President Obama speaks at a meeting about the international response to the Ebola epidemic during the 69th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. (Justin Lane/European Pressphoto Agency)

On Sept. 18, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) held an unprecedented emergency meeting on a public health crisis and officially declared the Ebola epidemic that has killed an estimated 2,803 people in West Africa a threat to international peace and security. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the creation of the U.N. Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER), which he tasked with treating the infected, containing the disease and preserving stability. Last week, President Obama announced the deployment of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which will set up a joint force command in Liberia to coordinate the activity of 3,000 U.S. forces; expedite the transportation of equipment and supplies; and train an estimated 500 health-care workers per week.

Although Kim Yi Dionne, Laura Seay and Ryan McDaniel raised concerns in The Washington Post last week about U.S. military forces engaging in a large-scale humanitarian operation, the deployment of AFRICOM and the creation of UNMEER are different from previous militarized humanitarian missions. The emphasis on human security, supported by the recent UNSC proclamation, shifts the policy conversation. This is a potential watershed moment for future humanitarian interventions if key actors recognize the core comparative advantages of both non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and militaries and work together in a partnership.

What is human security?

We traditionally think about security in terms linked to states. National security means that states defend their borders, people, and economic and political interests against destabilizing threats. According to the U.N. Trust Fund for Human Security, “Human security aims at ensuring the survival, livelihood and dignity of people in response to current and emerging threats – threats that are widespread and cross cutting.” So, whereas we typically think of security threats as a threat to a country’s national interests, human security broadens the notion of security to focus on the individual and thus considers things such as poverty, health pandemics and climate-related disasters — as security threats. At the same time, these crises not only challenge individuals and communities, but have the potential to spill over and threaten international peace and security.

Obama invoked human security when urging the UNSC for a commitment “to stop a disease that could kill hundreds of thousands, inflict horrific suffering, destabilize economies, and move rapidly across borders.” In a speech at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Obama described the human security threat as “an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security . . . it’s a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic. That has profound effects on all of us, even if we are not directly contracting the disease.”

Why is human security different from humanitarian intervention?

Humanitarian intervention occurs when external state actors intervene militarily in another state to prevent, alleviate or arrest a humanitarian crisis resulting from conflict. In places such as Kosovo, where NATO conducted airstrikes on Serbia and then coordinated the delivery and distribution of relief aid during the subsequent refugee crisis, militarized humanitarian intervention has proved to be problematic. While at first NGOs appreciated the logistical capabilities of the NATO forces, their practices compromised core principles of neutrality (not taking sides in a conflict), impartiality (not discriminating in aid provision) and independence (working free of government interference). Since then, military-led stability operations have increased, but some NGOs have renounced working with military forces to provide humanitarian relief.

The important distinction here is that humanitarian intervention occurs in response to conflict situations, and often external actors intervene only when their national interests are at stake. The failure to respond to warnings regarding the imminent Rwandan genocide is a key example.

The AFRICOM and UNMEER missions are not your typical militarized humanitarian intervention. Defining the Ebola crisis as a human security issue is a game changer. There is no conflict in the West African countries most heavily affected by Ebola (at least not yet), thus the security threat highlighted by the UNSC is a threat to people and their humanity — the right to life with dignity. Humanity is a universal principle, one that transcends and orders all the other humanitarian principles, one that NGOs, states and international organizations can all get behind. Viewed through this lens, it is no wonder that NGOs, such as Doctors Without Borders, that typically refuse to work with national militaries are calling on militaries to provide logistical support to address the Ebola epidemic.

The potential of human security for improved coordinated action

Mobilized by a human security threat, the coordinated activities of AFRICOM, UNMEER, NGOs and local governments hold promise for addressing human security threats. Research in political science provides a few key guidelines for coordinated action.

1) Recognize NGOs’ capacity in community-building and let them be the community interface of the intervention. Research by Dennis Young, Beth Gazley and Jeffrey L. Brudney (here and here) shows that community building and community outreach are important comparative advantages of NGOs because they work closely with local populations and build their trust. NGOs should lead the public outreach, information and education campaigns vital to controlling the Ebola epidemic. Serving as the interface of the coordinated activities also will enable trust-building and mitigate potential destabilizing effects of the presence of outside forces.

2) Avoid language that blurs lines. In 2001, then Secretary of State Colin L. Powell referred to NGOs as “force multipliers” in the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan. This implied that NGOs were essentially American agents. Instead, the UNMEER and AFRICOM missions should consider NGOs as partners. Derick W. Brinkerhoff finds that NGO-state partnerships achieve common objectives through collaboration, “but . . . the respective roles and responsibilities of the actors involved remain distinct.” The key is to focus on the unique attributes and comparative advantages of each partner, while working toward a common goal, rather than blurring lines between actors.

3) Maintain the focus on human security. One important aspect of human security is its holistic approach to defining security as protection from hunger, poverty, disease and environmental catastrophe. A second important aspect is the focus on individuals. One way to enhance the success and effectiveness of the UNMEER and AFRICOM missions is to encourage participation from local officials, particularly local religious leaders, and populations to increase buy-in and cultural sensitivity and combat misinformation and fear. Research on state-NGO partnerships shows that participation improves the quality of policy formulation and policy targeting, which results in reduced costs and more effective interventions.

Seizing the promising policy window opened by the focus on human security could pave the way for successful coordinated international action on human security with AFRICOM, UNMEER and NGOs leading the way.

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Maryam Zarnegar Deloffre is an assistant professor in the Department of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University. Her current book project investigates how NGOs develop common standards and mechanisms for defining, monitoring, and regulating their accountability in the global sphere.