Protecting ‘national security’ in the UK: the MI5 and the difference between ‘citizens’ and human beings

As someone who studies ‘security’ in the United States and China rather than the country where I actually live, coming across the following information from the MI5 discussing how they understand ‘national security’ in the UK was particularly interesting. 

They note the lack of a clear definition of ‘national security’ in either UK or European law, while adding that this has been a deliberate and consistent practice of successive UK governments and parliaments to ensure flexibility. The discussion that follows is both thoughtful and reflexive – features academics often make careers out of claiming governments lack.

The piece also states that government policy is taking the term national security to mean ‘the security and well-being of the United Kingdom as a whole’. This is then extended to emphasise not just the survival of the physical state itself but also its ‘citizens’ – wherever they are, and the system of government itself.

The discussion shows much needed recognition that the meaning of ‘security’ remains contested and is far from clear cut or obvious. It also shows an awareness of the role of political actors in constructing security threats. Of course, as it comes from the MI5, the focus is on more traditional notions of security. While the focus on citizens is encouraging, particularly alongside the growth in critical academic work emphasising the need to move away from military security to secure human beings, it also raises a number of questions.

What does it mean to protect UK ‘citizens’ rather than human beings more broadly defined? What does this mean for the rights, security and well-being of individuals living in the UK who do not have the protection of citizenship? What about the security and well-being of migrants and asylum seekers?

And lastly, what are the moral and ethical implications of a security policy that distinguishes between the security of  ‘citizens’ and human beings?

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