Human security by Roland Paris

Roland Paris – Human security

Source: ‘Human security: paradigm shift or hot air?’ International Security, vol. 26, no. 2, 2001, pp. 87–102.

What is human security?

THE FIRST MAJOR statement concerning human security appeared in the 1994. Human Development Report, an annual publication of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). “The concept of security,” the report argues, “has for too long been interpreted narrowly: as security of territory from external aggres- sion, or as protection of national interests in foreign policy or as global security from the threat of nuclear holocaust. […] Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordi- nary people who sought security in their daily lives.”1 This critique is clear and force- ful, but the report’s subsequent proposal for a new concept of security – human security – lacks precision: “Human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life – whether in homes, in jobs or in communities.2 The scope of this definition is vast: Virtually any kind of unexpected or irregular discomfort could conceivably constitute a threat to one’s human security. Perhaps anticipating this criticism, the authors of the report identify seven specific elements that comprise human security:

(1) economic security (e.g., freedom from poverty); (2) food security (e.g., access to food); (3) health security (e.g., access to health care and protection from diseases);

(4) environmental security (e.g., protection from such dangers as environmental pol- lution and depletion); (5) personal security (e.g., physical safety from such things as torture, war, criminal attacks, domestic violence, drug use, suicide, and even traffic accidents); (6) community security (e.g., survival of traditional cultures and ethnic groups as well as the physical security of these groups); and (7) political security (e.g., enjoyment of civil and political rights, and freedom from political oppression). This list is so broad that it is difficult to determine what, if anything, might be excluded from the definition of human security. Indeed the drafters of the report seem distinctly uninterested in establishing any definitional boundaries. Instead they make a point of commending the “all-encompassing” and “integrative” qualities of the human security concept, which they apparently view as among the concept’s major strengths.3

Today the UNDP’s 1994 definition of human security remains the most widely cited and “most authoritative” formulation of the term,4 although different members of the human security coalition have customized the definition to suit their own par- ticular interests. […] Meanwhile the human security network – which, in addition to Canada, Norway, and Japan, includes several other states and a broad assortment of international NGOs – has committed itself to the goal of “strengthening human secu- rity with a view to creating a more humane world where people can live in security and dignity, free from want and fear, and with equal opportunities to develop their human potential to the full.”5 The sentiments embodied in these statements are hon- orable, but they do little to clarify the meaning or boundaries of the human security concept.

Some academic writings on the subject have been similarly opaque. Many works amount to restatements or revisions of the UNDP’s laundry list of human security issues. Jorge Nef, for example, devises a fivefold classification scheme, arguing that human security comprises (1) environmental, personal, and physical security, (2) economic security, (3) social security, including “freedom from discrimination based on age, gender, ethnicity, or social status,” (4) political security, and (5) cultural secur- ity, or “the set of psychological orientations of society geared to preserving and enhancing the ability to control uncertainty and fear.”6 Laura Reed and MajidTehranian offer their own list of human security’s ten constituent elements – including psycho- logical security, which “hinges on establishing conditions fostering respectful, loving, and humane interpersonal relations,” and communication security, or the importance of “freedom and balance in information flows.”7 Other scholars avoid the laundry list approach, but offer equally expansive definitions. According to Caroline Thomas, human security refers to the provision of “basic material needs” and the realization of “human dignity,” including “emancipation from oppressive power structures – be they global, national, or local in origin and scope.”8 For Robert Bedeski, human security includes “the totality of knowledge, technology, institutions and activities that pro- tect, defend and preserve the biological existence of human life; and the processes which protect and perfect collective peace and prosperity to enhance human freedom.”9 Again, if human security is all these things, what is it not?

A guide for research and policymaking?

