In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Security

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

International Relations Human Security
Benjamin Zyla
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0261


The term “human security” was first employed in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report (HDR) of 1994, which argued for a “people-centric” concept of security and against the dichotomy of “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear.” This new understanding of security replaced the traditional focus of conflict between states, protection of state borders, and military solutions to security problems. It also recognized the interdependence between security and development. The HDR proposed a broad, multidimensional conceptualization of human security comprising economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security, and political security. Since then, human security has become an all-encompassing emancipatory concept of security at the individual (rather than state) level, addressing the many causes of human vulnerability including armed conflict, human rights violations, environmental challenges, and resource deprivation. It thus changed the security discourse and opened the “black box” of states. In 1999, Japan established the UN Trust Fund for Human Security to operationalize the human security concept. Later, Canada joined the initiative and helped to establish the Human Security Network and, in 2000, the independent Commission on Human Security (CHS) to address questions like the root causes of conflicts and the human protection and development of people. The CHS’s mantra was that states must produce sustainable economic growth and target the very poor through providing education, health services, and employment. Unsurprisingly, this broad definition of human security produced a backlash since it challenged the relative importance of “freedom from fear” and “freedom from want.” Some asserted that the human security approach lacked conceptual rigor and was difficult to operationalize. In 2003, the CHS published their report, Human Security Now: Protecting and Empowering People, which reaffirmed the broad definition of human security. In 2004, a Human Security Unit was created in the UN Secretariat of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The same year, the UN Secretary-General convened the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, which highlighted the interconnected and diverse threats to human security and called upon the international community to address them. A significant debate at the academic and policy levels ensued, discussing the viability of the concept as well as its political relevance. However, many UN member states, especially the so-called major powers (e.g., the United States), only played lip service to what was becoming an emerging norm in international security affairs.

General Overviews

Myriad academic definitions on human security exist. This is effectively portrayed in the special issue of Security Dialogue, in which twenty-one academics debate the concept of human security in an attempt to advance what Burgess and Owen 2004 calls the “rich, but scattered literature” on the subject, as well as to overcome the dichotomous broad-versus-narrow conceptualizations. Krause 2008, and MacFarlane and Khong 2006 argue in favor of a narrow understanding of human security that concentrates on violent threats. Their rationale is based on reasons like conceptual clarity, analytic rigor, and pragmatism. Alternatively, others like Alkire 2003 advocate for a broad understanding, underscoring the importance of a wide range of issues that fall under the human security umbrella. Although there appear to be wide-ranging interpretations of human security, the academic debates do not actually revolve around the merits of the various threats to human security. Rather, as Owen 2004 (cited under General Perspectives and “Narrow Perspective) notes, the underlying arguments tend to focus on the selection of the appropriate policy prescriptions to such threats. Homolar 2015 observes that human security has been widely embraced as offering a long-overdue humanist alternative to traditional security, with the potential to empower and protect individuals. Newman 2016 points out that while all human security theorists agree that the beneficiary or the referent object of the human security approach should be the individual, they disagree about which threats the individual should be protected from and which methods should be used to achieve this protection. Wibben 2008 (cited under New versus Old Definitions of Security and Future or End of Human Security?) identifies three trends in critical human security literature: (i) broadening (an increasing range of potential threats); (ii) deepening (moving down to the level of the individual or up to the level of national or global security); and (iii) opening (discussions on the wide-ranging meanings or interpretations of security). It has been argued that these trends have fueled ongoing debates in the scholarly literature on the scope and utility of human security for both academics and policymakers. However, Paris 2001 notes that questions remain about whether the human security concept could serve as a practical guide for academic research and governmental policymakers or whether it is simply an “effective campaign slogan.” Equally important remains the threshold debate—that is the political will and capability set at which states should or must intervene to address human insecurity.

  • Alkire, Sabina. “A Conceptual Framework for Human Security.” Working Papers. Oxford: Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity, University of Oxford, 2003.

    Alkire explores the definition of human security and puts forth a conceptual framework. The author provides the following working definition of human security to demonstrate how the concept can be operationalized by various institutions: “the objective of human security is to safeguard the vital core of all human lives from critical pervasive threats, in a way that is consistent with long-term human fulfillment” (p. 2). Available online.

  • Axworthy, Lloyd. “Canada and Human Security: The Need for Leadership.” International Journal 52.2 (1997): 183–196.

    Axworthy provides an overview of the context in which the human security narrative emerged. He argues that human security is much more than the absence of military threat. Rather, “it recognizes the complexity of the human environment and accepts that the forces influencing human security are interrelated and mutually reinforcing” (p. 184). He notes that Canada has the capacity and the credibility to play a leadership role in advancing human security.

  • Bajpai, Kanti. “The Idea of Human Security.” International Studies 40.3 (2003): 195–228.

    DOI: 10.1177/002088170304000301

    This article explores the concept of human security, seeking to understand whether the concept can be described succinctly enough to guide research and policy. It is argued that human security has the potential to be a “general schema, more or less applicable to any society in the world” (p. 195) and calls for a yearly audit on human security on the basis of the United Nations Development Programme (cited under Broad Perspective and Human Rights).

  • Bellamy, Alex J., and Matt McDonald. “The Utility of Human Security: Which Humans? What Security? A Reply to Thomas and Tow.” Security Dialogue 33.3 (2002): 373–377.

