Theory and Practice: The Ethics and Politics of Security

by Vivienne Jabri

I often come across the assertion that theorists, especially those working in ‘critical’ International Relations, are reluctant to engage with questions of policy. In other words, we might have a great deal to say about theory, concepts, and methods, and we might use these to critique particular policies and actions, but our language is so deep in the so-called ‘ivory tower’ that it tends to bypass the non-specialist, the policy-maker, or indeed the public sphere. The charge tends to be thrown at theorists generally, so one function we hope the Forum will serve is to show that theorists in International Relations have a great deal to say and to contribute to debates around the policy arena and wider issues that concern the public sphere.

Primarily, we would want to challenge the idea that ‘theory’ is somehow divorced from ‘practice’. I would want to argue that ‘practice’ is always imbued with a theoretical background that is often left hidden; as if the discourses and positions expressed in the area of policy are self-evident or can be taken for granted. Let’s take an issue that is in public engagement at the moment – that of security and its relationship to the right to privacy in liberal democratic societies. Clearly, there is here a debate to be had; the position expressed by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and others is that the imperative of ‘security’, especially when conceived in terms of ‘counter-terrorism’, must always outweigh the rights and liberties that define liberal democracy. Indeed, that ensuring the former makes possible the latter. Hague went further in suggesting that ‘if you have nothing to hide’, then you have nothing to fear from a generalised, dragnet approach to surveillance, such as those we now know to be in operation and involving the US based National Security Agency and the UK’s GCHQ (see The Guardian for all reference to the NSA programme, and especially articles by its journalist, Glenn Greenwald, most recent is here).

The position expressed by Hague and others goes back to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and the idea that security and liberty are a balancing game; that some degree of the latter must be sacrificed in order to have the former. However, as many have argued (see various contributors in the FP 7 funded project, Challenge: The Changing Landscape of Liberty and Security in Europe), and as illustrated in this resource, Challenge: Liberty and Security Training and Teaching module, the metaphor of balance is thoroughly inappropriate in this context. I can illustrate this inappropriateness when I ask questions like, whose security? Who decides the remits of security? What is the relationship between the range of insecurities that might be of concern to the public at large? How does generalised, global, surveillance relate to the particular concerns associated with preventing terrorist violence, for example? Does surveillance serve security or is it a set of tools that service competition in a neo-liberal globalised context? Are the practices of the security field, public and private, driven by the desire for the ‘security’ of the whole, or are they driven by more local imperatives; e.g. cross-institutional competition for material and symbolic resources? Instead of thinking through these issues through the metaphor of ‘balance’, we might consider how the governing of populations uses both liberty and security to variously shape, design, and control relationships and interactions.

What is of major interest in relation to the above is that rights organisations in the US and the UK, as well as other states that have been subjected to surveillance, from Germany to Brazil, for example, are determined to challenge the activities of the NSA and GCHQ. While the latter can challenge diplomatically, as the Brazilian President has done recently, the former, domestic rights organisations do so on the basis of law and specifically, in the case of UK organisations, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, law, like security and liberty, is contested terrain and hence not always a protector against state intrusion. Consider how Article 8 frames the issue at hand:

‘1-Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home, and his correspondence. 2-There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.’ (available here)

My contention here is that Article 8 is as Hobbesian in its framing as is Hague’s statement above. Liberty, for Hobbes, is the freedom of every individual citizen to conduct their affairs freely, even when wishing to challenge the authority of the state. However, the state, in Hobbes’s terms the Leviathan, has the right to respond by limiting or even suppressing freedom if such freedom challenges the security of the state or, in the terms of Article 8, the wider interests associated with the economy or the well-being of others. The ‘exception’ is hence built into Article 8; it is rendered legal. As Connor Gearty writes in his recent book, Liberty and Security (Polity, 2013), human rights conventions are important emancipatory tools, but can also be mobilised as instruments of control.

The interesting research question here is how judgements are made in spaces of exception. The legal challenges in the European Court will, like other similar cases, past and present, provide researchers such as those involved in RCIR, with an excellent opportunity to investigate how judges reason in contexts such as this, what background theories they draw upon, and how they might respond to the sorts of questions I highlight above. Can law limit sovereign power? I want to throw in another question, just to complicate matters even further. Where exactly does sovereign power lie in the present late modern context where ‘the state’ as such is as vulnerable to the surveillance practices of institutions and organisations, public and private, as is the individual? One of the challenges for judicial judgement is that it is not entirely clear that the executive is always aware of the minutia of practices conducted by the various security institutions of the state (see for instance) Decisions relating to the practices highlighted here are not necessarily made through executive authority, though they might be, nor are they fully open to legislative scrutiny, though again they could be, but can take place in the microcosm of institutional practices in all their everydayness. So, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which enables mass collection of communications data in the US, might have been passed by Congress, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) might provide a degree of judicial oversight, however, neither Congress nor the FISC, have functioned adequately in the face of routinised practices that, in their very routineness, defy effective scrutiny.

There is then a debate to be had relating to the question of the ethics and politics of security practices. The significance of this debate is further highlighted by the clear public concern relating to what we might refer to as over-reach in matters of security and warfare, as the recent Syria crisis illustrated. The debate is not just of relevance to the case discussed above, but comes into play whenever security is invoked as a practice of government (see Aradau, Bigo, Jabri), domestically and internationally. At the heart of this debate is the fact that technological advancement in security and warfare is the driver behind the capacity of government to operate in ways that challenge ethical and legal frameworks in domestic and international society. The technological imperative also goes to the heart of the security problematique I’ve highlighted here.

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