Critical Discussion of Securitization Theory

Securitization Theory


Rationalism and realism became an important aspect of international security and a major subject of security studies after World War II. Security studies were exercised first through the period of Cold War as an Anglo-American way of thinking. Security studies in this period were a critical aspect of the military strategic focus, which was intended to protect the nation-state from threats and maintain the status quo. However, as the Cold War progressed, new voices emerged, and the positivist approach of security studies was challenged.

Securitization studies were then developed by the Copenhagen School in 1970s and 1980s. Copenhagen school provided interesting contemporary mechanism of studying international security.[1] The securitization theory was first written by Ole Waever in 1989. The definition of securitization according to Waever is in line with the approach of Copenhagen School. Securitization provides a special and important way of conceptualization and analysis of security. However, there are various criticisms about the theory which criticize the failure of the theory to address some normative issues of international security.

Securitization has recently received widespread use as a means of examining security politics in all areas. The study of securitization is an interdisciplinary work that encompasses the securitization of various aspects of international security such as transnational crime, terrorism, immigration, natural disasters, identity, and women rights. This essay will critically discuss securitization theory in light to the securitization of threats in Palestine-Israeli conflict. The essay will first explain securitization theory in respect to the Copenhagen School and the writings of Waever. I will then provide the pros, cons and criticisms of the theory. Lastly, this essay will relate securitization theory to the case study of Israeli-Palestine conflict.

Definition of Securitization

Securitization refers to the subjective existence of a threat, which calls for urgent and immediate action from concerned parties to counter such a threat. Securitization theory is therefore considered as a concept that views security as an act of speech, which when uttered, something is done. Securitization theory brings a tradeoff and compromise between traditional and modern views on security. According to the traditional view, security is considered solely as a concept of war. Securitization theory builds on this traditional view and widens it to include the survival of collective units and principles.[2] In this case, other factors that were neglected by traditional views such as pollution, child abuse and economic recession can be considered as threats to security.

Understanding Securitization Theory

According to the securitization theory, something becomes a threat to security if it is labeled as such. Labeling of a subject as a threat to security can be done through political and media actors. The subject or referent object is the thing that is being securitized, e.g. terrorism or natural disaster. The securitizing actor is the individual or group of individuals who securitize the referent object. Securitization begins with a securitizing move whereby the political and media actors present an issue as an existential threat to security.[3] However, securitization of a security threat is not complete if there is no action taken to counter it. The actor should be able to convince its audience that it is legitimate to go beyond traditional conventions and rules in order to counter the effects of a security threat. Therefore, securitization is based on power of securitization actors and their ability to construct a threat politically and socially.

In order for securitization to occur, the political and social actors should identify an existential or referent subject which requires an emergency action. Majority of the audience should also accept the resignation in order for the referent object to be securitized.[4] Copenhagen School defines securitization as a discussion between a securitizing actor and an audience about a referent object that threatens security. According to Buzan et al (1998), securitization becomes successful if internal or linguistic factors interact with external or contextual actors, facilitated by the speaker’s social capital and motivated by the nature of the threat.

Explaining securitization theory, Buzan et al (1998) suggested that security is a negative aspect of politics; the inability of a nation-state and its political actors to deal with issues of normal politics. Taureck (2006) suggests that securitization theory is a theoretical tool which facilitates the analysis of security as an issue of international relations. Securitization studies enable international security students and actors to understand various aspects of security such as who securitizes, why they securitize, for whom they securitize, what results are expected from securitization, and what conditions is an object securitized.[5]

Waever (1998) also provides an aspect of desecuritization as an aspect of securitization theory. Desecuritization is a reverse of securitization, and involves the removal of issues out of a threat and focused on the ordinary public system where they can be addressed from the perspective of the normal democratic political system. According to Waever, securitization and desecuritization are political concepts beyond the preferences of securitization theorists.

Securitization of an object of security can therefore enable a nation-state to understand the potential threats to its security or to international security, and develop the necessary interventionist approach to counter it. This requires the backing of the audience because securitization does not become complete without their consent. In this perspective, securitization provides a threat-defense modality that can be derived from the observation of certain security operations. If a securitizing actor successfully identifies a referent object as a threat to security, mobilizes support, and extraordinary actions are consequentially taken, then securitization achieves its purpose and can be perceived as a relevant theory in international security.