Policymakers and scholars face different, but related, problems in attempting to put these definitions of human security into practical use. For policymakers, the challenge is to move beyond all-encompassing exhortations and to focus on specific solutions to specific political issues.This is a difficult task not only because of the broad sweep and definitional elasticity of most formulations of human security but also – and perhaps even more problematically – because the proponents of human security are typically reluctant to prioritize the jumble of goals and principles that make up the concept. As noted above, part of the ethic of the human security movement is to emphasize the “inclusiveness” and “holism” of the term, which in practice seems to mean treating all interests and objectives within the movement as equally valid. Reed and Tehranian, for instance, after presenting their list of ten constituent categories of human security, conclude with this caveat: “It is important to reiterate that these overlapping catego- ries do not represent a hierarchy of security needs from personal to national, interna- tional, and environmental rights. On the contrary, each realm impinges upon the others and is intrinsically connected to wider political and economic considerations.”10 The observation that all human and natural realms are fundamentally interrelated is a truism, and does not provide very convincing justification for treating all needs, values, and policy objectives as equally important. Nor does it help decisionmakers in their daily task of allocating scarce resources among competing goals: After all, not everything can be a matter of national security, with all of the urgency that this term implies. […]

For those who study, rather than practice, international politics, the task of trans- forming the idea of human security into a useful analytical tool for scholarly research is also problematic. Given the hodgepodge of principles and objectives associated with the concept, it is far from clear what academics should even be studying. Human security seems capable of supporting virtually any hypothesis – along with its oppo- site – depending on the prejudices and interests of the particular researcher. Further, because the concept of human security encompasses both physical security and more general notions of social, economic, cultural, and psychological well-being, it is impractical to talk about certain socioeconomic factors “causing” an increase or decline in human security, given that these factors are themselves part of the defini- tion of human security.The study of causal relationships requires a degree of analyti- cal separation that the notion of human security lacks.11 […]

Attempts to narrow the concept

One possible remedy for the expansiveness and vagueness of human security is to redefine the concept in much narrower and more precise terms, so that it might offer a better guide for research and policymaking. […] King and Murray offer a definition of human security that is intended to include only “essential” elements, meaning ele- ments that are “important enough for human beings to fight over or to put their lives or property at great risk.”12 Using this standard, they identify five key indicators of well-being – poverty, health, education, political freedom, and democracy – that they intend to incorporate into an overall measure of human security for individuals and groups. Similarly, another scholar, Kanti Bajpai, proposes construction of a “human security audit” that would include measures of “direct and indirect threats to indi- vidual bodily safety and freedom,” as well as measures of different societies’ “capacity to deal with these threats, namely, the fostering of norms, institutions, and […] representativeness in decisionmaking structures.”13 […]

Both of these projects, however, face problems that seem endemic to the study of human security. First, they identify certain values as more important than others without providing a clear justification for doing so. Bajpai, for instance, proposes inclusion of “bodily safety” and “personal freedom” in his human security audit, and argues that this audit would draw attention to the fact that “threats to safety and freedom are the most important” elements of human security.14 He does not explain, however, why other values are not equally, or perhaps even more, important than the values he champions. What about education? Is the ability to choose one’s marriage partner, which is one of Bajpai’s examples of personal freedom, really more import- ant than, say, a good education? Perhaps it is, but Bajpai does not address this issue. Similarly, King and Murray state that their formulation of human security includes only those matters that people would be willing to fight over. But they neglect to offer evidence that their five indicators are, in fact, closely related to the risk of violent conflict. […] Additionally, their decision to exclude indicators of violence from their composite measure of human security creates a de facto distinction between human security and physical security, thereby purging the most familiar connotation of security – safety from violence – from their definition of human security. […] Thus the challenge for these scholars is not simply to narrow the definition of human security into a more analytically tractable concept, but to provide a compelling ratio- nale for highlighting certain values. […]

[…] Defining the core values of human security may be difficult not only because there is so little agreement on the meaning of human security, but because the term’s ambiguity serves a particular purpose: It unites a diverse and sometimes fractious coalition of states and organizations that “see an opportunity to capture some of the more substantial political interest and superior financial resources” associated with more traditional, military conceptions of security.15 These actors have in effect pur- sued a political strategy of “appropriating” the term “security,” which conveys urgency, demands public attention, and commands governmental resources.16 By maintaining a certain level of ambiguity in the notion of human security, moreover, the members of this coalition are able to minimize their individual differences, thereby accommo- dating as wide a variety of members and interests in their network as possible.17 Given these circumstances, they are unlikely to support outside calls for greater specificity in the definition of human security, because definitional narrowing would likely highlight and aggravate differences among them, perhaps even to the point of alienating certain members and weakening the coalition as a whole. […]

