defending rights and civil liberties




“Freedom versus Security” or “Freedom as Security” (en inglés)

A question regularly raised by human rights activists and defenders is the dilemma between freedom and security. This question seems to imply that being secure means giving up liberty...

A question regularly raised by human rights activists and defenders is the dilemma between freedom and security. This question seems to imply that being secure means giving up liberty. We accept surveillance – we give up our freedom – because we believe that this will protect our safety. While it is true that freedom and security can potentially be in conflict, to construct the argument in this way is to be dangerously simplistic.

Security is not only police. Security is safe roads, functioning kindergartens, and hospitals, proper education and so on. Security inevitably suffers during times of economic or political crisis because the State’s social responsibility to its citizens erodes. Security has a social dimension which is hidden by one-dimensional representations of security as a barrier to freedom.

Of course, safety can be a barrier to liberty, but freedom is unthinkable without security. If one is not safe, one cannot be free. These things should go without saying.

Until recently, the general assumption was that when faced with the dilemma of “Freedom v. Security”, those in the human rights movement would opt for freedom, leaving an empty space for neo-conservatives to claim security. This resulted in a paradoxical situation wherein anti-human rights political discourse monopolized security, turning security into a rallying call to repress a dissenting citizenry. This situation becomes even more paradoxical in light of the increased human rights violations which occur due to the securitization of politics, and also how precarious and profoundly unsafe our lives have become due to the monopolization of security by neo-conservativism.

Jeremy Bentham was the first post-revolutionary thinker to imagine liberty completely absent from the legal domain. According to his thinking, what remains of it should be legally considered as a branch of security, so as to avoid confusion. In his concept of liberty, liberty is understood as a privacy right, as a shield against the intrusion and interference of people and/or holders of authority. Liberty can only be secured where ‘real’ rights are established through a legal system. In developing his system of thought, Bentham proposed to use the utility principle rather than ‘natural rights’ to resolve conflicts. “The utility or interest of an individual”, to quote Bentham, is the basic ingredient of societal calculus.
“Some persons”, says Bentham, “may be surprised to find that ‘Liberty’ is not ranked among the principal objects of the law”. But, Bentham continues, “We must regard it as a branch of ‘Security’”. “Personal liberty is security against a certain class of wrongs which affect the person; while what is called political liberty is also a branch of security - security against injustice at the hands of the persons entrusted with government” (Principles of the Civil Code, Part I, Ch. 2).
Here I am not arguing that Bentham and other Utilitarian thinkers offer a good solution for the many problems contemporary society faces. Rather, I propose that keeping some of Bentham’s ideas in mind can be worthwhile, acting as catalysts for the generation of new ideas.
Before again posing the “Freedom v. Security” dilemma, we need to re-address, semantically, the very question. It should not be ‘either-or’ but instead ‘and’…Freedom and Security. Security is a fundamental pre-condition if liberty is to exist.  If we are not safe we cannot be free. So, defenders of human rights, let us say “We, too, are for security, but against those who, in the name of protection, make the world less secure’. 

It is time to re-appropriate some of these good concepts, instead of allowing our political opponents to misappropriate them.

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