Conceptualization of Security in Relation with the Effect of Civil Wars

The first appearance of the term ‘human security’ emerged in the 1994 Human Development Report by United Nations. Nevertheless, their definition confirms Edward Newman’s conviction that human security lacks clarity whilst being defined. In the report mentioned above, United Nations comprised human security into seven basic units that do define real nature. Thereby, as the name indicates, human security put an emphasis on individuals and their economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security.

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Economic security

Whilst examining the economic consequences of civil war, Paul Collier believes ‘civil wars are economically much more destructive than international wars.’ His claim assumes that, unlike the international war, the non-state actors undermine the state administration and state authority forces, e.g. police. The weakening of such institutions leads up to economic decrease which in the majority of cases ends up with tremendous poverty. Poverty is not solely a symptom of such wars but in numerous cases a cause as well. Furthermore, civil wars tend to decrease and burden the economy throughout the region. There has been some evidence during the Mozambican Civil War (1977-1992), the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002) and the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979) in parallel with massive displacement of persons. In fact, the neighbouring state- Malawi accepted displaced persons from the warring countries. Based on this fact, Malawi ‘experienced financial difficulties due to increased cost of industrial goods, price of oil, bad weather, and a downward trend in the prices of their primary products used to generate foreign exchange earnings.’ Moreover, a similar burden experienced in Jordan’s economy recently, since Jordan became one of the major refugee hotspots during the Syrian Civil War (2011-present), the acceptance of refugees costs Jordan 2,5 billion dollars yearly.

Food security

Alexander Segovia investigated the relationship between civil wars and food security during the civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992). The results revealed that food security was affected by the civil war in numerous ways. Firstly, due to reductions in farm production caused by its physical destruction, food production vastly decreased. The Food and Agriculture Organisation’s study reports that the agricultural sector faced losing roughly 52 billion dollars during intrastate conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa in the period of 1970-1997. FAO It also suggests that civil wars rule out the accessibility to food for almost 330 million people and leave them unnourished. Secondly, according to Segovia reduction of foreign currency and local currency devaluation resulted in an inability to exchange stock internationally, which on broader terms meant that particular food was no longer available in El Salvador. Thirdly, he believes that further food crises were caused by mass displacement of people which was a result of confrontations and civil repression during the warfare. Alongside the previous study, Saswati Bora asserts that in the Sudanese Civil War (1983-1984) the government suppressed the rebel groups, using food insecurity and hunger as powerful weapons. ’Hunger was used as a deliberate weapon of war leading to almost 7 per cent in one camp dying each week.’

Water security

Water is one of the most important assets for human survival. The importance of access transformed water insecurity as a convenient weapon and a critical insufficient commodity during civil wars, especially in places that suffer from an excessive drought. Tobias von Lossow in his report examined three main strategies how the Islamic State used control of water as a weapon during the Syrian Civil War (2011-present) undermining water security in the region. By invading strategic Iraqi dams, the militia group was able to effectively control water. In 2014, the whole area of Qaraqosh was completely cut off from electricity and water. In 2015, IS reduced 50 percent of Euphrates’ outflow and therefore achieved control over multiple strategic territories- Babil, Karbala, Najaf and Qadisia. In May 2016, ISIS was in control of water to the most agricultural province of Iraq. On the other hand, in terms of managing water sources, the Islamic State did not solely limit the water flows. In 2014, the group strategically flooded an agricultural hub of the country, leading to loss of fertile lands and mass displacement of locals. Lastly, Islamic State took advantage of captured dams and deliberately poisoned water resources throughout the whole of Syria. In addition, Islamic State poisoned some water resources abroad, especially the water supply in Pristina where they contaminated the largest dam. The local government contributed to water insecurity. Bashar al-Assad’s administration deliberately poisoned Damascus’ water infrastructure which left 5,5 million people without access to water. Access to water was observed by Zaryab Iqbal, where only 30 percent of citizens were able to access the water sources and latrines during major civil wars in Africa.

Health security

As far as health security is concerned, the impact of civil wars is extremely destructive. In the Liberian Civil War (1989-1997 and 1999-2003), the spread of cholera in combination with the civil war blocked both international agencies and Liberian authority’s attempts to avoid further spread. According to World Health Organisation, there were only 6 nurses in the health centre for 400 daily patients in Monrovia- the largest camp for displaced people. These case studies show that health security is severely affected dreadfully during intrastate conflicts; the observable consequences are measured with killed or wounded people (which also relates to violations of personal security) and include the spread of diseases and inaccessibility to drugs due to state shift of expenditure on military. Health security is also damaged by the destruction of infrastructure- and in this case not only direct destruction of medical facilities but infrastructures in broader terms, such as transportation or water supply. On a regional level, the destructive impact is visible in the case of the Syrian Civil War (2011-present). Turkey accepted the highest number of Syrian refugees who were forced to flee the country due to personal insecurity which left them to live in generally negative and unsanitary conditions resulting in respiratory, skin, gastrointestinal and genital system infections.’ Almost 300 000 Syrian citizens were hospitalized in Turkish hospitals and the majority of them were in need of intensive care units and thereby burdening the local healthcare system which was not able to provide an access to healthcare to its own citizens. 

