In Modern Humanitarianism, State Security Trumps Human Safety

Law & Theory Feb 25, 2020

By Max Masterson


The contestation between state security and human security is a central issue in international development. State security can be defined as sovereignty, survival, military capacity, and the centralization and monopolization of power. Human security is defined as “protecting and enhancing the fundamental freedoms and capacities that are the essence of life” . International relations have historically taken a state-centric approach of non-intervention rather than the human-centric approach promoted by Responsibility to Protect, the international doctrine advising global intervention if a state threatens its citizens. However, applying a human-centric lens to international politics would improve the welfare of civilians because there are certain preconditions that human security focuses on which are essential for the realization of state security and the prevention of failed state syndrome. Additionally, states are the bodies responsible for ensuring the welfare of their citizens under international law, which means that the goal of international relations should be to measure how well a state is upholding the rights of its people, not how well a state is maintaining its control. Since the end of the Cold War, the international community has increasingly recognized the importance of human security, and in 2008, the president of the UN General Assembly Srgjan Kerim called for a paradigm beyond the idea of sovereignty based on human security.

The international community’s focus on state security is a core obstacle in humanitarianism pertaining to Syrians affected by the civil war. Firstly, the Syrian government denies entry by humanitarian aid organizations to its citizens and targets humanitarian workers already within Syria as a strategy to stay in power. Outside of Syria, many refugees face challenges obtaining legal rights when seeking asylum because host countries insist that refugees are a threat to national security. In addition to that, host countries often persecute humanitarian workers who try to aid refugees as though they are a threat to national security by extension, prioritizing state security over the rights of refugees and its own citizens who seek to help those refugees.

A Brief Overview of the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria

The conflict in Syria started in 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring, when Syrians rebelled against the Assad regime for its authoritarian governance and inability to manage economic woes and devastating droughts, In response the U.S., several members of the European Union, and the Arab League called for Assad to step down and imposed sanctions. Meanwhile Russia and China showed their support for the Syrian government by speaking out against international military intervention and blocking a UN resolution that would condemn Assad for his actions. The Arab League and the UN attempted to implement ceasefire and disarmament missions in 2011 and 2012 but had to withdraw over fears for the monitors’ safety. After rebels took over a significant amount of territory in 2012, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah increased military support to the Syrian government. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia offered more funding and arms to rebels, and the U.S. started a small program to train a handful of rebel groups. In 2013, ISIL quickly took over large parts of northern and eastern Syria. In response, the US and Russia ramped up their military involvement until ISIL’s campaign collapsed in 2016.

By the end of 2018, the conflict had killed more than 400,000 people and displaced more than 11 million people. According to UNHCR, roughly 5.5 million of them are refugees and 6.5 million are internally displaced. Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan host the majority of Syrian refugees today .

State Security and the Denial and Persecution of Humanitarian Aid in Syria

The Assad regime systematically denies humanitarian aid to those living in besieged areas as a way to secure its power. According to the medical journal The Lancet, “The Syrian Government rarely allows surgical supplies, dialysis kits, or essential medicines in convoys… The Government has blocked implementation of public health measures such as water chlorination and vaccinations… patients are rarely allowed to be evacuated to access required health services unavailable within besieged areas”. In addition to denying civilians healthcare, the Syrian government criminalizes anyone who provides aid to people injured by pro-government forces because of a 2012 counter-terrorism law, which they use to justify violence against medical workers. Between 2011 and 2017, 814 healthcare workers were killed in acts of war, and in  2018 alone, the Assad regime attacked 22 hospitals . Pro-government forces have targeted healthcare workers in many ways, including, “attacks on health facilities, executions, imprisonment or threat of imprisonment, unlawful disappearance (ie, kidnapping), abduction, and torture sometimes leading to death”. However, the Assad regime isn’t the only government complicit in targeting healthcare workers. According to Physicians for Human Rights, Russia has been involved in at least 583 attacks on medical facilities since 2015. Though the U.S. has only admitted their culpability for 55 civilian deaths and the destruction of a hospital in Kunduz, according to the Violations Documentation Centre’s public database of civilian deaths, the U.S.-led airstrike campaign against ISIL has been responsible for at least 513 civilian deaths. The Assad regime’s pattern of attacks on civilian areas suggests that the government considers anyone living in opposition-controlled areas terrorists, but that classification doesn’t justify their actions; weaponization of healthcare violates medical neutrality and is a war crime. Rather than preserve the state to protect the human rights of its citizens, the state uses their citizens as leverage in order to stay in power.