Human security as a category of research

To recapitulate my argument so far: Human security does not appear to offer a par- ticularly useful framework of analysis for scholars or policymakers. But perhaps there are other avenues by which the idea of human security can contribute to the study of international relations and security. I would like to suggest one such possibility: Human security may serve as a label for a broad category of research in the field of security studies that is primarily concerned with nonmilitary threats to the safety of societies, groups, and individuals, in contrast to more traditional approaches to secur- ity studies that focus on protecting states from external threats. Much of this work is relatively new, and our understanding of how such research “fits” within the larger field of security studies is still limited. In other words, even if the concept of human security itself is too vague to generate specific research questions, it could still play a useful taxonomical role in the field by helping to classify different types of scholarship. Using human security in this manner would be compatible with the spirit of the term – particularly its emphasis on nonmilitary sources of conflict – while recognizing that there is little point in struggling to operationalize the quicksilver concept of human security itself. […]

[…] Since the end of the Cold War, in particular, the subject matter of security studies has undergone both a “broadening” and a “deepening.”18 […]

[…] [I]t is [now] possible to construct a matrix of the security studies field, […] [that] contains four cells, each representing a different cluster of literature in the field. […]

  • Cell 1 contains works that concentrate on military threats to the security of Conventional realists tend to adopt this perspective, which has tradition- ally dominated academic security studies, particularly in the United States.19Most of the articles published in International Security, for example, fall into this category.
  • Cell 2 contains works that address nonmilitary threats (instead of, or in addition to, military threats) to the national security of states, including environmental and economic challenges. Jessica Tuchman Mathews’s much-cited 1989 article, “Redefining Security,” is typical of this Mathews argues that foreign security policies should incorporate considerations of environmental destruc- tion, among other things, but she still considers the state, rather than substate actors, to be the salient object of security.20Other examples of such work include the Palme Commission’s 1982 report, Common Security, which argued that nuclear weapons posed a threat to the survival of all states; “investigations into the rela- tionship between environmental degradation and international armed conflict,” and studies of foreign economic policy and international security.21
  • Cell 3 includes works that focus on military threats to actors other than states: namely societies, groups, and The prevalence of intrastate violence since the end of the Cold War has given rise to a large literature on intrastate conflicts, in which substate groups are the principal belligerents.22In addition, studies of “democide,” or the intentional killing by a state of its own citizens, also fall into this category.23
  • Cell 4 is concerned with military or nonmilitary threats – or both – to the security of societies, groups, and Does poverty, for example, fuel violence within societies?24 Are certain types of domestic political institutions more conducive to domestic peace?25Is the degree of urbanization of a society, or access to medical care, associated with the occurrence of civil violence?26 What other societal conditions pose a particular danger to the survival of groups and individuals? All of these questions would fall into the category of research that I label “human security.”

Using the term “human security” to describe this type of scholarship has several advantages. First, […] [it] echo[es] many of the concerns of the human security coali- tion […]. Second, employing human security as a label for a broad category of research eliminates the problem of deriving clear hypotheses from the human security concept itself – a concept that […] offers little analytical leverage because it is so sprawling and ambiguous. Consequently, scholars working in the “human security branch” of security studies would not need to adjudicate the merit or validity of human security per se, but rather they would focus on more specific questions that could be clearly defined (and perhaps even answered).Third, and relatedly, although many scholars in this branch of security studies may be interested in normative questions as well as empirical ones, the advantage of using human security as a descriptive label for a class of research is that the label would not presuppose any particular normative agenda.27

Fourth, mapping the field […] with human security as one branch – helps to dif- ferentiate the principal nontraditional approaches to security studies from one another. With the broadening and deepening of security studies in recent years, it is no longer helpful or reasonable to define the field in dualistic terms: with the realist, state-centric, military-minded approach to security studies at the core and a disor- derly bazaar of alternative approaches in the periphery.These alternative approaches actually fall into broad groupings and have become sufficiently important to merit their own classification scheme. Mapping the field in new ways can help us to under- stand how these approaches relate to more traditional approaches to security studies, and to one another. Finally, the very fashionability of the label “human security” could benefit scholars by drawing attention to existing works within cell 4 and opening up new areas of research in this branch of the field. […]


1 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report, 1994

(NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 22.

