Human Security and the Dakota Access Pipeline

Jonathan Rudy Senior Advisor for Human Security at the Alliance for Peacebuilding

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Alliance for Peacebuilding or Elizabethtown College)


In the late 1980s I found myself in a country sliding into the unceremonious club of ‘failed states.’  I watched as the banks collapsed and were taken over by individuals. I watched as increasingly large parts of the country we engulfed in chaos and the only state response was repression and violence. As the cycle of violence spun out of control it swept already tenuous government authority with it.  It is an understatement to say that citizens felt heightened insecurity as the fragile structures and institutions of the nation state collapsed.



Dakota Access Pipeline Dog Attack Indigenous water protector from Facebook page of Teko Alejo

Since then I have pondered what makes any person feel safe and secure. What contributes to insecurity and how would we measure that? One metric of human security is the level of state legitimacy that is acceded by a given population. Dr. Lisa Schirch says that “the state derives legitimacy from a social contract that defines what states will do to protect public interests and rights and what freedoms the public will give up in return.” [1]


I understand legitimacy of governance through a few different benchmarks.  First is the access to and level of participation people have in decisions making. This is critical for citizens to feel that the state serves the people and not the other way around. Second is the modality with which state exercises power. Power derived by inviting collaboration and cooperation yields a very different sense of ownership than the power derived from coercion, intimidation and the use of violent force.  Thirdly is the accountability to the use of that power.  Accountability can be measured by adherence to the rule of law including how uniformly that is metered out on ALL of the population. Lastly it is the perception that the rule of law is for the greater common good, not just for the benefit of one group or even a few individuals.


Police use pepper spray against protesters trying to cross a stream near an oil pipeline construction site near Standing Rock Indian Reservation, north of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Patinkin NO SALES, NO ARCHIVES

Police use pepper spray against protesters trying to cross a stream near an oil pipeline construction site near Standing Rock Indian Reservation, north of Cannon Ball, North Dakota, U.S. November 2, 2016. REUTERS/Jason Patinkin

I have been watching The Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota expose the deep illegitimacy of both the state and in some cases the Federal Government. Disregarding treaties and consultation with the tribe[2], the North Dakota government has systematically ignored the voices of the tribe. The militarized response to the nonviolent protests has been harsh and abusive.[3]   Accountability for the systematic marginalization of the tribe and repression of the water protectors has been missing while no acknowledgment of preceding agreements has made meaningless the rule of law.[4] Finally the behavior of the governor is giving a distinct message that the governance apparatus is protecting the narrow self-interests of the pipeline company and corporate profits at the expense of the tribe and all who live downstream of the pipeline. That the potential for greater harm (polluted water) is not in any way recognized by a valid environmental study [5] further erodes confidence in the state and national authorities. A hasty licensing process and construction of the pipeline is not in the long term greater common good.



Water protectors stand tall and remain peaceful while law enforcement soaks them with water cannons in below-freezing temperatures. (Photo: Tara Houska/Twitter)

My friends in the Philippines look at this wholesale travesty of both the rule of law and respect for human rights and ask me, “why would our country want to enter into any security agreements with a nation that treats its people with such brutality?” With the continued militarized response that perpetrates human rights abuses, lack of accountability and finally adherence to the laws of the land, the US may have dipped below a threshold of legitimacy that now has negative ramifications for national security as well as human security.


[1] Schirch, Handbook on Human Security; A Civil-Military-Police Curriculum, The Hague Netherlands: Alliance for Peacebuilding, GPPAC, Kroc Institute, March 2016, p. 49





Posted in: #NoDAPL, Nonviolence

One comment

  1. Paul McKay says:

    Jon, a very well crafted response to the brutality brought against the Native American water protectors at Standing Rock.

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