Though all parties involved have agreed to uphold the UN stance on humanitarianism and medical neutrality in theory, the politics of national security hinders them from taking further action. The fourth Geneva Convention protects civilians from being targeted by warring parties as well as humanitarian workers who provide relief for them. Every country in the world has signed the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Not all have signed or ratified the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, but even governments who have not ratified them are required to respect them. In 2014, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2165 that demanded the end of attacks on civilians and respect for medical neutrality . It is considered binding and overriding the principle of sovereignty present in UNGA 46/182, the resolution that the UN Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is built upon .

The international community’s response to the targeting of humanitarian workers and civilians in Syria demonstrates that their primary concerns have to do with their own state sovereignty more than human rights. The UN Secretary-General and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have supported Syria’s referral to the International Criminal Court, but Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed these efforts in the UN Security Council. Aside from its desire to escape consequences, the Russian government’s interest in Syria is primarily motivated by its wish to see state sovereignty prevail over human security. While Moscow claims that its intervention is motivated by defeating ISIS to reduce extremist spillover and the flow of refugees to Europe, the risks of spillover are overblown and arguments are undermined by Russian complicity in attacks causing refugee migration. Its primary reason for intervention is to prevent the UN Security Council from endorsing the removal of a sitting government in order to avoid creating a justification that could be used to remove the current Russian administration from office.

Even countries that claim to privilege human rights above state security do not always stay true to that principle. Though the US threatened military intervention after chemical weapons killed hundreds in the suburbs of Damascus in 2013, due to lack of popular support within their countries, they settled for a treaty to rid Syria of chemical weapons instead. It wasn’t until ISIL’s sudden series of military successes and publicized propaganda videos where they executed Western journalists and aid workers in 2013 that the international community took serious military action. The U.S. formed a coalition with several Arab states to conduct airstrikes against ISIL. The Coalition’s reluctance to act until their own citizens were endangered and their willingness to target civilian areas and hospitals reveals that it is more concerned with defeating ISIL that protecting those who are the most vulnerable to abuses from it, suggesting that their involvement may have to do more with advancing their own foreign policy interests than protecting and reaffirming human rights.

The Human Rights of Refugees Versus State Security in Host Countries

Many host countries have embraced the nationalistic idea that refugees are dangerous invaders and actively seek to keep them out, prioritizing the alleged state security benefits they gain over the human rights of refugees. In 2017, President Trump of the U.S. signed an executive order indefinitely terminating all refugees from Syria and decreasing the number of refugee acceptances into the U.S. by 54%, reasoning, “we will never forget the lessons of 9/11, nor the heroes who have lost their lives at the Pentagon”.  However, none of the refugees resettled since 1980 in the US have ever committed a lethal terror attack. In 2016, the UK pledged to take in only 20,000 refugees over the next five years, a small number in comparison to the EU’s wish for member states to take in 160,000. In a 2015 experiment to see whether dehumanizing language was becoming normalized, researchers posted fascist quotes from Mein Kampf on a British newspaper website but replaced the word “Jews” with “migrants,” many of which attracted hundreds of likes. In Turkey, as the number of refugees has increased over the past several years, there has been a rise in accusations towards Syrian refugees of being armed, sectarian rebels in mainstream politics. Similarly, Prime Minister Orban of Hungary, one of the two countries who have refused to take any refugee quota, has called the influx of refugees a “Muslim invasion”. While some European countries are truly hosting many more refugees than they have the capacity for, the xenophobic and islamophobic language they use and their focus on keeping refugees out rather than compelling other countries share the burden shows that they see granting basic rights to refugees as mutually exclusive with preserving national security, and that the latter is more important to prioritize. This dichotomy is false; resettling large numbers of refugees certainly requires governments’ resources and energy, however, irregular migrants, including refugees, can bring benefits to a country such as establishing businesses and filling labor gaps, consuming internal goods and services, and generating tax revenue.

