The Debate

Australia and Human Security: Why Turnbull Has to ‘Do a Merkel’

Human security is emerging in Australia: The grass roots are speaking against neo-realism.

Australia and Human Security: Why Turnbull Has to ‘Do a Merkel’

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg (left podium) and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel (right podium) address the Supporting Syria and the Region press conference. The conference took place in London on 4 February 2016.

Credit: Rob Thom/Crown Copyright

The cynicism or moral immobilism of the Western powers toward the Syria conflict has been a reminder that states all too often conform to the behavior pattern predicted by the neo-realist conception  of international relations. Yet in a handful of countries, including Australia and Germany, the popular response to the refugee crisis created by the conflict has reminded these states that they also have signed up to international treaties and United Nations resolutions on human security. We must also recall that the original conceptions of realism as an international relations theory were rooted in moral values, an understanding that escapes the now dominant neo-realist school among the major powers and their academic  fellow travelers.

The sad news is that the turn to human security by the grass roots in some late-adopter countries, such as Australia, has happened at the same time as the traditional defenders and even the source countries of the doctrine, such as Sweden and other Nordics, are turning decisively away from it under the influence of Islamophobia. In the United States, many Governors at the state level have lined up to declare their territory off limits to the Syrian (Muslim) refugees.

Germany has remained steadfast (more or less) in its long standing commitment to human security. Angela Merkel will be remembered in history for her astonishingly brave commitment, as the Syria  crisis worsened, to take one million refugees — a move backed by large sections of the German community.

Many other states declared sympathy for the refugees and undertook some relief measures but their responses have for the most part been minimalist–and realist, as if the plight of the millions of refugees could only be handled through the lens of state interests.

The recent abandonment by major Western powers of human security as a guiding principle has been inescapably clear in their eventual submission to a Russian-dominated outcome in the conflict. The moral corruption of this submission to Russian preferences was evident in their lack of leadership across the board on the refugee crisis, with only a few exceptions among Western leaders, such as Merkel. Putin has read the moral cowardice of the West perfectly and reacted accordingly.

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But the relationship between Western states and the doctrine of human security is not the same as their relationship to traditional hard security.

States for the most part control the instruments of hard security and rarely submit to genuine democratic control of their use. The concept of human security is a more cosmopolitan one and it’s foot soldiers are citizens not people in uniform.

In Australia, the citizenry has not for the most part been engaged with the ideals of human security in the country’s diplomacy or national security policy. There has been a long tradition of humanitarianism, but this is not the essence of the concept of human security. The latter is defined not just by compassion but by a willingness of states and citizens to operationalize in their country’s national policies and laws an understanding that state security includes the sum of the security of all of the people the state affects, both at home and overseas.

In this doctrine and ethical principle, states have a moral responsibility to condition their military policy and diplomacy toward protection of “the people” as well as the “state”.

So at last in Australia, more than a decade after the Australian government signed up for the principle of human security, it is at last taking deeper roots among the citizenry of the country.  This has been evident in the response of doctors, lawyers, church communities and civil society activists to the government’s inhuman policies of detention of asylum seekers in the lawless states of Papua New Guinea and Nauru as part of a policy purporting to achieve deterrence of people smugglers.

Some church congregations in Australia have gone so far as to evoke the medieval legal doctrine of sanctuary to make plain their position of concern for the basic security and human dignity of the individuals involved. Even state premiers have joined the chorus of calls for bringing the asylum seekers to Australia.

For the trend towards human security  to be sustained among the grass roots in Australia, and not give way to fear-mongering as we have seen in Sweden, the country’s national institutions have to move. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has to “do a Merkel” and bring the asylum seekers back to Australia. But individual civil servants in Australia also have take stock of their ethical responsibilities to act differently.