In complex conflicts and crises, the security of individuals and populations can be threatened in a myriad of ways that exacerbate wider insecurity and violence.
Human security-oriented approaches are crucial for military planning in order to assist military actors, confer real protection and promote the empowerment of the local population. This does not exist merely in the nature of specific initiatives themselves, but also in the values and practices that underline such measures. Centring the importance of the well-being of the civilian population, the emphasis on cooperation between sectors and stakeholder engagement provides stronger support to create stability in a conflict area.
In this article, we look at a case study concerning the benefits gained by adopting a human security approach in Operation Trenton in South Sudan.
Since gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan has battled internal conflicts that disproportionately affect women and girls, exemplified by the horrors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Women in South Sudan have reported:
“we avoided the road because we heard horrible stories that women and girls are grabbed while passing through and are raped, but the same happened to us…There is no escape — we are all raped.”
A key issue to address is how to approach this gendered insecurity, in the short and long term.
In 2018, the UK military contingent of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) upgraded roads near Bentiu to address the high levels of SGBV. The UK military’s construction of these roads was designed to allow the World Food Programme (WFP) to bring supplies and aid directly to remote villages, limiting the need for women and girls to travel on dangerous roads where they faced a significant risk of sexual violence. One of the aims was to ensure the daily expectations of freedom from fear of violence.
Building roads, building human security
Human security is about understanding the local needs of the people, and here active community engagement was part of the initiative. Whilst the road contributed its own benefit to the human security of the population, the way in which the construction was actioned entailed an additional benefit – understanding the concerns of the population and by engaging them in the planning, construction and security of the construction itself.
In doing so, the concerns of the population were central to the initiative and their agency and empowerment recognised as central considerations.
Such approaches can be contrasted with measures that are not attuned to the well-being or acceptance of the local community. For instance, without understanding community dynamics nor the impacts on well-being, heavy-handed war-fighting measures may act to drive the local population towards hostile actors, as demonstrated in Afghanistan.
Here we can identify the practical advantage that such approaches can bring to the military, by avoiding counter-productive measures and building support amongst the local population, but also the normative benefit of allowing the communities to exert real agency.
The road-building efforts in South Sudan, as well as similar endeavours (e.g., those delineated by Kilcullen in Afghanistan), provide real examples of activities where human security concepts are diffused throughout the military activity.
Not only can such efforts adopt a people-centric approach that places a premium on the well-being of the local population, but they can recognise the need for multi-sectoral responses to human insecurity – placing the military alongside humanitarian actors (in this instance the World Food Programme).
Nevertheless, these processes, concerns and approaches can be brought into a broader array of activities.
Long-term human security
Allowing supplies to be brought to the population can reduce the attacks on women (or indeed any member of the population), and such an initiative is an example of everyday human security impeded in wartime.
However, it is essential to recognise that such measures will be short-term in nature. A road will not dismantle a patriarchal system that underpins SGBV.
In order to promote the long-term human security of the population, we must begin with understanding the complex set of factors that create insecurity, that reward violent behaviour, that foster the unequal distribution of resources and subsequently develop measures that combat these root causes of violence such as SGBV.
Central to this is the need to recognise the interconnectedness of the causes and drivers of insecurity. Focusing on a specific manifestation of harm (e.g. SGBV) in isolation can risk adopting a narrow understanding of the underlying dynamics. In this respect, it may be beneficial to appreciate, through a dialogue with the population, how structural issues (such as discrimination, sexism and inequality) interact and compound before boiling over into various tangible harms. It is also crucial to ask what do structures such as the patriarchy mean in terms of conflict and in terms of human security.
In this sense, though the UK defence minister recognised that countering violence against women in conflict zones helps to control overall violence and bring stability, it is important to acknowledge that this is only part of the package of reducing the insecurity of the female population.
This concern has been recognised more broadly in relation to UNMISS’ activities in South Sudan. The Protection of Civilian sites have undoubtedly provided critical protection to hundreds of thousands of civilians, nevertheless, they have previously been criticised for failing to engage in more proactive measures to address the root causes of insecurity and stabilise the region.
Lessons for human security approaches
The road-building initiatives outlined above highlight a number of ways in which human security-oriented approaches can assist military actors, confer real protection and promote the empowerment of the local population. This does not exist merely in the nature of initiatives themselves (facilitating aid and reducing the likelihood of SGBV), but also in the values and practices that underline such measures. Centring the importance of the well-being of the civilian population, the emphasis on cooperation between sectors and stakeholder engagement, and the need to empower the civilian population.
Indeed, such values would be well served if incorporated and diffused throughout the military sector as a whole.
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