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Rethinking security

Sustainable security puts human beings at its heart, sees people in all parts of the world as interdependent, and looks for long-term, sustainable solutions - especially thinking about the climate crisis.

Last updated 13 November 2020

Security through armed force?

Politicians often talk about “security”. It is often said that providing security for a country and its people is the “first duty of government”. But what do they mean by security?

Unfortunately, in the UK, as in the US and many other countries, what they usually mean is “national security”, with a powerful military equipped with all the latest advanced weaponry, ready to wage war in various parts of the world. It also means surveillance and control measures at home, supposedly to counter the threat of terrorism, and militarised controls at the UK’s borders.

This narrow way of thinking about security, which focuses on military responses, is part of a set of ideas often called “militarism“. The reality is that most of the threats people face, in this country and worldwide, cannot be dealt with by military means, and what really gives people security has very little to do with the firepower of their country’s armed forces.

In fact, attempts to solve global problems by military force this century have been total disasters for the security of people, most of all in the countries affected, but also in the UK and the West.

Alternative ways of thinking

The traditional “national security” way of thinking treats the nation as a single actor with clearly-defined interests, whose security is guaranteed by its power and influence in the world, especially military power.

The human security approach  starts at the level of individuals and communities, and the things that threaten their security and well-being. These may vary a lot between different groups within a country. Threats include armed violence, from foreign countries, armed groups or criminal gangs, but also from domestic violence, or the country’s own security forces.

Human security also includes, for example, access to proper nutrition (food security), housing, clean water and healthcare, and security from threats like pandemics, and the impact of climate change.

Sustainable security builds on the human security idea, emphasising the need for long term thinking – policies and systems must provide security not just now, but in the future. The report Rethinking Security, by the Ammerdown Group (a coalition of NGOs and think tanks) lists the five main threats to sustainable security worldwide, below. Campaign Against Arms Trade would add pandemics to this list.

  1. climate, the devastating impact of climate change;
  2. inequality, along with marginalization and exclusion of large groups
    in society;
  3. scarcity, namely the rapid depletion of the Earth’s natural resources;
  4. militarism, the increasing level of great power competition, as well as
    the growing influence of militaristic values within society, and;
  5. violent conflict, which has increased worldwide since 2011, and which
    military responses have frequently made worse.

Re-imagining security for everyone

The Rethinking Security report calls for a focus on the long-term, root causes and drivers of insecurity, and sees each nation’s security as interconnected with that of others’. Climate change and Covid-19 clearly show it isn’t possible for one country, or one group of countries, to have long-term security if the rest of the world does not.

Rethinking and re-imagining what we mean by security also means looking at security from the point of view of groups who are often excluded from the discussion, in particular people and communities of colour, refugees and migrants, and those bearing the brunt of the climate crisis (often the same groups). What politicians often think of as sources of security – such as policing and tightly controlled borders – often mean exactly the opposite for these  groups, with for example disproportionate levels of surveillance, stop and search, prosecutions or deaths in custody.

Likewise, rethinking security must place the climate crisis front and centre, and go hand in hand with programmes, such as a ‘Green New Deal‘, designed to tackle it. As resources are shifted from military to sustainable security, and as we move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, efforts must be made to shift workers, and their vital skills used currently in these damaging industries, towards new and growing industries that can help provide the solutions that the world needs.

Logo of UK netowrk 'Rethinking Security: For a Just and Peaceful World', with a thought bubble above it.

Rethinking Security Network

Rethinking Security is a network of organisations, academics and activists working together for security based on justice, cooperation and sustainability

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See also

HMS Queen Elizabeth class carrier with complement of helicopters and sailors standing in rows on deck. Tugs escorting. Helicopter flying in foreground with green and red lights


What does militarism mean? What are its impacts, and what are the alternatives?

Black Hill by Richard Webb under Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Arms to renewables

Shift priorities from Arms to Renewables to create better jobs: jobs in an industry which is growing not declining, and which create a safer, rather than a more dangerous, world.

Police with shields and helmets in front of the House of Commons


State violence is the same whether it’s carried out by the military or police. The line between the two has always been blurred and, via equipment, tactics and terminology, this is increasing.

Further reading

Read reports by CAAT and Rethinking Security

Image of a flooded high street with a rubber dinghy and two people dressed in life jackets. In the top right, smaller image of a helicopter landing on an aircraft carrier. Text on main image "Fighting the Wrong Battles!

Fighting the Wrong Battles

This CAAT report discusses UK military spending, and argues that the government's focus on military power does nothing to provide real security, but has led the UK to wage destructive wars. Instead, the report argues for shifting resources from the military to tackling the climate crisis.

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