Advancing Human Security Centric Policies in Sri Lanka: Challenges and Opportunities by Bhagya Senaratne

The following paper was presented at the Strategic Forum on "Meeting the Challenges of Extremism by Advancing Human Security Centred Policies" organised by the NESA Centre for Strategic Studies and the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) held from 6th - 7th September 2017 in Colombo


The current world is going through a phase of intense turmoil and conflict. It is a phase where people are facing the repercussions of the decisions taken years before by way of cross border terrorism, migration of large numbers of people, smuggling and trafficking of weapons and people, to name a few. There are also a host of other issues that are indirectly affecting the citizens of the world in the form of natural disasters and drastic changes to the environment.
It can be stated that the current challenges the world faces are borderless, thus difficult for a country to address alone. Contemporary security challenges are so diverse and multifaceted that they can no longer be solved by traditional military means and require a multi-stakeholder approach. The challenges that the modern world faces require a human security approach, wherein the focus of the policies implemented will be on the individual and not the state. This paper intends to examine the concept of human security in the Sri Lankan context and identify areas in which it can be applied to overcome challenges faced by the island-nation.
What is security?

It is important to understand the term security to understand what human security is. Arnold Wolfers defines security as “the absence of threat to acquired values” and David A. Baldwin modifies this to read as “a low probability of damage to acquired values” (Baldwin, 1997, p. 13). Therefore, polices that governments enact to enable and safeguard security are measures that are taken to reduce or limit the prospect of damage to one’s acquired values.
Defining Traditional Security

Even today, states follow the Westphalian concept of the modern nation-state, which has evolved since 1648. Due to this, states regard security in a traditional sense, which revolves around itself. Here, the emphasis to security is on the “preservation, well-being and security of the state, its symbols and its professed values” (Pillay, 2016, p. 41). Therefore, the assumption is that if the state is secure, then the citizens will automatically be secure in that state (Ibid).
Scholars such as Mohammed Ayoob are of the view that this emphasis on state centric security is because states traditionally believed that threats always emanated from beyond its borders, thus are external in nature, and these threats were posed by the military of those external parties, requiring a military response (1991, p. 261). Thus ensued a period of extensive border fortification and military strengthening undertaken by states to protect themselves from external threats.
Despite this emphasis on the state by traditional security scholars and world leaders, contending theories have arisen to challenge the dominant narratives of security for developing states that have been prevailing in the western discourse (Ayoob, 1991, p.265). And this need for an alternative viewpoint leads to human security.
What is Human Security?

There are many interpretations of human security. The initial thoughts on the concept of human security commenced in the 1960s due to the displeasure shown towards development schemes taking place at the time (Bajpai, 2000, p. 4). Even though states were faced with ‘softer’ issues of security such as poverty, hunger and disease, states often emphasised on the threat posed by the ‘harder’ aspects of security (Pillay, 2016, p. 42).
There have also been incidents in history where the states themselves posed a threat unto its citizens and brought on a sense of insecurity (Ibid). The Human Development Report highlighted issues such as poverty, illiteracy and the threat of violent conflict as issues that affected the well-being of humans. The report was paramount in showcasing to states that solutions to security issues should no longer be state-centric. Successive documents on global security echoed that “the concept of global security must be broadened from the traditional focus on the security of states to include the security of people and the security of the planet” (Bajpai, 2000, p. 7).
The concept of human security can be approached in two ways, i.e. the narrow approach and the broad approach. The narrow approach focuses on the notion of ‘freedom from fear’, which discusses the violent threats to individuals mainly in conflict situations. The broad approach, which focuses on the notion of ‘freedom from want’, discusses the security landscape, which is influenced by and has possible implications across different sectors such as the economy, the environment, migration and health.
Some scholars are of the view that the countries in the Asia Pacific region are most conscious of the ‘freedom from want’ discourse in their understanding and promotion of human security (Acharya, 2001, p. 460). This is because the sense of insecurity from which states in this region suffer emanates, to a substantial degree, from within their boundaries rather than from outside.
The discourse further views that it might be useful for organisations seeking to secure people, communities and nations from threats to follow a human security-centred approach in order to enable themselves to find solutions for peace (Pillay, 2016, p. 43). Pillay promotes that human security is about seeking solutions for the daily struggles people face, “their ability to access opportunities and work towards the future they want for themselves and their families” (Ibid). Human security makes it possible for governments and practitioners of security to understand what kinds of threats people face and what causes them (Acharya, 2001, p. 445).
Human Security in Sri Lanka

