Pili: threat to international security?

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Last week I took part in a panel on civil-military co-operation in the 2014 Ebola response (more info and the podcast where I make up a new word can be found here), where the head of the National Ebola Response Centre in Sierra Leone, OB Sisay, resisted any notion that the Ebola response had been securitised. For him, the role of the military was not a question of security but one of much-needed action. I found myself disagreeing with Sisay, for me the response had been very much securitised – there was clear use of security language around the Ebola response (threat, war against disease), the lead responder in Sierra Leone was the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF), and in September 2014 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2177 identifying Ebola as a threat to international peace and security. On those three counts I would say Ebola was pretty securitised.

However despite this clear evidence of securitisation, I agreed with what Sisay was arguing or at least his frustration with the language of securitisation. For years I have been frustrated with the growth of securitisation of global health. These debates have tended to focus on the international threat of pandemic flu to security and stability in the world, but perhaps found greater traction and popularity (well in the PhDs that I examine and papers I review at least) in the field of HIV/AIDS. UN Security Council Resolution 1308 (a resolution so often cited in global health circles I’m surprised no committed academic seeking tenure hasn’t had a tattoo of this) sounded the klaxon for HIV/AIDS to be seen as a threat to international security, by: ‘Stressing that the HIV/AIDS pandemic, if unchecked, may pose a risk to stability and security.’ Once this Klaxon was sounded it became apparent that a UN Security Council Resolution puts an issue high up the political agenda and in so doing justifies greater financial investment. The AIDS-security impact has resulted in global health policy-makers advocating for security frames to get the international community to take issues seriously (this manifests itself in people wanting to ‘do an AIDS’ or ‘securitise like AIDS’). I can see why they would want to do this, however I really have some issues with the whole securitisation thing.

On an academic level, my minor issue is that much of the literature on HIV/AIDS securitisation is poorly done (for the good stuff see McInnes, Rushton, Elbe, Nunes, Youde). My major issue is I have never seen securitisation when talking to Doctors, community groups and people living with HIV/AIDS. Aside from the odd Presidential declaration of a war on AIDS, it would seem that the securitisation stuff is something that happens at the international level, as a means of getting attention and money within the UN system and for academics to ponder what this means for international security in the post 9/11 turn to insecurity and human security (otherwise known as everything is a potential source of insecurity/needs to be securitised). Fundamentally as my colleagues Elbe and Rushton have reflected, if you are going to make HIV/AIDS a security threat, who or what is the referent object? The disease/the person/peacekeepers/the state? If HIV/AIDS is a threat to international security then the threat is people living with HIV/AIDS: the threat is Pili.

And there is the rub. If you securitise a disease, to deal with the threat in practice when it comes to infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola you are securitising the people living with the disease. The people become the threat and your response is therefore how you deal with the 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS, two thirds of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. The majority of whom are women. What you therefore have is a heavily racialised and gendered framing of a threat that positions African women as the source of insecurity.

Part of my impetus for making the film was to give agency and identity to the women who are framed as a threat in this international discourse on securitisation. To show who the referent object is when a disease is securitised, how security means different things to different people e.g. for Pili it means job security and the health of her children rather than her health, and reflect on the language we use to talk about HIV/AIDS and the people living with the disease. Moreover it is to show a mis-match between stated claims to securitisation at the global level and how this plays out or is subverted/ignored in the everyday lives of women living with HIV/AIDS.

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