This aspect of securitization enables the securitizing actor to decide on what constitutes a justifiable threat to security and what does not. Therefore, the main purpose of Copenhagen’s securitization theory is to provide a clear understanding of the modus operandi of security agents and actors and not to judge their actions normatively.[6] According to the securitization theory, normative mechanisms should be avoided because they judge the legitimacy of certain claims to security subjectively; hence undermining the actions against security threats in international relations as well as nation-state security goals and objectives.

Criticisms of Securitization Theory

There are various criticisms put forward against securitization theory despite its attempts to proclaim abstinence from subjective analysis. One of the criticisms is based on the normative dilemma of writing security. Critics argue that securitization theory does not address the normative implications within its project, and the political and social responsibility that evidently results from security studies.[7]

Normative dilemma involves the question of how a security issue can be securitized without replicating or reinforcing dominant subjectivities. Although the securitization of a threat to security can be helpful in developing a positive response a security issue, sometimes the referent object can be securitized negatively; resulting in negative impact of securitization. In this case, the normative dilemma is how to securitize a threat without legitimizing negative securitization. Security analysis always evokes normative questions.

The performative power of securitization theory enhances a normative dilemma.[8] Securitization according to the Copenhagen School reproduces dominant subjectivities and validates oppressive or exclusionary securitization process. Charret (1009) postulates that if securitization theory is not applied critically, it may result in negative securitization of a referent object.

Securitization theory also reinforces traditionalist view of securitization process. Securitization therefore replicates fear from such an understanding of security. Evaluation of securitization process also lacks normative structure that could prevent any negative securitization. Williams (2003) argues that securitization considers methodological objectivism as the ultimate mechanism of counteracting security threats. In this case, securitization theory views violent, irrational politics, and exclusion as a form of speech act and should be treated objectively.[9]

Securitization theory is considered to be incapable of overcoming actions of racism, totalitarianism, and fascism. Normative dilemma proposes that securitizing actor cannot securitize a referent object without causing negative securitization practices.[10] Therefore, securitization theory is never successful until the normative dilemma is overcome.

Some other criticisms of securitization theory are focused on the absence of ethical or moral goals in the theory. One of the critics in this perspective is Jef Huysmans which suggests that securitization causes the fear of death. Husymans suggests that securitization fabricates the existence an existential threat that evokes the experiences of a possible death.[11] This approach therefore considers securitization as a morally and ethically misplaced international security theory.

According to Aradau (2011), security issues should always be addressed ethically. In this perspective, securitization has disquieting consequences; hence it should promote ethico-political concerns. Huysmans (1999) suggests that security problems often result from speaking and writing directly about security. By talking about security, securitizing actors evoke the debate on security in a publicly contested issue. This portrays security as a problem.

Importance of Securitization Theory

Despite the normative dilemma and the ethical problems of securitization theory, it can be considered as an effective mechanism of understanding international security in security studies. If the normative dilemma is addressed, the moral and ethical approach of securitization can be enhanced. It is impossible for securitizing actors to securitize without generating negative securitizing processes. However, they may encourage those who practice normative rules to engage critically with Securitization theory.[12] If they do so, they will enhance a collaborative mechanism of solving the potential problems that result from negative securitization. Therefore, the challenge of securitizing actors and analysts is to convince normative practitioners to join them in securitization process.

One of the ways in which the problems of negative securitization can be solved is to link securitization to discursive ethics and attempt to find a legitimizing normative aspect in a securitization act.[13] In this case, the speech act of securitization should involve not only an exchange between the securitizing actor and the audience, but also a process of justification and legitimization of the securitization process.

The speech act of securitization should be left open for discussion so that the legitimacy claims within the securitization process can be challenged. The justifying and legitimizing claims that can be considered include truth, sincerity and normative rightness of the securitizing actor. If the securitizing actor is able to justify or legitimize the securitization process, then the securitized threat will be widely considered as a threat and the right action can be taken to reduce its impact on the society or international security in general.

