[The Acton Forum] Constructing a Security Issue: Evaluating Peter Hough’s view

Hugh S. Shin
Bachelor of International Security Studies, Australian National University
12 December 2014

In today’s world, a vast number of issues are labelled as ‘security issue’. These issues vary considerably depending on what or who is being threatened by them. Some threaten the security of the state, whereas others endanger the security of people. Some issues pose significant threats to other objects, such as the environment or ideologies. Those who support the traditional, or state-centric, security concept define the state as the only entity to be made secure and argue that only military threats are legitimate to be security issues. By contrast, advocates of human security claim that people, or individuals, are the primary referent object of security and any issue that places people at risk can be a security issue. Indeed, it is often difficult and daunting to answer the question of what should be considered as a security issue.

This short essay evaluates Peter Hough’s quote, “If people, be they government ministers or private individuals, perceive an issue to threaten their lives in some way and respond politically to this, then that issue should be deemed to be a security issue”, using two competing security theories – the Copenhagen School and Subaltern realism – and two internal security issues – terrorism and state-led political violence – in Indonesia. The essay argues that Hough’s argument is not compelling as it is only based on a human-centric understanding of security. Hough’s understanding of security presented in his quote limits the referent object of security to the individual and only focuses on the public’s perception of threat. Furthermore, his approach rejects the important role of the state in defining a security issue. What Hough ignores is that unless an issue is recognised and designated by the state as an existential threat, it may not be legitimate to be a security issue, regardless of how people perceive it.

The essay begins by analysing Hough’s quote while concentrating on two core determinants of security: referent objects and threat perceptions. It analyses how Hough identifies and uses these determinants when he defines a security issue. In order to challenge Hough’s approach, the essay then explores the Copenhagen School and Subaltern realism, focusing on how these two theories define the primary referent object of security and the role of the state in securitising an issue. Finally, the essay examines how the Indonesian government has perceived and dealt with the issues of terrorism and state-led political violence, in order to highlight the important role of the state in constructing a security issue.

Hough, in his quote, embraces a human-centric understanding of security, more specifically the broad school of human security, and attempts to securitise an issue only based on the public’s perception of threat. He asserts that an issue should be deemed to be a security issue if people perceive it to threaten their lives. In other words, any issue, regardless of what it is, can be treated as a security matter when people believe that the issue threatens their security. This implies that Hough focuses on the individual as the referent object of security. Moreover, Hough claims that if people respond politically to an issue threatening their lives, then that issue should be considered as a security issue. This, in other words, means that the public, or the individual, is the primary actor who is capable of dealing with security problems.

There are three major issues with Hough’s contention. First, Hough takes people as the only referent object of security by claiming that an issue which is perceived to threaten people’s lives should be deemed to be a security issue. In many existing theories of security studies, the individual is often defined as the primary entity to be made secure. However, some theories take the individual as the secondary referent object of security that should be considered less important than the security of the state. Some other approaches reject the argument that people should be the referent of security, or even consider the individual as the source of threats to other valuable entities. For example, some security scholars who have their origins in ecologism argue that for the sake of the environment, the ultimate objective of global security has to be the environment itself, not humankind.

Second, Hough’s approach cannot possibly explain those issues that threaten the security of individuals but are not yet treated by the state as security matters. Hough overlooks how a state would perceive an issue that poses an actual threat to its people as he only concentrates on the public’s assessment of the seriousness of the threat. In the process of elevating something to a security issue, the public’s perception of threat is important, but it is not the only thing to consider. In fact, the public’s perception of threat is often treated less important than the state’s perception because the state is usually the major actor who has the ability to articulate and designate an issue as an existential threat. An issue that threatens the security of people may not be considered as a security issue if the state refuses to accept it as being one. Conversely, an issue which hardly ever jeopardises the security of people still deserves to be treated as a security issue if the state takes it as an existential threat.

Third, Hough fails to understand that a security issue is an issue which is normally addressed by the state’s use of extraordinary means. In his quote, Hough further contends that if people respond politically to an issue threatening their lives, then that issue should be deemed to be a security challenge. This, once again, implies that Hough ignores the essential role of the state in constructing a security issue. In the real world, there are a number of issues that people perceive as threats and respond politically but that are not yet treated as security matters. This happens because states refuse to see those issues as existential threats and to take extraordinary measures to deal with them. A security issue is not an ordinary issue. It is an issue of supreme priority that is so urgent and serious or is presented as such. It therefore requires emergency measures to be effectively addressed, and in many cases, the adoption and implementation of such emergency measures are done by the state. Hence, it is the state’s use of emergency measures, not public responses, that qualifies an ordinary issue as a security issue.

