Mediating between Security v. Human rights positions: the common ground and interest shared

How to cite this journal: Author, Date of the post, WMO Conflict Insight, Title of the post, ISSN:

Whenever security is discussed, there seem to be two sides emerging, seemingly one contesting the other: Security v. Human Rights. The debate becomes stronger whenever the discussion regards terrorism, a crime and security threat that is very high on the agenda of the international community and has been pivotal in the change of laws and the adoption of security measures worldwide. Trying to mediate between the two sides and help them reach a consensus in a democratic society can be a challenge, although in reality there is no conflict at all between the two of them. They are more than complementary; they are the two sides of the same coin.

Security serves as the base upon which all human activity takes place and can flourish. From everyday functioning as a human being to the economic development of countries, it all depends upon the principle that there is security as a foundation. Security can be regarded as a human right of the utmost importance, with impact in several expressions of social reality. This is why, when the threat of terrorism arises (or of any other serious crime for that matter), it is imperative for states to take measures and address the danger. It is not that statistically terrorist attacks take place so often, but it is the surprise nature and blind hostility of terrorism (at least in its recent forms) that make victimization an everyday possibility people dread. Thus, they are ready to accept anything, any measure that seems to provide, or indeed provides protection from a terror attack.

On the other hand, human rights, or liberties (as some use the term) are also fundamental to our democratic societies. After centuries of struggle, political, philosophical, and religious ideologies that have influenced our civilization and connected human dignity with freedom, it is almost impossible to conceive the notion of a state that does not respect the full range of human rights protected by international conventions and modern constitutions. But freedom and all the set of human rights can be enjoyed, when there is security and a strong legal framework that protects them.

Citizens should actually not be divided into those who are in favor of the application of law and those who are in favor of the protection of human rights. Both positions in the contemporary legal civilization echo the same thing. One cannot support the law, want its enforcement, but turn a blind eye when- for example- police officers use illegal means (like torture) in order to extract from a terrorist a forced confession. Committing a terror attack and torturing during police custody are both crimes, punishable under criminal law. There cannot be an “à la carte” legality and sense of justice when we are talking about illegal activities.

Furthermore, when people want security, they are seeking after conditions that make them be and feel secure. A state where police can arrest you with little reason except for the arbitrary power of police and the accused has to prove innocence instead of the authorities proving guilt is not a state of security. It is per definition a state of insecurity, creating societies of insecurity. Police states are not something the world has not seen, the experience has been bitter in many countries with their citizens remembering how it is to fear under constant fear of been arrested and interrogated. Moreover, the standard accusation has always been terrorism or security reasons (a vague accusation used to handle all those who would stand against tyranny). So actually those who support security should first of all support human rights and a legal framework that in theory and practice effectively protects freedom and human rights.

The most difficult and critical situation arises when the subject is to change the existing legal framework in ways that new laws introduce new standards of less human rights protection. This way law enforcement acts according to law, but this law fails to protect human rights and liberties adequately. The change in American legislation with the Patriot Act, the “enhanced methods of interrogation” and Guantanamo are blatant examples, along with changes in the legislation of European countries, like the UK and France (to name but a few).  During critical times as such, when there are proposals for laws, constitutions, even international conventions to be changed, then security should become part of the projected society we are wishing for with the changes envisaged. Hence, we go back- once more- to what security means. Does it mean only preventing or thwarting terror attacks (keeping in mind that no law and no security measure can 100% ensure a positive outcome)? Or does it also mean protecting citizens from a state that could become oppressive and violent against them? At the end of the day, what are the qualities of the state and society that we are so eager to protect from terrorists?

As the war against terrorism has not been yet won (and it is doubtful if it is a war that can be won, at least not in the way history speaks of wars been won) and on the contrary new groups and threats emerge, knowing where we stand as societies are imperative. In democracies, we have to bypass the dilemma “security or human rights” that is presented as expressing two different schools of thought. The common interest and point of connection of the two sides that must be highlighted and realized is that security and human rights are so interconnected that they can be considered one, indivisible value and principle to govern and inspire any counterterrorism policy. Both offer an incentive, but also pose restrictions, necessary for our societies to be worth defending against terrorists.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Bernadette Bain

    Dear Maria,
    I find that you give an interesting perspective of security v human rights. The analysis is thought provoking, as on the one hand the need for security depicts control of volatile and usually harmful situations. While on the other hand, human rights projects a form of liberalism of ethical or moral values, whether right or wrong. In the context of the law, society wants protection and security in a free world. In this paradigm, human rights project philosophical values endearing to individuals and society in general. In this context, the law strives to provide security, while at the same time enforcing human rights. I agree that a legal framework which supports both would be ideal.