Securitization of Israeli-Palestine Conflict

Securitization theory can also be explained in form of a case study using the case of Israeli-Palestine conflict. The conflict which lasted since the exit of British colonial government from Palestine in 1948 is a subject of securitization for the two countries and other countries of the world. While the Palestine is securitizing Israel and its approaches to international relations, Israel also securitizes Palestine and its actions. Other interested parties of the world are also securitizing the Israeli-Palestine conflict. The media plays a crucial role in this securitization process. The conflict involves the securitization of various referent objects (issues): borders, security, mutual interest, control of Jerusalem, mutual recognition, immigration, Israeli settlements, water rights and freedom of movement in Palestine. The securitizing actors include the government leaders (including the Prime Minister) and the media.

Since the beginning of the conflict which is rooted in sovereignty claims peaked after the exit of the British government in 1948, the two nation-states have been engaging in continuous accusations and counteraccusations through which securitization can be clearly noted. The Jewish leaders and the Arab leaders (securitizing actors) had different views on sovereignty, each of them offering a legitimizing securitization opinion about the sovereignty of their state.

One of the clear aspects of legitimized securitization is the securitization of Jewish Immigration by the Arab Nationalist Militants across the Middle East. There was an Arab revolt between 1936 and 1939 which was staged to oppose the immigration of Jews from other parts of the world, especially Europe, into the Middle East. In the revolt, approximately five thousand people died, most of who were Arabs.[14] This revolt had been planned by the Arab militants since early 1930s led by syria’s Sheikh Izaddin al-Qassam. The revolt then erupted in 1936 after the death of Al-Qassam under the hands of the British.

In this case, the securitizing actors were the Arab militants, including Al-Qassam. The referent object was the Jewish immigration. Jewish immigration was considered by the Arabs as a threat to their sovereignty in the Middle East. Securitization process was successfully initiated by Al-Qassam and other militants to the extent that other militants and nations of the Arab world accepted, and a bloody action in form of Arab revolt was taken to deal with the threat. On their part, the British and Jewish leaders securitized security as the referent object. Due to the Arab revolt, the British and the Jews considered their security to be under threat; hence they reacted by fighting against the revolting Arabs.

Fights erupted between Israel and Palestine after the state of Israel was declared in 1948. The war was referred to as the War of Independence by the Israeli leaders while the Palestinian leaders referred to it as the Catastrophe. According to the documents of Palestinian Liberation Movement (PLO) and the statements of its leaders, Zionism (Israel’s movement to have a state in Palestine) is a complete impediment to peaceful coexistence between the Israelis and the Palestinians.[15] This statement is clearly a securitization speech act in which sovereignty of Israel is the referent object. The legitimizing actor was the Palestinian Liberation Movement.

Following a declaration of the State of Israel, it was consequently placed as the legitimate ruler of Palestine. In the Palestinian National Charter of 1968, the Palestinian law considered the establishment of Israel as illegal. This statement contained in the Palestinian Charter is a form of legitimization in which the sovereignty of Israel is the referent object and the legitimizing actor is the Palestinian leadership. The legitimizing statement of this securitization process was that the sovereignty of Israel was against the will of Palestinians and their right over their natural land.

Another key securitizing agent in the conflict between Israel and Pakistan was Yasir Arafat. Arafat led the Palestinian Liberation Movement. He securitized the sovereignty of Israeli state by claiming that the Zionist State of Israel posed a threat to the existence of Palestinian Arabs in their homeland. Israeli occupation was securitized by the PLO leaders who claimed that Israelis should understand that it is impossible for them to live in Israel, and this should be achieved through terrorist activity that will hamper tourism and prevent immigration while encouraging emigration.

This statement of the Palestinian leaders was accepted by its Arab audience, and Palestinian resistance against the Israelis yielded several terrorist attacks, including one in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Furthermore, the PLO’s statement also led to a strong resistance by the movement in West Bank and Gaza. As a result, the Israeli leaders securitized the Palestinian terrorism and resistance as a threat to security. The Prime Minister of Israel in 1972 Golda Meir said the war against Palestinian terrorists was necessary in order to reach terrorists wherever they are in order to achieve peace. The Israeli’s securitization also led to extraordinary fighting measures against the Palestinians.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine persisted through several fruitless peace talks. Throughout 2001 and 2002, there were a series of bomb attacks on Israel and retaliatory attacks on Palestine.[16] The Israeli government reached a point of securitizing the Palestinian’s terrorist attacks as a threat to its security, and decided to build a wall that separated Israel from Palestine. The Palestinian leaders considered this move as a draconian measure that made Gaza and West Bank some forms of prison. On the other hand, Israel argued that it was preventing its land from being attacked from terrorists. These statements reflected securitization of terrorism by Israel and securitization of sovereignty of Israel.