In order to more clearly point out the limitations of Hough’s way of constructing a security issue, different and competing ideas about the referent object between the Copenhagen School and Subaltern realism can be explored. The Copenhagen School adopts a broad interpretation of security that embraces a varied range of threats and referent objects. The School attempts to widen the conception of security in order to explain non-military security threats. Although the School favours a profound widening approach, it still agrees with the traditional state-centric understanding about the most fundamental logic of survival when it defines the concept of security. In other words, the School concedes that ‘security is about survival’. However, those who advocate the Copenhagen School rejects the traditional understanding with regard to the referent object. The School argues that the state is not the only and primary referent object of security. As the School broadens the security concept, it embraces new referent objects other than the state.

According to Barry Buzan, the leading figure of the Copenhagen School, the type of threats and referent objects can vary depending on five different, nonexclusive, sectors of security: military, environmental, societal, economic, and political security. In this respect, the state is the referent object of security that should be protected from both military and non-military threats, but something other than the state can also be the primary referent object. Hence, the referent objects are things ‘that are seen to be existentially threatened and that have a legitimate claim to survival’. From the Copenhagen School’s perspective, Hough’s quote is therefore correct to the extent of acknowledging that a security issue can be a military or a non-military threat, but at the same time, it is based on a too restricted and narrow interpretation of security that only accepts people as the referent object.

On the other hand, Subaltern realism adopts a narrow and state-centric definition of the referent objects. From a Subaltern realist perspective, security means the security of the state and the state is the only referent object. The theory is particularly concerned with the protection of a state’s territory, institutions and regime. From this view, the core elements of the state, including state boundaries, state institutions and governing regimes, are the primary referent objects that should be protected. There is, however, a distinct difference between the traditional state-centric idea and Subaltern realism’s understanding of security. Although the theory concurs with the state-centric idea in that the state is the only entity to be made secure, it limits the primary referent object of security to the Third World states that are weak and unstable. Mohammed Ayoob, who first proposed Subaltern realism, characterises the Third World countries as ‘the subalterns’, which are the majority of states in the international system. Ayoob argues that most Third World states are at the stage of state making and therefore their territorial and institutional structures and the legitimacy of their governments are often jeopardised by both internal and external threats.

Subaltern realism also recognises that state security can be challenged by both military and non-military threats. Ayoob asserts that the Third World states are vulnerable to external military threats, but they also suffer from internal and non-military issues, such as serious ethnic and regional divisions. However, as explored earlier, the theory refuses to accept the extended conception of security, such as the one that is adopted by the Copenhagen School, which widens the range of referent objects to encompass other entities beyond the state. This implies that Subaltern realism favours a more widened range of threats but is a very narrow interpretation of security in terms of referent object. From a Subaltern realist perspective, Hough’s contention is obviously problematic as its designated referent object, namely the individual, is completely at odds with the one that is valued by Ayoob.

The Copenhagen School and Subaltern realism also adopt different threat perceptions and different ways of securitising an issue. As mentioned earlier, the Copenhagen School accepts various forms of threats by arguing that a designated referent object can be threatened by military, societal, economic, environmental, or political threats. However, the School contends that an issue cannot become a security issue unless it is recognised and articulated by powerful securitising actors as an existential threat to the referent object. Thus, the public’s perception of threat is less important when securitising an issue because the issue, regardless of how seriously it is perceived by individuals, cannot legitimately be deemed to be a security problem until strong securitising actors, mainly the state, accept and present it as being one. This implies that even if people consider a certain issue to be an existential threat and perceive it to threaten their lives, their government might refuse to treat the issue seriously and may hesitate to manage it through the use of extraordinary measures that are beyond normal political procedures. Therefore, from the Copenhagen School’s perspective, a state’s perception of a certain issue is much more important and crucial than its people’s perception.

According to Buzan, a security issue is an issue that requires emergency actions beyond the state’s standard political procedures. And this kind of measures can only be brought into existence by strong securitising actors. Buzan argues that a securitising actor can articulate an issue as an existential threat and moves the issue to the securitised realm through an act of securitisation. The process of securitisation consists of two steps. First, a strong securitising actor, usually the state, portrays an issue as an existential threat to a designated referent object by using a strong ‘speech act’. Second, the securitising actor convinces relevant audiences, such as public opinions or high-ranking officials, that the designated referent object is threatened by the issue. Convincing the relevant audiences of the gravity of threat is important for the securitising actors because it justifies the adoption of any extraordinary measures. Once these two steps are successfully implemented, then the issue is finally deemed to be a security challenge and is managed by emergency measures.

Although Subaltern realism does not particularly emphasise the role of the state in moving an issue to the securitised realm, it still agrees that the state’s perception of threat is far more significant than the public’s perception. From a Subaltern realist perspective, the state – in terms of its territory, institutions and governing regime – is the primary referent for security, and therefore any issue that is perceived by the state as an existential threat to its security and survival deserves to be treated as a security challenge. By contrast, an issue, which is perceived by people to be a threat but not by the state, should not be considered as a security matter. For example, the Third World states often use violence against their own people, specifically against those who politically oppose to their governing regimes, in order to accomplish their objectives of state making and consolidation. Although this kind of state-led violence places people’s lives at stake, such action is considered as legitimate because it ultimately enhances regime security.