The decreased access to legal entry not only denies, but worsens the state of human rights for refugees, as many take increasingly dangerous risks to cross borders. Research has indicated that governments’ alleged anti-human trafficking policies may have actually caused the high number of drownings in the Mediterranean by “conflating trafficking with smuggling, emphasizing seizure and destruction of smuggler vessels, and militarizing the Balkan Route”. Overland, instances of human trafficking in smuggling rose dramatically after the closure of the Balkan route due to smugglers' demands for compensation for the increased risks and expenses it took to get refugees to their destinations.

A particularly complicated situation where border and human rights clash is the 2016 EU-Turkey Deal, which stipulates that the Turkish government is to take back all migrants and refugees who entered Greece through irregular routes and in return, the EU will accept a maximum of 72,000 refugees from Turkey, provide funds for improving the humanitarian situation in Turkey, and a variety of political gestures. As a result, many refugees have been forcibly deported from Greece to Turkey while others are indefinitely stranded in Moria, which has turned into an overcrowded detention facility when it had previously been a checkpoint with humanitarian aid. Turkey only accepts legal responsibility to protect refugees coming from Europe, so Syrian refugees can only receive temporary protection status. This status means that certain social rights, such as employment, are limited, and that if they apply for asylum in another country, they will only be accepted if their life is in immediate danger or there’s a possibility of family reunification. Additionally, many refugees fear that seeking protected status means that they would be added to databases which could lead to their deportation if they snuck into the EU. Amnesty International and UNHCR have claimed that this deal violates international law.

The Rights of Humanitarian Workers Versus State Security in Host Countries

Beyond penalizing refugees for seeking asylum, people who provide refugees with humanitarian aid and advocate for their human rights are often criminalized as well. In a study, Open Democracy found that 250 people across Europe were criminalised or arrested for providing food, shelter, and transport to refugees over the past 5 years. Despite a 2018 ruling from France’s Constitutional Court decreeing that “crimes of solidarity,” or providing refugees with humanitarian aid, is actually protected under the French constitution, the police regularly harass and abuse volunteers in Calais. Ships that rescue refugees crossing the Mediterranean are frequently accused of “people smuggling,” “trafficking,” or “aiding illegal immigration”. The language used in these charges sets up a dangerous precedent. Equating humanitarian rescue to crimes as severe as human trafficking or terrorism paints humanitarians simultaneously as accomplices to terrorists and as human traffickers preying on vulnerable refugees, which justifies the government in denying refugees basic necessities for survival.

One of the most extreme cases of criminalizing humanitarianism is the 2019 Salvini Law in Italy. Under the law, the Italian government will fine NGO vessels who rescue asylum seekers and dock at an Italian port up to €1 million, arrest the rescuers, and impound their vessels. The Council of Europe and the UNHCR both criticized the law for deterring organizations from engaging in life-saving rescues. After the law was passed, the interior minister Matteo Salvini tweeted a thank you to Italians and the Virgin Mary as well as, “More power to the forces of order, more border controls, more officers to arrest Mafiosi and members of the Camorra (the Naples-based mafia)”. Matteo Salvini’s tweets show how preoccupied the Italian government is with the relationship between refugees and potential national security threats and imply that rescuing refugees is somehow linked to criminal organizations such as the mafia. Also, his reference to the Virgin Mary may parallel Hungary in its desire to “protect” the Catholic character of their nations. As an extension to refugees’ alleged threat to national security, humanitarian workers are also treated as though they are criminals. The host countries are willing to violate the rights of not only refugees, but their own citizens, in order to maintain a sense of state sovereignty.


The Assad regime denies aid to civilians and violently targets humanitarian workers in terrorist and opposition-controlled areas as a strategy to remain in power, and the international community’s involvement in the Syrian conflict is primarily motivated by eliminating threats to their own state security, regardless of the effects on human security. Outside Syria, many host countries have embraced a nationalist and dehumanizing rhetoric that embraces an either-or fallacy between refugee rights and the welfare of its own citizens, compelling governments to increase border control measures, which violates international legal agreements on the rights of refugees and forces them to take greater risks to access basic needs. Humanitarians in host countries also face criminalization for their actions; governments portray them as though they are accomplices to the refugees who threaten national security and /or as criminals exploiting vulnerable refugees, which allows the government to characterize itself as the protector of refugees by violating humanitarian workers’ rights while denying refugees basic aid. The counter-intuitive nature of many host countries’ policies suggests that their justification of state security may be a pretext for implementing xenophobic legislation.


