Of Soft Power and Human Security: Canada and the U.N. Security Council

By Timothy Donais

If there is a single image that the Canadian government has historically tried to project of Canada's role on the international political stage, it is of the Canadian soldier standing on guard for peace in troubled corners of the globe. Canadians, in fact, like to say that they invented peacekeeping and boast of Canadian participation in every single U.N. peacekeeping mission. When U.N. peacekeepers were awarded the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize, many Canadians felt the award belonged as much to Canada as to the U.N. Canada has brought this same sense of constructive middle-power internationalism to its periodic stints on the United Nations Security Council.

The world has changed a great deal in the decade since Canada last sat as a member of the Security Council. In the late 1980s, the bipolar simplicity of the Cold War was just winding down and the Security Council remained largely paralyzed by superpower rivalry. Beginning soon after Canada ended its two-year term on the Council in late 1990, however, the Security Council embarked on a flurry of activity that led more optimistic observers to see the emerging outlines of a 'new world order.' While the Council had authorized a total of 17 peacekeeping operations over the course of its first 45 years of existence, it launched 15 new missions between 1991 and 1993 alone. Equally significant was the increasing willingness to intervene in what were essentially 'domestic' conflicts: from Somalia to Mozambique to El Salvador to northern Iraq.The argument that the United Nations should not intervene in the internal affairs of member states seemed to be in full retreat. By the mid-1990s, however, humiliating and often spectacular failures of U.N. missions in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Somalia had left the ideals of international interventionism in tatters. This time, it was an increasingly de-invigorated and non-intrusive Security Council that was in full retreat. Since 1995, the Council has authorized only three new missions.

It is within this context that Canada re-joined the Security Council earlier this year for another two-year term as a non-permanent, non-veto-wielding member. With peacekeeping no longer enjoying the credibility it once had, Canada has shifted gears and has brought to the Council an agenda promoting a much more interventionist approach to the maintenance of international peace and security. Led by Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, Canada has promised to make 'human security' the primary focus of its 24 months on the Council. As Axworthy told a recent forum in Montreal on Canada and the Security Council: "Canada will work to shape a more proactive Council, one which focuses more on the human dimension of security and the unprecedented civilian toll of modern conflict."

Copernican Revolution

Such an approach, according to Carleton University Professor Harald von Riekhoff, represents nothing less than an attempt at a 'Copernican revolution' in international relations. Since well before the creation of the United Nations, security has been seen primarily in terms of state security. Consequently, the overwhelming priority of the U.N. Security Council over its first 50 years has been the maintenance of peace and security between states, not within states. While the interventionist era of the early 1990s saw a partial erosion of the force of Article 2(7) of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits intervention in "matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state," the appeal of state sovereignty remains strong, particularly among states of the developing world. In many ways, therefore, the conceptual shift from state-centred security to human-centred security is indeed revolutionary, particularly since it implies a willingness to intervene on behalf of the safety and well-being of individuals - in the form of humanitarian intervention, for example - regardless of international borders.

While Canada has enthusiastically embraced the human security agenda, the concept is neither new nor a Canadian invention. Human security principles can be found enshrined in the U.N. Charter and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although the current popularity of the notion can be traced to the publication of the U.N. Development Program's 1994 Human Development Report. The report noted that in the post-Cold War era, the most significant insecurities of the majority of the world's people relate not to the fear of nuclear holocaust or inter-state conflict, but to more mundane and everyday concerns such as hunger, disease, poverty, environmental degradation, and inter-group conflict. As the report's authors noted, "in the final analysis, human security is a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut, an ethnic tension that did not explode into violence ... human security is not a concern with weapons - it is a concern with human life and dignity." A number of commentators, however, have pointed to the risks of adopting overly broad definitions of security. As Ottawa-based international affairs consultant Robin Hay has argued, for example, a definition of human security which encompasses everything from marriage counselling to traffic accidents may be overly expansive and intrusive for the purposes of the U.N. Security Council. Similarly, as the security analyst Mohammed Ayoob has written, "the often indiscriminate broadening of the definition of security threatens to make the concept so elastic as to render it useless as an analytical tool."

Canada's Challenge

On a less theoretical level, however, Canada faces a number of distinct challenges in placing human security concerns at the heart of the Security Council agenda. First, as a relative pipsqueak in terms of Security Council power politics, Canada's first challenge will be to convince the Council's permanent five members - China, the United States, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom - to take the human security agenda seriously. On the one hand, it must deal with the concerns of notoriously anti-interventionist powers such as China about multilateral meddling in states' internal affairs. On the other, it must convince the United States of the merit of expending resources in pursuit of human security objectives which don't necessarily correspond to American national interests.

At the same time, as Harald von Riekhoff notes, "The present composition of the Security Council doesn't facilitate the heroic move towards human security." With the developing world currently represented by such micro-powers as Bahrain and Gambia, he argues, the Security Council may not carry sufficient legitimacy to make a decisive shift to a human security approach. This concern points as well to the broader question of the overall legitimacy of the Council as the body responsible for the maintenance of international peace and security.

Human Security and Economic Development

Despite much debate in recent years about structural reform, the Council remains dominated by Western powers, with Latin America and the entire Islamic world, for example, lacking permanent representation. This reality, combined with the preponderance of American influence on the Council since the end of the Cold War, makes most states in the developing world less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a more interventionist Security Council. On a different level, a people-centred approach to problems of peace and security also raises a number of troubling and potentially embarrassing issues relating to traditional U.N. practices. For example, the use of economic sanctions has long been seen as an essential element in a graduated international response to conflict situations. Yet there is considerable evidence to suggest that in states such as Iraq and Haiti, economic embargoes have directly contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians without markedly affecting the leadership of those states. Making sanctions more effective and less blunt therefore poses a major challenge to the champions of human security.

At the same time, structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - both members of the U.N. family of agencies - have likewise been responsible for drastic increases in human insecurity among citizens of some of the world's poorest nations. This raises the question of whether human security concerns can be furthered without confronting the equally-thorny issues of economic development among the poorest of the world's poor.

The challenge of moving from state security to human security is further complicated by the U.N.'s chronic funding crisis. Almost by definition, creating human security requires a long-term approach. Nowhere is this more evident than in the context of post-conflict peacebuilding, where the magnitude of the tasks may require mandates measured in decades rather than in years or months. In missions such as Cambodia and Mozambique, however, the cash-strapped U.N. has shown a tendency to withdraw at the earliest possible moment, usually after the holding of U.N.-sponsored elections. Canadian officials are not unaware of such difficulties. As Axworthy himself has noted, "the Security Council is not an institution open to revolutionary change, and Canada has no illusions about the feasibility of introducing sweeping reform." Acknowledging these challenges, the Canadian approach aims to emphasize incrementalism over revolution, and will attempt to take advantage of Canada's self-defined middle power status and commitment to mechanisms of soft power - negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasion - to pursue initiatives on issues from the protection of children in conflict zones to the curbing of small arms proliferation. In pursuit of such objectives, Canada will no doubt draw on the reserves of credibility it amassed through its leadership of the successful global campaign against landmines.

Ironically, Canada brings its soft-power approach back to the Security Council at a time when the Council's preoccupation with hard-power issues is at its highest level in some time. Ongoing crises in Kosovo and Iraq, coupled with the growing trend towards American-led military interventions outside the context of the U.N. Security Council, are already beginning to test Canada's commitment to its human security agenda.

Timothy Donais is a graduate student at Toronto's York University and a researcher at York's Centre for International and Security Studies.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1999, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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