A Short Introduction to Human Security

by Nathan Olsen

Academic literature on universal human rights has existed since the Enlightenment and the works of Kant. In stark contrast, scholarship concerning ‘security studies’ has only existed since the start of the Cold War. However, the relatively recent combination of these two projects to form the concept of “human security” has bridged the gap between two seemingly different areas of interest, which each carry their own unique histories and traditions. What follows is a short piece on what ‘human security’ is and how the academic concept of human security is relevant to the real world.

Human security is the idea that we should focus on the safety and wellbeing of individuals rather than simply view people as part of a homogenous mass to be protected by the state. The idea of human security allows us to conceptualise, and devote resources to tackle threats such as health scares and the effects of climate change, instead of viewing the only type of security threat as acts of violence against the state.

It has been argued that human security has too loose a definition of security and that, in effect, it allows anything remotely dangerous to an individual’s wellbeing to be considered as a realistic threat. However, human security consists of more than broadening what we view as a security threat. In moving away from a state-centric view of safety and wellbeing, human security promotes an agenda which focuses on citizens rather than states. This is necessary in failed states where governments either lack the capability or will to protect their citizens, and more broadly, in a world where many problems are spread via the process of globalization. Human security does not see threats simply stopping at the border. Rather, it recognises that both traditional threats, like terrorism, or unorthodox threats such as contagious diseases, do not recognise borders.

The breakthrough moment for human security in the policy world was the publication of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report in 1994. This report outlined seven types of non-military security threats it viewed as necessary for global security: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security and political security. Subsequent to this report, the achievement of something resembling human security has been a consistent aim of international institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations. The most recent significant policy development in the area of human security has been the development of a UN Human Security Index in 2008 and the subsequent revisions made to this document in 2010.

Valid criticisms of the concept of human security, such as the idea that now anything can be defined as a threat and that the UN lacks the ability to achieve and protect the high standards of human security, do not serve to undermine human security. Instead, such criticisms force advocates of human security to focus on urgent threats, no matter what type of security threat that happens to be. Human security seems difficult and, sometimes impossible to implement. However, the international community is right to set high standards, as attempts to achieve such standards will at the very least bring about a higher quality of life for some individuals.