing narcotic trade is less talked about though it is as serious a security threat as terrorism is.

Terrorism is the outcome of failed policies of states and the lack of mechanisms at international level to deal with it. Economic inequality and social ills such as illiteracy, institutional injustices, discriminatory state policies, and the involvement of international and regional players in the internal affairs of other countries are some of the factors that trigger terrorism. Take Pakistan for instance and its rural socio-economic system. According to the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER), five per cent of agricultural households in Pakistan own nearly two thirds of Pakistan’s farmland. And this five percent control politics and the population. Successive Pakistani governments’ efforts to improve education in rural areas are often thwarted by Zamindars or landlords because they fear education, as a ladder for social mobility, could empower the rural people and lead to a situation where they would refuse to work for their oppressive feudal lords.

Filling the vacuum are religious schools that have become, as a direct result of the war in Afghanistan, centres where Islam is given a warped interpretation. One cannot discount the role of foreign intelligence outfits in promoting terrorism through such centres.

This is no attempt to justify terrorism. Terrorism even if it is a political expression should be abhorred and condemned. What I want to stress is that by eliminating social ills and through universal education, the type of terrorism which finds its roots in social evils can be defeated. To deal with the type of terrorism which has its roots in political questions such as a freedom struggle, we need to strengthen international mechanisms to help find justice for the oppressed masses.

Inter-state and intra-state conflicts in South Asia are too numerous to elucidate. We say we are united under a SAARC banner to eliminate poverty and raise the living standards of South Asia’s 1.5 billion people. But our unity is a façade. With states suffering from the syndrome of mutual suspicion, they feel that lowering their guard even during times of friendship with another state is not advisable. From a realistic political perspective, economic prosperity of one state increases the security level of that country. This rise in security level proportionately increases the level of insecurity of a rival state. Therefore, open and subtle economic warfare is a security measure that nations resort to. Such undercurrrents are felt in South Asia also, with the ultimate victims being the poverty-stricken people.

The global picture: China’s rise and its impact on South Asia
China’s rise as a major economic and military power has disturbed the world’s security equilibrium. Even some Western powers realise that kowtowing to China is in their national interest as China emerges as a key source of foreign investment. But China’s assertive diplomacy which reflects its new world power status has also given rise to a security crisis, warranting the United States under President Barack Obama to devise a security policy dubbed ‘the Pivot to Asia’. The prevailing tensions in the South China Sea over territorial disputes between China and its neighbours, together with United States’s discomfort over China’s rising military strength, have brought about a cold-war like situation in Asia. South Asian nations have intentionally or unintentionally become embroiled in the games that big powers play.

As the world security order goes through a transition period in search of the balance of power equilibrium, rival big powers try to enhance their security by forming alliances. On this score, too, South Asian nations move in different directions.

South Asia benefits from China’s rise, though there is little altruism in China’s larger-than-life economic presence in the region. Any powerful nation furthers its national interest through economic aid. So does China. But China’s presence in South Asia has created a diplomatic dilemma for South Asia’s small states: They cannot get too close to China without raising security alarms in the United States and India. Though China is India’s largest trading partner, New Delhi sees China’s growing influence in small South Asian nations a threat to its security.

The West Asian crisis and its impact on South Asia
The stability of West Asia is vital for the economic security of South Asia. The ongoing wars in the region and the economic slowdown brought about by the oil price plunge have a major impact on South Asia. The instability in West Asia has reduced the demand for South Asian labour and agricultural exports, causing a major balance of payement crisis in several South Asian nations.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran are also a major security worry for most South Asian countries. This is because the terror outfit ISIS has attracted recruits from the region. Moreover, the group has established a sizeable military presence in war-torn Afghanistan, threatening Pakistan’s stability also. South Asia is not spared of the Shiite-Sunni conflict, the root of which is the political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Brexit, human rights and climate change
Also an area of great concern as far as South Asia’s economic security is concerned is Britain’s decision to exit from the European Common Market. Most South Asian countries have special economic relations with Britain, their former colonial power.

But behind the Brexit vote and the victory of Donald Trump at the United States’s presidential election in November is a dangerous trend – the rise of nationalistic politics. In many liberal states in Europe, nationalistic parties have made significant electoral gains, posing a big threat to global security. Who knows it could even lead to a clash of civilisations.

With Trump supporting waterboarding and dismissing warnings of climate doom as a hoax, fears are being expressed that nationalism and populism in Europe and the United States represent a potentially existential threat to the global human rights movement that seeks to ensure the security of people around the world.

The most serious existential threats to the planet are the rising temperatures and the adverse effects of climate change. It is believed more and more people are dying of diseases and deaths related to pollution and climate change.

In South Asia, the Maldives is sinking. Sri Lanka is losing its precious land to sea erosion. The countries in the region are hit by frequent natural disasters. The likelihood of Fukishima-like nuclear disasters with region-wide consequences occurring in South Asia also cannot be ruled out. No security measure will be complete if we do not take into account the impact of climate change on the people.

No country can devise a long-term strategy when dealing with another country. No country can promise to another country to be true to it in good times and in bad, in poverty and in prosperity, till kingdom come. This is because international relations are always in a state of flux. Alliances could change and foes could become friends over the years or all of a sudden. Countries should only have short-term strategies to achieve their national interest goals. The long term security interests of a country should consist of a series of short-term strategies relating to the global situation at a given time. South Asian nations therefore must take the necessary short-term decisions to benefit from China’s economic rise and be wary of China’s military rise to avoid being caught up in a quasi Cold War.

Today, no country can adopt isolationism as a policy. Multilateralism is what assures us peace and security. Isolationism, instead of combating issues such as climate change, will only hasten our doom.

(This article was based on a presentation made by the writer at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in Colombo)


Updated On:  December 11, 2016