The Limits of Human Security: Canada in East Timor

Steve Grunau


Human security was a dominant theme of Canadian foreign policy during the tenure of Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, who made it a focal point of Canada's term on the UN Security Council (1999 - 2000). The equality of individuals that is implicit in human security requires that its benefits, not least of which is the right to life free from violence, be extended to all, a doctrine which was expounded by many Western leaders as a new guiding principle in the wake of the NATO intervention in Kosovo. This principle was tested only months later when a UN-administered referendum in East Timor resulted in the overwhelming ratification of independence by voters, followed by a wave of violence perpetrated by anti-independence groups with the support of the Indonesian military.

The international community demanded that the Indonesian government re-establish order or allow a multinational force to do so, but stopped short of initiating a unilateral intervention on the Kosovo model. Key players such as the United States and Australia had substantial security and economic interests in Indonesia, as did Canada, which followed its allies in waiting until the multinational force was invited into East Timor only after the island's infrastructure had been largely destroyed and a large proportion of its population displaced. When the intervention was authorized, Canadian troops were delayed from entering the theatre by faulty equipment and operational preparations. Although it has been put forward as a key component of Canadian foreign policy, there are clear limits to the role of human security in guiding Canadian decision-makers in practice.

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