How Commons' Rights Differ from Human Rights

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James Quilligan:

" Human security may call for community-based development, social well-being and popular selfdetermination, but the rights of local citizens preempt sovereign authority only during humanitarian crises—not when there is a military security threat. Since many analysts in the human security field view human rights and development as a legitimate part of the people’s social contract with their government, they challenge the issue of state sovereignty mainly in terms of the legitimacy of foreign intervention.

The commons field takes a different approach. It questions the effectiveness of the traditional model of human rights and development, stressing the importance of socially created value and the management of resources by local communities beyond the purview of government jurisdiction or market incentives. Rather than subjects of the state, civilians must be treated as people whose livelihoods are destroyed when they are separated from the social and natural wealth upon which they depend. Commoners want the state to provide greater security for the rights of citizens to produce and manage these resources and less support for their privatization. The commons thus provide a strong critique of the inequality and unrest that result from market forces. Destabilization of a commons may be caused by many factors, not the least of which are corporate-driven efforts to enclose and extract a valuable resource. This can result in the financing of social instability.

It’s true that poverty, disease and lack of capacity or development by local people may be an immediate cause—or result —of failed commons. Yet the underlying reasons for failed commons, resource conflict and security crises often involve the meddling of the domestic state, a foreign state, or domestic or foreign businesses in the management and production of a community’s natural and social capital. The field of human security does not address this dimension of resource security.

At the same time, human security, with its realism concerning the alternatives to armed security, can be helpful to commons practitioners who view the commons in a political vacuum, isolated from state and regional influences. Commoners believe that communities can generate genuine livelihood and well-being simply by negotiating, monitoring and policing their own rules for resource management. But this minimizes the fact that state or regional conflict over the ownership and production of local stocks and supplies can pose major security problems—of infrastructure, governance, lawlessness, hostility and fear. In many cases, sudden and catastrophic changes in political regimes lead to radical and violent changes, disrupting the peace, security and wellbeing of a community’s ability to manage its commons.

While human security supports the protection of civilian interests through human rights, material relief and the mobilization of peacebuilding and peacekeeping efforts, it places more emphasis on the personal safety of citizens than on specific means for the self-management of their commons. Commoners argue that wellintentioned proposals for human rights, social development and peacebuilding are often imposed on pre-existing commons and neglect the survival and subsistence needs of their resource communities, resulting in poverty, disrupted livelihoods and resource refugees. The uprooting and displacement of a population, crime, weapons and extremist ideologies are also cross-border problems, which is why a regional approach to human security may be necessary.

Commons advocates often point out that sovereign jurisdictions and their social institutions rarely match the territorial expanse of ecosystems, social and cultural groupings and religious diasporas. Yet most commoners have little experience in the management of resource crises which transcend state boundaries." (

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