Agerholm @HarrietAgerholm, Harriet. “Refugees Are 'Muslim Invaders', Says Hungarian PM Viktor Orban.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 9 Jan. 2018,

Allison, Roy. “Russia and Syria: Explaining Alignment with a Regime in Crisis.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 12 July 2013,

Baban, Feyzi, et al. “Syrian Refugees in Turkey: Pathways to Precarity, Differential Inclusion, and Negotiated Citizenship Rights.” Taylor & Francis, Journal of Migration Studies, 8 June 2016,

“Chapter 2: State Versus Human Security: The Great Debate.” Responsibility to Protect and Prevent: Principles, Promises and Practicalities, by John Janzekovic and Daniel Silander, Anthem Press, 2014, pp. 11–44.

Charap, Samuel. “Russia, Syria and the Doctrine of Intervention.” The International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2013,

DeYoung, Karen. “Analysis | Trump's Decision to Withdraw U.S. Troops from Syria Startles Aides and Allies.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 20 Dec. 2018,

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Syrian Civil War.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 16 July 2019,

Fouad, Fouad M, et al. “Health Workers and the Weaponisation of Health Care in Syria: a Preliminary Inquiry for The Lancet–American University of Beirut Commission on Syria.” The Lancet, Elsevier, 15 Mar. 2017,

Graham-Harrison, Emma. “Civilian Death Toll on the Rise from American-Led Airstrikes against Isis.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 July 2016,

Hawkins, Vickie. “Bombing Hospitals and Schools Cannot Become the New Normal | Vickie Hawkins.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Jan. 2016,

Heisler, Michele, et al. “Attacks on Health Care in Syria — Normalizing Violations of Medical Neutrality?” The New England Journal of Medicine, 18 Nov. 2015,

Hill, Evan, and Christiaan Triebert. “12 Hours. 4 Syrian Hospitals Bombed. One Culprit: Russia.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Oct. 2019,

Holpuch, Amanda. “Trump's War on Refugees Is Tearing down US's Life-Changing Resettlement Program.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 June 2019,

Kiddell-Monroe, Rachel. Humanitarianism. INTD 200 Fall 2019.

Mandić, Danilo. “Trafficking and Syrian Refugee Smuggling: Evidence from the Balkan Route.” Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard, Harvard Library, 14 Feb. 2017,

McKee, Martin, et al. “Europe's Collective Failure to Address the Refugee Crisis.” Public Health Reviews, BioMed Central, 8 July 2016,

Siddiqui, Sabrina. “Trump Signs 'Extreme Vetting' Executive Order for People Entering the US.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 27 Jan. 2017,

Simanowitz, Stefan. “The Jungle May Be Gone but Solidarity Lives on in Calais.” The Jungle May Be Gone but Solidarity Lives on in Calais | Amnesty International, 5 June 2019,

“Six People Died Each Day Attempting to Cross Mediterranean in 2018 - UNHCR Report.” UNHCR, 30 Jan. 2019,

Smith, Helena. “Surge in Migration to Greece Fuels Misery in Refugee Camps.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Sept. 2017,

Squires, Nick. “Italy to Fine Migrant Rescue Boats up to €1 Million as Tough Salvini Law Passes.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 6 Aug. 2019,

“Syria 2018.” Syria 2017/2018 | Amnesty International, 2018,

“Syria's Civil War Explained from the Beginning.” News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 14 Apr. 2018,

Trelles, Miguel, et al. “Attacks on Civilians and Hospitals Must Stop.” The Lancet, 21 Mar. 2016,

“UN Warns Italy over Law Fining Migrant Rescue Ships up to €1 Million.” France 24, France 24, 7 Aug. 2019,

Victor Genina, Proposals for the Negotiation Process on the United Nations Global Compact for Migration, 5 J. on Migration & Hum. Sec. 682 (2017)

ÖZDEN, Senay. “Syrian Refugees in Turkey.” Cadmus Home, May 2013,