Defining security or rejecting security? A critical analysis of the relationship between rights and security

Preziosi, Andrea Maria (2022). Defining security or rejecting security? A critical analysis of the relationship between rights and security. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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Security is a term that fits easily in any context. It has become common to talk about security regarding terrorism, migration and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. Food security, health security and environmental security have also become widespread expressions. More generally, any occurrence likely to have an adverse impact on people’s lives can be framed as ‘threat to security’. While security has gained increasing popularity in recent years, the consensus around human rights has been relentlessly eroded. Security is often invoked to undermine the human rights discourse. The logic of balancing rights and security, firmly entrenched also in International Human Rights Law, expresses the mainstream idea that rights can, and often should, be restricted to enhance security.

Disturbingly, such an erosion has happened as a result of a term, ‘security’, the meaning of which appears difficult to pin down. States have no interest in defining security, because a vague notion of security allows them to invoke the term in a broader set of circumstances. The more security means everything, the more it means nothing. As a result, the state power to restrict rights in the name of security is greater when it can rely on an expansive and undefined concept of security.

Against this background, this thesis discusses the issue of whether a legal definition of security could be an instrument to compel states to produce a legally meaningful invocation of security. Since an unrestrained power to invoke security damages human rights, a legal definition of the term is allegedly a tool to clarify in which circumstances a state can lawfully rely on the term and, conversely, in which circumstances is abusing the term.

Drawing from linguistics, semiotics and critical language studies, the thesis will show that a definition of security in law would not be able to constrain the state power to invoke the concept. Defining security would not prevent states from exploiting a definition in order to construct their security narratives, and to manipulate and distort any proposed definition to pursue their security aims. Thus, a legal definition of security might contribute to enhancing power, rather than to constraining it.

For this reason, the thesis will challenge, more fundamentally, the necessity of the concept of security in the current legal and political lexicon. It will demonstrate that security should not be defined, re-understood or re-conceptualised, but instead it should be rejected in its entirety. At a conceptual level, there is no justifiable reason for which states should employ the security frame to tackle threats, rather than mobilise the protective regime provided by the human rights frame. States’ preference for security rather than rights is the product of a strategic choice: by seeing threats through the security lens, states seek to escape the power-constraining features characterising the human rights frame, namely: legalisation, compliance pull and drive towards equality. Even though human rights, like security, have also a power-enhancing strand, they are much better equipped to constrain state power (and to protect individuals from the risk of an arbitrary exercise of state power) than any reformulation of security (for example, as ‘human security’ or ‘right to security’) has been capable of doing to date.

The argument against security is an argument pro rights. Rejecting security means liberating the legal and political vocabulary from the logic of a perpetual conflict between rights and security, as well as from inexplicable and generic synergies between them. Importantly, to reject security means to deprive states of a concept that is invoked to weaken human rights, rather than to reinforce them. Without security, it will be possible to re-focus on human rights, in order to better understand their virtues and embrace their enduring contradictions.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: Birmingham Law School
Funders: Other
Other Funders: Global Challenges Research Fund
Subjects: K Law > K Law (General)


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