Community security

Some civil wars are fought by multiple ethnicities against each other. Roland Paris believes community security stands for ‘survival of traditional cultures and ethnic groups as well as the physical security of these groups.’ Despite this conviction, there have been multiple civil wars where deliberate ethnic cleansing occurred. One of the most infamous case studies could be Rwandan civil war (1990-1994) in which roughly 1 million Tutsis were killed. Such deliberate ethnic cleansing also occurred in Burundi (1993-2005), Angola (1975-2002), Sudan (1983-2005), Myanmar (1948-present) and many other countries.

Political security

Political security refers to’ the freedom of political repression’ combined with the respect of human rights. Stathis N. Kalyvas found a correlation between political violence in civil wars. He claims that even though the civil wars bring violence that does not have to be necessarily politicized, political violence is oftentimes present as well. A more current example of political violence occurring during the civil war could be demonstrated on Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian citizens during the Syrian Civil War (2011-present). In addition, as Kjersti Skarstad and Havard Strand observed the civil war outbreak resulted in human rights violations. Further evidence is provided in the United Nations Human Rights Report in which countries going through a civil war experienced resulting violations of human rights. According to the Amnesty International report, countries such as Yemen, Syria and Myanmar were labelled as ‘major’ hotspots of human rights violations at the time they were experiencing civil war.

Displacement of people

As stated many times before, civil wars raise the displacement of civilians who seek a safer environment to live in. Recent research by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicates that Syrians, Afghani and Iraqi civilians (all three coming from countries afflicted by civil war) were the three most frequent nations being displaced to Europe during the European Migrant Crisis. Besides ‘burdening’ accepting countries economically and by using countries’ services, the civil wars in the Middle East had other serious effects. The crisis raised the popularity of right-wing nationalist parties throughout the whole European Union and thereby formed new internal threats for both national and international security.


This paper analyses the conceptualization of security in relation with the effect of civil wars. The international security studies experienced distinct shifts in their definition. Whilst traditional security put an emphasis on the state as a referent object, measured in national security, strategies of foreign policy and military terms, critical security puts ‘individual’ and the other factors in the centre of its examination. Traditional security comprises two main paradigms- realism and liberalism by which one might perceive security challenges differently.

Firstly, this essay examines views on the civil wars perceived by the realists. Realism believes the multipolar anarchic international system enables states to constantly fight for power through their engagement in multiple intrastate conflicts. This assumption could be demonstrated on multiple outgoing civil wars, which are used by the hegemony and great powers to dominate their power either globally or regionally. In global terms, one might see how the United States and Russia are fighting each other in the Syrian Civil War. On a regional level, there has been evidence that Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting for regional dominance in Yemen Civil War. Civil wars in these cases are playing the role of proxy territory on which the powers can exercise their military power and thereby ensure their state survival. The great-power engagements are however prolonging the conflict, exploiting foreign resources and are posing new security challenges to the international community. Moreover, one might say that these clashes are creating unbalanced international order as they might perceive foreign engagement as a threat that can result in global conflict in the future.

Secondly, liberalist theories believe that states do seek to cooperate and to provide standard human rights and better living conditions for all civilians. Therefore, in liberalist terms, great powers do intervene in the civil wars in order to establish democracy which will ensure further cooperation with a new democratized power and a new ally in the international trade. Civil wars could then serve as means how to launch the transformation of a more collective and safe international order.

Thirdly, the essay deflects from the traditional perception of security to examine security in more modern concepts such as critical and human security. Human security’s scope is broader and more developed, as United Nations divided human security into seven most significant categories: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security. This essay analyses further only some of the aforementioned characteristics of security in parallel with civil wars’ effects. The results of this investigation show that civil wars endanger all aspects of human security that were analysed in course of this essay. When civil war emerges, it tends to leave its civilians in extreme poverty as imports and export are limited and the civil war experiences a loss of labour capital. It is essential to mention that since the world is interconnected and globalised, such economic decline has negative impacts on the regional economy too. Access to food and water as major commodities for human survival is critical during intrastate conflicts as well. Especially since some of the factions are taking advantage of the importance of these commodities and are using them as weapons against civilians. Furthermore, civil wars tend to destabilize health security because of insufficient health services or their physical destruction. As far as community and political securities are concerned, civil wars do leave both of them in very unfavourable conditions. Whole communities are being oftentimes slaughtered as state authorities are unable to sufficiently protect them. Likewise, civil wars enable state authorities to abuse their powers and to oppress their own civilians.

Assessing the regional impacts of civil wars in terms of security, the findings of this essay indicate that civil wars tend to destabilize the human security of the region. Mass displacement of people was used as major evidence on security destabilization. In fact, the war refugees do burden the accepting states economically, and lower access to healthcare, water and other services. Additionally, recent mass displacement to the European states has raised the right-wing nationalism in the majority of accepted states and thereby put new security threats at stake.    

07 July 2022

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