    Bernadette Bain

    1. Maria Alvanou

      Dear Bernadette, thank you for your comment. You understood the spirit of this piece completely. I would go even further and argue that in some cases the problem is that law is applied in a fragmented way. It is applied with severity against terrorists (rightly so), but not to law enforcement personel when they break the law while interrogating or researching terrorism cases. But the application of law can not be done in a selective manner and fighting a certain kind of crime is not reason for authorities not to respect the law.

  2. Marina Khamitsevich

    Very insightful article. I wish it could be carefully read and clearly understood by as many people as possible. I believe, the division of citizens into those standing for security VS those supporting the human rights is getting deliberately articulated, often used in all kinds of political and elections campaigns all around the today’s world, creating groundless hostility and “societies of insecurity”. I am asking myself, why is this contraposition so dangerous and yet so successful? Possible answer:
    It simplifies things, triggering instincts, undermining values. Security is being presented and understood by many as something prior to all the other needs – as being at the bottom of the well-known Maslow’s pyramide. As if humankind could not proceed further until the “security is secured”. Paradoxically, and by the way, as it is often the case in mediation, the two parties tend to be using different words to refer to something in substance indivisible – like Security and Human right, as brilliantly presented by the author of this article.

    1. Daniel Erdmann

      Dear Marina,

      thank you for your perspective. I believe it is very disturbing to realize that creating security and insecurity is often part of a match or project plan. In international politics, we often witness that a destabilization of a country happens prior to signing ceremonies of economic agreements of global reach. More often than not, such destabilization processes are created by foreign authorities, giving a hint on what they are able to provoke in future, in case such agreements are not signed. Our media channels report on these happenings constantly. To understand what is going on, you only have to observe such events over a longer period of time.

      Best regards, Daniel

    2. Maria Alvanou

      Dear Marina,
      Thank you for your interaction. We live in polarizing societies, full of easy slogans and contexualizing notions according to ideological needs. The simplification you mention is indeed dangerous. Also holding only on to the things that seem to support our views. People who support “security” fail to see it from a holistic approach. To be honest i also believe security is a must, but my argument is that security is much more that what “pro security” usually debate. It entails definitely also the protection of human rights, as without it there is no security. Most of those who are “pro security” what they really are is “pro law enforcement activity without control”, or more simply put: having a hammer and dealing with everything and everyone like they are nails.

  3. Daniel Erdmann

    Dear Maria,

    thank you very much for your insights and your thoughts. I totally agree that we live in a complex world that requires more likely a holistic perspective in order to see and understand the linkages between terms that we use, as well as groups that better should be seen as parts of the society before they actualy get excluded. Specially the topic of terrorism asks for skilled minds to reflect on. I believe that terrorism is also a way of communication, executed by a group of individuals whose necessities possibly where ignored for too long.

    I tried to bring my thoughts together in the article: Civil Resistance and Cosmetic Treatment of Terrorism ( ). I would feel honored if you could have a look.

    Best regards, Daniel Erdmann

    1. Maria Alvanou

      Thank you, i have read indeed your very interesting article. Skilled minds are required especially during conflict and crisis and it is then that we need pluralism of ideas. I am not so sure i agree that we can argue the idea terrorism is a form of communication executed by a group of individuals whose necessities possibly were ignored. At least on in all cases and surely i would be very cautious about such a statement regarding ideological extremism/terrorism. It is a phrase that seems to put the responsibility of terrorism to the state/society and giving legitimacy to terrorism as form of communication. In most cases there are institutional/legal venues to follow in order to achieve goals and satisfy necessities and communicate messages. And in no way i can see that a far- right attack in a club etc can be considered communication for necessities been ignored. In ethno-separatist movements, where in most cases indeed separating/liberating land cannot be pursued consitutionally and legaly, it could be the case that you statement can be valid, and again i would not agree that armed struggle/gorilla should take the form of terrorism targetting civilians (there are rules of armed combat). This is a very interesting issue and indeed the reason for a new article, great idea!

      1. Daniel Erdmann

        Dear Maria,

        thank you very much for your reply. I will reflect on your thoughts and learn from them. I think the topic that we are discussing here, is a very sensitive one and hopefully we will have the possibility to talk about it in person soon.

        Best regards, Daniel Erdmann

        1. Maria Alvanou

          Dear Daniel,
          I am sure that we will have the opportunity online or in person to exchange ideas and debate. These are sensitive (very rightly put), interesting, intriguing subjects where different opinions and arguments make scholar discussion rich. I am looking forward to many discussions.

Leave a Reply