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Is the safety of all, the highest law?

April 23, 2015

Taking part in a seminar yesterday organised by Nick Wright at the University of East Anglia on improving security, facing excellent questions from post-graduate students and listening to the thoughts of fellow panellists Dan Silvey and Alexandra Hall, gave me a chance to take a step back and think broadly about the issue. Four among the elements that stood out:

In thinking about security, it’s helpful to think back to Cicero’s often quoted Salus populi suprema lex esto – let safety be the highest law – a phrase he’s known to have used at least 18 times, including in his work on constitutional law, De legibus. Not just because of the importance he accorded the issue, but because I think  salus means safety, not security – and that’s a far more useful way to think about the issue. ‘My safety’, or ‘our safety’ refers to the state of being safe, being unharmed – whereas ‘my / our security’ too-readily brings to mind the forces of security and keeping people safe. Broad but clear and measurable outcome, versus partial and narrow set of processes which contribute towards it… This matters because safety is largely and usually enabled not so much by agents or forces of security, but by much less tangible factors: knowledge, relationships, status, access to capital and income, independence, freedom, societal norms and endowments, and so on. Assets of one kind or another, by and large. So in thinking about strategies to improve people’s safety, one should usually focus at least as much on these kinds of factors, as on the security forces.

Second, improving people’s safety is replete with tensions which need to be understood and managed. These include the tensions between investing limited resources in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ security measures – where the former normally have the loudest voice; between the safety of elites and more marginalised people in any community or society; between the safety of the community or society as broadly understood, and vulnerable individuals including young women within it; between the safety of industrial infrastructure (think oil companies in Nigeria…), and people living around them; between the safety of people at home (homeland safety) and those abroad whose safety might be compromised by ill-thought adventures; and between short-term and long-term needs, where measures to achieve the former may undermine the latter.

Third, the idea of improving people’s safety is usually likely to be a ‘wicked problem’, i.e. non-linear, multi-dimensional, and impossible easily to problematize in a way which is accurate and complete, and which allows for a clear ‘solution’. Wicked problems need to be addressed incrementally, with adaptive approaches and a readiness to redefine the problem as and when things become clearer…

Fourth, and going back to Cicero here, his phrase helps explain why coherent and joined-up approaches to security are often so hard to achieve – and why the tensions mentioned above often persist unresolved. In saying that the safety of the people is the highest principle (constitutional principle, or meta-norm, being the most likely meaning of lex in the context of De legibus), he was indicating that it’s what leaders are most held accountable for by their constituencies. And what he actually meant was the safety of the Roman people was the highest principle for Rome’s leaders. Hence, anyone’s first principle in representing his or her constituency – according to Cicero at least, but I suspect that public opinion and the media in most places would agree – will be to support processes most likely to keep his or her people safe. Thus any government’s foreign policy will be guided by homeland security first and foremost; businesses will be guided first and foremost by their business needs; political and community leaders by the needs of the people which the most power over them (so not the vulnerable or marginal), and so on. Hence, perhaps, the willingness of EU politicians to let non-European migrants drown at sea – because those migrants don’t vote, and those who do vote don’t seem to care enough about them to push their leaders to do the right thing.

Hence, the importance of activists, international principles and organisations, enlightened laws and civil society organisations with the voice, energy and agency to stand up for the higher principle that the safety of all people equally is the highest principle. I’m not a Latin scholar but perhaps: Salus omnis populi suprema lex esto?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Helen permalink
    April 23, 2015 5:43 pm

    Your Latin is up to more than mine! Another interesting piece as always and very pertinent at the moment. The question seems to be, do any leaders care about migrants in the middle of the sea? They’re out of everyone’s jurisdiction so perhaps don’t matter to anyone. Helen

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