Human security is not an alien concept to Sri Lanka. Ancient kings of the country have implemented policies which were people-centric. In 4th century AD, kings like Buddhadasa enacted policies which were focused on health. He ensured all living beings had access to health facilities. Ancient texts refer to beheth oru (medicine boats) and medical treatment extended to animals. There were other kings who introduced bath oru (rice boats) and King Parakramabahu II built many reservoirs and tanks to capture water for irrigation purposes. Activities such as this ensured that people had access to food and water as well as the necessary environment for agriculture. These are only a few of the examples from Sri Lanka to showcase that human security has been in practice during ancient times.
This writer is of the view that human security in the Sri Lankan context should be addressed from the broad approach i.e. ‘freedom from want’. This is because Sri Lanka has been successful in thwarting threats to its traditional security, i.e. safeguarding its territory and sovereignty, when it eradicated terrorism from its borders in 2009. Therefore, in the current context, there are no imminent threats to Sri Lanka’s traditional security. However, the country has been concerned with several issues such as attending to incidents that caused unrest, as well as infrastructure development in the Northern Province. Another issue that the country has to face is the very strong knit Tamil diaspora community. In the aftermath of the civil conflict, Sri Lanka faces issues in establishing positive peace in the island.
In addition to this, Sri Lanka is facing various non-traditional security threats such as natural disasters and changes to its natural environment due to climate change, threats posed to food security, health, migration and to a lesser degree, threats to its religious harmony and cyber security. In the recent past, Sri Lanka’s news headlines were detailed with stories related to non-traditional security threats such as health issues, agriculture issues and environment issues, to name a few.  
Over the past few years, Sri Lanka has faced a number of natural disasters due to the drastic weather patterns the island experienced, brought on by changes in the global climate. Even though Sri Lanka’s entire land mass is 65,610km2, the island has experienced torrential rains and severe droughts. While the Western and Southern provinces of the country faced heavy rain, leading to massive flooding that halted work in its commercial capital of Colombo (Al Jazeera, 2017), the Northern, North Central and Eastern provinces have been hit with severe droughts (Madushanka, 2017). These droughts are making it difficult for farmers to cultivate and for fisher folk to catch a decent harvest, as the fish in fresh water catchments are dying in the hundreds due to the increased temperature of the water (Madusantha, 2017). The fact that ancient reservoirs and tanks in these regions have dried up does not help the cause either. These two extreme incidents lead to a multitude of other problems such as the outbreak of diseases, food shortages and livelihood issues.
The turbulent weather conditions in the island spawns the question of agricultural self-sufficiency in less than ideal conditions for products, especially the paddy cultivation (The Island, 2016). The country has also faced problems in cultivating a variety of other crops due to changes in the weather patterns. As a result, there have been dramatic fluctuations in food prices, which led to the government controlling prices on essential food items like rice and potatoes (, 2017; Ada Derana, 2016). This also led to the government having to import stocks of rice from India, resulting in the spending of valuable foreign reserves.
The focus of many governments in Sri Lanka has been on the civil conflict in the island, thus not enabling them to implement human security centric policies. Therefore, aforementioned issues, such as measures to face turbulent weather conditions, were not implemented. For decades governments did not focus on disaster mitigation policies or food security, as traditional security in safeguarding the country’s territorial integrity was more important. Therefore, in this post-conflict era, it is of paramount importance for Sri Lanka to focus on implementing policies which are close to the citizen’s daily struggles. It needs to find solutions to overcome the constant natural disasters by way of floods and landslides.
Another issue is that planters of tea struggled to recover from the damage to their crops due to the heavy rains and the flood that ensued (Fernandez, 2017). This resulted in low export earnings, which weighed in on the country’s economy. The issues that emerged due to the drastic changes in weather showcased that Sri Lanka not only needs to implement policies which will address the concerns that are directly related to the weather, but also look into diversifying its economy, so that people do not have to experience fluctuating food prices. Issues such as this further demonstrate that the Sri Lankan government needs to apply the broad approach to human security which is ‘freedom from want’.
Another area in which people in the country have been facing a lot of concern is with the increase in the spread of diseases, such as dengue, which are also brought on by the changes in weather. Sri Lanka has had a few outbreaks of dengue and, as of mid-September 2017, is on the verge of witnessing one more outbreak. In 2004, the Government of Sri Lanka set up a National Dengue Control Unit. According to its records, there have been 148,898 reported cases of dengue in 2017 (National Dengue Control Unit, 2017). It is undisputed that diseases such as this are a massive cost to the national economy. It further affects the development of the country, as valuable resources – both monetary and human – are being spent on curbing a preventable disease (Jayawardana, 2017). The author contends that it should be a part of Sri Lanka’s greater national policy, due to the large amount of health related problems the country is facing. Once again this looks at placing the human at the core of national policy.
The island’s Northern Province witnessed unrest in the recent past in the form of violence again women, criminal gang activities and isolated shooting incidents, which could be linked to post-conflict related trauma and other recurring issues (Sanjeewa, 2017; Colombo Page, 2014). The fact that such issues are occurring indicates that the government needs to implement policies that will address the root causes. In August 2017, the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army Lieutenant General Mahesh Senanayake stated that “12,190 ex-LTTE members had been rehabilitated [of which] 1,963 of them were from Jaffna” (Sanjeewa, 2017). As much as the Sri Lankan government has been successful in rehabilitating such large numbers of former terrorists, it is equally important to ensure that these rehabilitated people are integrated into society and are also able to find suitable occupations to sustain themselves and their families. It is also important to ensure there is no social stigma towards these men and women, as society’s reluctance to accept them would hinder these individuals’ progress, which could lead to unhappiness.
According to The Hindu, the Indian government has identified economic development as a priority in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and has therefore agreed to initiate specific projects with a clear economic benefit to the people (Srinivasan, 2017). In this context, it is important for the Sri Lankan government to implement livelihood development policies with special focus on economic development activities as it addresses the broad concept of human security, i.e. ‘freedom from want’ due to the high percentage of youth unemployment in these areas. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, unemployment in the Northern Province stands at 5.3%, which is the third highest in the island, following the Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces with indicators of 5.9% and 5.5% respectively (2014, P. 24). Therefore it is important for the government to address problems related to youth and ensure policies related to them are enacted.
Even after the war, Sri Lanka continues to be burdened by the extensive network the Tamil diaspora maintains overseas. These diaspora communities are stable both economically and politically. They utilise their economic might to fund their political activities in the countries they reside in and to a lesser extent in Sri Lanka. They are also able to shape the policies of the countries they reside in as they number around one million in strength within a number of western countries such as “…Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, and Australia”, to name a few (Bandarage, 2010). Subsequent to the LTTE’s defeat, the sections of the Tamil diaspora community continued to try to weaken the Sri Lankan economy by boycotting Sri Lankan goods and hindering trade deals between governments (Ibid). Thus, it is important for the government to engage with the diaspora in a meaningful manner to expand the development and reconstruction efforts which have been taking place in the Northern and Eastern Provinces over the past eight years (Cheran, 2004). The government needs to encourage the diaspora to invest in Sri Lanka, especially in the areas affected by the conflict. Further mechanisms need to be implemented to either encourage willing members from the diaspora community to return to the island to generate employment opportunities in the region or to share their remittances to boost the island’s economy (Ibid). Furthermore, it is important for the government to engage in close dialogue with members of the diaspora to ensure hostilities and misunderstandings are eradicated, thereby ensuring the latter does not engage in funding extremist activities in the island. This would pave way for better cooperation between the diaspora networks and the government.  