Similar to the Copenhagen School, Ayoob’s theory of Subaltern realism also acknowledges that the security of the state can be threatened not only by military issues but also by non-military issues, ranging from the economic to the environmental threats. However, the theory imposes a condition that a security issue should be something that actually threatens or is considered as having the potential to threaten the state’s territory, institutions and ruling class. This means that anything that hinders the state from successfully completing the process of state making and consolidation can validly be a security issue. From this standpoint, a public uprising, such as democratisation movement or secessionist movement, against
an authoritarian regime would be seen as an internal security challenge. On the other hand, a state-led violence against its civilians, ranging from political repression of dissidents to military crackdown on religious, ethnic, and regional minorities, would not be seen as a security matter but rather as the state’s defensive and preventive action.

The importance of the role of the state in the process of securitisation can be demonstrated by two major domestic issues in Indonesia: terrorism and state-led violence. In Indonesia, terrorism has been perceived by the Indonesian government as an internal security challenge threatening its regime security. In 1948, the Darul Islam (DI) movement emerged to overthrow the central government of Indonesia and to establish an Islamic state within the Indonesian territory. The political stance of DI was that the territory of Indonesia originally belongs to DI and therefore it should be taken back from the Republic of Indonesia. In order to achieve their political objective, the leaders of DI triggered serious secessionist rebellions in various regions of Indonesia, including West Java and Aceh. They also committed terrorist attacks, including bombing public facilities and hijacking planes, to cause instability and divisions in Indonesian society. In 1993, another major jihadist terrorist group known as Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) was established to subvert the government of Republic of Indonesia. Similar to DI, JI has committed terrorist attacks and has triggered ethnic and religious conflicts within Indonesia. JI members are believed to be responsible for the recent bombings in Medan, Bali and Jakarta since 2000.

The Indonesian government has always considered domestic terrorism, which is usually committed as part of secessionist movements, as an existential threat to Indonesia’s national security. In order to deal with this security challenge, the regime in Jakarta has consistently implemented strong counterterrorism measures. For example, the Sukarno regime conducted military operations to crackdown the armed guerrillas of DI, and large-scale arrests were also placed to eliminate the terrorists during his regime. This proves that the Sukarno government had perceived terrorism as a national security issue that can only be addressed by state-led military means. More recently, soon after the 2002 Bali bombings, the Indonesian government had adopted a strong counterterrorism strategy to deal with violent domestic terrorism and to resolve the fundamental causes of terrorism. Since then, the government has actively involved the use of military and police forces in its counterterrorism campaigns. Indonesia’s strong responses to DI and JI demonstrate two things. First, the Indonesian government has considered and treated terrorism as a serious threat to its national security, more specifically to its territory and the legitimacy of its regime. Second, the government’s use of military and police forces has always been justified as emergency measures. This case shows that the Indonesian government’s perception, not its people’s perception, of the threat of terrorism and its responses to the threat have been the key factors in the process of securitising the issue of terrorism.

State-led violence is another domestic issue that has threatened the security of people in Indonesia, but despite its seriousness, the issue has constantly been ignored by the Indonesian authorities. Since Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, the Indonesian military has often committed state-led political violence, which involved massive violence and human rights abuses against the civilians. The Aceh Conflict is a good example. From 1976 to 2005, the Indonesian government had conducted heavy and sustained military crackdown to put down the secessionist movement in the province of Aceh. During this period of time, the Indonesian military had breached serious human rights violations, ranging from execution to torture, against its people in Aceh. As a result, approximately 10,000 to 15,000 of civilians were killed and several thousands of people in the region were displaced.

It is, however, noteworthy that despite the huge numbers of casualties, this state-led violence in Aceh has never been treated by the Indonesian authorities as a security matter. From the Indonesian government’s perspective, it was the secessionist movement, not the military crackdown, in Aceh which threatened Indonesia’s security and therefore the state-led violence conducted during the Aceh conflict has always been considered as appropriate and rational actions that were necessary to counter the threat posed by the Aceh secessionists. For the people in Aceh, the state-led human rights violation was a menace to their lives, but for the government, it was just inevitable part of its military operations that were indispensable for the security and stability of the region. Like the first case, this case also demonstrates that the state usually plays far more important role in the process of securitisation than the public does.

In order to determine whether an issue is a security matter, we need to carefully consider three things: referent objects, threat perceptions and securitising actors. Peter Hough, in his quote, focuses on people as the ultimate referent object of security and treats an issue as a security matter if it is perceived by the general public as a threat. However, it is important to remember that unless it is perceived by strong securitising actors, mainly the state, to be an existential threat, an issue may not be considered as a security issue. No matter how seriously it jeopardises people’s lives, the issue would scarcely be considered and treated as a security challenge if the state refuses to accept it as a threat. In this regard, Hough’s quote is not compelling as it is based on a limited assumption that the public solely drives the whole process of securitisation.

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