    DOI: 10.1177/0967010602033003010

    This article is a response to Thomas and Tow 2002. The authors argue that the human security agenda is problematic, as it overlooks the role of the state as the primary agent of human security. They contend that human security agenda should (i) have a genuinely humanitarian starting point and focus on humans everywhere and (ii) interrogate the role of the state and thinking about the notion of sovereignty as responsibility. Also see Narrow Perspective.

  • Burgess, Peter J., and Taylor Owen, eds. “Special Section: What Is ‘Human Security’?” Security Dialogue 35.3 (2004): 345–387.

    In this collection, twenty-one prominent authors seek to answer the following question: what is human security? The result is a unique document, which seeks to map out the wide-ranging interpretations of the subject. This work provides an overview of various academic debates on human security, including its definitional ambiguity; critical theoretical issues, and the future of human security, both in the academic community and in practice. Also see Anthologies.

  • Hampson, Fen Osler. “A Concept in Need of a Global Policy Response.” Security Dialogue 35.3 (2004): 349–350.

    DOI: 10.1177/096701060403500309

    This article charges that while the concept of human security has become a global political issue, it has not produced coherent or sustained global responses, particularly with regards to a lack of resources and political will. While the human security concept has clearly changed the referent object from state to individuals, as a consequence, Hampson argues, threats of insecurity should be assessed in terms of how they affect the safety of people, not just of states.

  • Homolar, Alexandra. “Human Security Benchmarks: Governing Human Wellbeing at a Distance.” Review of International Studies 41.5 (2015): 843–863.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210515000352

    Homolar critiques the measurement of human security. She argues that the indices used in United Nations Development Programme (cited under Broad Perspective and Human Rights) reduce the goal of improving human life to a narrow, one-size-fits-all understanding of the meaning of a secure life. This has reinforced the dominant understanding of “what responsible states do, what they look like, and the criteria on which they should be judged,” rather than challenging it (p. 862).

  • Krause, Keith. “Building the Agenda of Human Security: Policy and Practice within the Human Security Network.” International Social Science Journal 59.1 (2008): 65–79.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2451.2008.00635.x

    This article traces the origins of the Human Security Network (HSN). It situates the HSN in the broader emerging discourse and practice of human security and examines the ways in which HSN states have contributed to agenda-setting in contemporary multilateral security initiatives. Krause considers concepts like responsibility to protect and protection of civilians in contemporary conflicts. He considers the future of the HSN and puts forth recommendations for expanding and reorienting its work.

  • MacFarlane, S. Neil, and Yuen Foong Khong. Human Security and the UN: A Critical History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

    The authors trace the history of the human security framework. In particular, they focus on the UN’s role in protecting vulnerable groups and developing states and argue that the UN is the ideal place to protect the human security of individuals.

  • Newman, Edward. “Critical Human Security Studies.” Review of International Studies 36.1 (2010): 77–94.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210509990519

    Newman analyzes the nexus between critical and human security studies. He seeks to determine why critical security studies have “largely shunned human security ideas” (pp. 77–78) and suggests a number of ways in which these studies could engage.

  • Newman, Edward. “Human Security: Reconciling Critical Aspirations with Political ‘Realities.’” British Journal of Criminology 56.6 (2016): 1165–1183.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azw016

    Human security has succeeded in movement toward human-centered policy to combat challenges like poverty and underdevelopment. However, Newman argues that it has failed to address root causes of insecurity by transforming international politics or institutions. He asserts human security “must be used to interrogate and problematize the values and institutions which currently exist . . . and more thoroughly question the interests that are served by these institutions” (p. 1179).

  • Paris, Roland. “Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?” International Security 26.2 (2001): 87–102.

    DOI: 10.1162/016228801753191141

    Paris explores the utility and the limitations of the human security concept for policymakers and academics. First, the concept is all-encompassing and lacks definitional clarity. Second, supporters of the concept want to keep the term broad and vague as “an effective campaign slogan” (p. 88). Efforts to make the definition more precise for research and policymaking will be challenged by actors that believe the concept’s strength lies in its expansiveness.

  • Pettman, Ralph. “Human Security as Global Security: Reconceptualizing Strategic Studies.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 18.1 (2005): 137–150.

    DOI: 10.1080/09557570500059878

    This article argues that global security and human security should be viewed as synonymous. Pettman seeks to outline human security in as inclusive and systematic a way as possible. He argues that the concept is suitable to be the foundation for a comprehensive account of global security.

  • Suhrke, Astri. “Human Security and the Interests of States.” Security Dialogue 30.34 (1999): 65–76.

    Suhrke explores the conceptual development of human security, including neo-Marxist influence. The author understands human security as a concept embedded in the movement to incorporate human rights into politics in the post–Cold War era. Suhrke calls for greater conceptual clarity of human security and cautions against Axworthy’s narrow definition of taking people as the point of reference in international relations.

  • Thomas, Nicholas, and William T. Tow. “The Utility of Human Security: Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention.” Security Dialogue 33.2 (2002): 177–192.

    DOI: 10.1177/0967010602033002006

    This article argues for a narrower definition of human security. It argues that (i) transnational threats to international norms stemming from inadequacies in internal state systems make individuals within states more vulnerable; (ii) states and individuals often cannot address such vulnerabilities on their own; and (iii) states and people require some form of international intervention. Ultimately, traditional interpretations of security cannot satisfy the international community’s current needs.

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