In conclusion, as Sri Lanka is no longer directly threatened by traditional security threats, it is futile for the country to implement state-centric policies. Sri Lanka is however, being increasingly challenged by various non-traditional security threats such as environment - inclusive of climate change –, food and health, youth unemployment to name a few. Therefore, it is imperative for Sri Lanka to focus on implementing policies which address non-traditional security threats, with the ‘human’ at the core of its policy formulation.  
Having “social safety nets for the poor” was identified as an essential component in a country’s development agenda during the Asia-Pacific economic crisis in the late 1990s (Acharya, 2001, p. 448). This observation still holds true today. Sri Lanka needs to adopt policies which are reflective of its internal security. The areas that need to be focused on include food security, health security, environmental security, unemployment, etc. since not addressing these non-traditional security issues will lead to people rising up against the government and taking refuge in extremist ideologies.
Sri Lanka has experienced youth uprisings in the past and if a human security lens is not applied in addressing the issues of its citizens, especially those the youth in the North and East are currently facing, it will definitely lead to a variety of internal security dilemmas, as they are directly connected to the broad human security approach which is ‘freedom from want’.
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Author Biography
Bhagya Senaratne is a lecturer at the Department of Strategic Studies, Faculty of Defence & Strategic Studies, General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University. Her research interests are Diplomacy, Strategic Communication, Foreign Policy, Sino-Lanka Relations, Non Traditional Security Threats and Area Studies.