Israeli-Palestine conflict persisted, and still persists until now. The recent developments of the conflict have been securitized by other players such as agencies and the media. For instance, a report by Amnesty International which covers the three year period between 2011 and 2013 was released in February 2014. The report can be termed as a securitization speech act that securitizes the fight of Israeli’s military force at West Bank. The report claimed that the Israeli Army used excessive force and live ammunitions on Palestinians in West Bank.[17] Amnesty International also suggested that Palestinians had not even posed any threat to Israel, and termed the killings by Israel as war crimes.[18]

The PA television of Palestine also securitized Zionism in Israel. The media station used its weekly program to present the comments of the family of a Palestinian who killed an Israeli family popularly known as the Fogel family in 2011. The TV station claimed that the person who killed the boy was a hero and a legend.[19] Palestinian Authority also claims that killing a Jew will speed up the redemption of Palestine. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli’s Prime Minister on his part acted as a securitizing agent and securitized the comments of Palestinian Authority, terming it as incitement.


In conclusion, it is clear that securitization is important in understanding international security. From the case of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is clear that various securitizing actors, including leaders from both sides and the media securitize various threats of security, causing more action from one nation-state on the other. Securitization theory is considered by criticizers as causing the problem of normative dilemma as well as moral and ethical problems. However, the securitizing actors may legitimize their securitization actions in order to create some normative understanding of issues. This has been done by both Israel and Palestine to get their military and their people into fights against each other, making the conflict to persist for a long time until now. Therefore, securitization theory is a relevant theory which demonstrates the understanding international security issues.

End Notes

[1] Smith, S. 2005. The Contested Concept of Security. In Critical Security Studies and World Politics, ed. Ken Booth, 27-62. Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

[2] Vultee, F. 2010. Securitization: A new approach to the framing of the war on terror, Journalism Practice, 4(1): 33-47.

[3] Taureck, R. 2006. Securitisation Theory and Securitisation Studies. Journal of International Relations and Development, (9): 53-61.

[4] Buzan, B., Wæver, O. and Wilde, J. 1998. Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

[5] Buzan et al (1998), p. 32.

[6] Buzan, B., Wæver, O. and Wilde, J. 1998. Security: A New Framework for Analysis, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

[7] Charrett, C. 2009. A Critical Application of Securitization Theory: Overcoming the Normative Dilemma of Writing Security. Barcelona: International Catalan Institute for Peace

[8] Charrett, 2009, p. 16.

[9] Williams, M.C. 2003. Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics. International Studies Quarterly, 47: 511-31.

[10] Charret, 2009, p. 17

[11] Huysmans, Jef. 1998. Revisiting Copenhagen: Or, On the Creative Development of a Security Studies Agenda in Europe. European Journal of International Relations, 4(4): 479-505.

[12] Charret, 2009, p. 19.

[13] Williams, M.C. 2003. Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics. International Studies Quarterly, 47: 511-531.

[14] Dershowitz, A. 2005. The Case for Peace: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Can Be Resolved. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[15] Rubin, B. and Rubin, J.C. 2003. Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography. London: Continuum.

[16] Sher, G. 2006. The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Negotiations, 1999-2001: Within Reach. Taylor & Francis.

[17] Amnesty International 2014. Trigger-Happy Israel’s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank. London: Amnesty International.

[18] Balmer, C. 2014. Amnesty says some Israeli West Bank killings may be war crimes. Jerusalem: Reuters.

[19] The Jerusalem Post 2012. PA TV Glorifies Murderers of Fogel Family. Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Post

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B. Economics & Finance, B/ED, Writer, Educator with experience of 12 years in research and writing.

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