2    Ibid., p. 23.

3    Ibid., p. 24.

  • John Cockell, “Conceptualising Peacebuilding: Human Security and Sustainable Peace,” in Michael Pugh, ed., Regeneration of War-Torn Societies (London: Macmillan, 2000), p. 21.
  • “Chairman’s Summary,” Second Ministerial Meeting of the Human Security Network, Lucerne, Switzerland, May 11–12, 2000, foreignp/humansecurity/Chairman-summary-e.asp (accessed on February 14, 2001).
  • Jorge Nef, Human Security and Mutual Vulnerability: The Global Political Economy of Development and Underdevelopment, 2nd ed. (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 1999), 25.
  • Laura Reed and Majid Tehranian, “Evolving Security Regimes,” in Tehranian, Worlds Apart, 39 and 47.
  • Caroline Thomas, “Introduction,” in Caroline Thomas and Peter Wilkin, ,

Globalization, Human Security, and the African Experience (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1999), p. 3.

  • Robert Bedeski, “Human Security, Knowledge, and the Evolution of the Northeast Asian State,” Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria, February 8, 2000, http:// (accessed on February 14, 2001).
  • Reed and Tehranian, “Evolving Security Regimes,” 53.
  • Suhrke makes a similar point in “Human Security and the Interests of ” See Astri Suhrke, “Human Security and the Interests of States,” Security Dialogue, Vol. 30, No. 3 (September 1999), pp. 270–71.
  • Gary King and Christopher Murray, “Rethinking Human Security,” Harvard University, May 4, 2000, (accessed on February 14, 2001), 8.
  • Kanti Bajpai, “Human Security: Concept and Measurement,” Kroc Institute Occasional Paper 19:OP:1 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, August 2000), 19_I.PDF (accessed on February 14, 2001).
  • See “Independent Panel on ‘Human Security’ To Be Set Up,” Agence France-Press, January 24, 2001, 53 (emphasis added).
  • King and Murray, “Rethinking Human Security,” 4. See also Mahbub ul Haq, Reflections on Human Development, exp. ed. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998). On the strategic use of the term “security” as a tool for changing policy or obtaining resources, see Emma Rothschild, “What Is Security?” Dædalus, Vol. 124, No. 3 (Summer 1995), pp. 58–59.
  • On the urgency that is automatically associated with the concept of national secur- ity, see David E. Sanger, “Sometimes National Security Says It All,” NewYork Times, Week in Review, May 7, 2000, 3.
  • The communiqués of the human security network, for example, describe the con- cept of human security more vaguely than do Canadian or Japanese government documents on the Compare “Chairman’s Summary,” Second Ministerial Meeting of the Human Security Network, to the Government of Canada’s “Human Security: Safety for People in a Changing World,” Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, May 1999, and the “Statement by Director-General Yukio Takasu.” Bajpai also discusses some of these differences in “Human Security: Concept and Measurement,” as does Fen Osler Hampson, “The AxworthyYears: An Assessment,” presentation prepared for delivery to the Group of 78, National Press Club, Ottawa, October 31, 2000, Peace/hampsort-axworthyhtrn (accessed on February 14, 2001).
  • I borrow these terms from Richard Wyn Jones, Security, Strategy, and Critical Theory (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1999).
  • See, for example, Stephen M. Walt, “The Renaissance of Security Studies,” International Studies Quarterly, 35, No. 1 (March 1991); Richard K. Betts, “Should Strategic Studies Survive?” World Politics, Vol. 50, No. 1 (October 1997), pp. 7–33; Michael E. Brown, Owen R. Coté, Jr., Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven
  1. Miller, eds., America’s Strategic Choices, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000); David A. Baldwin, “Security Studies and the End of the Cold War,” World Politics,Vol. 48, No. 1 (October 1995), pp. 117–41; and Joseph S. Nye, Jr., and Sean
  2. Lynn-Jones, “International Security Studies: A Report of a Conference on the

State of the Field,” International Security,Vol. 12, No. 4 (Spring 1988), pp. 5–27.

  • Jessica Tuchman Mathews, “Redefining Security,” Foreign Affairs, 68, No. 2 (Spring 1989), pp. 162–77. See also Richard H. Ullman, “Redefining Security,” International Security, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Summer 1983), pp. 129–53; and Joseph J. Romm, Defining National Security: The Nonmilitary Aspects (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1993).
  • See, for example, Jean-Mare Blanchard, Edward D. Mansfield, and Norrin M. Ripsman, eds., Power and the Purse: Economic Statecraft, Interdependence, and National Security (London: Frank Cass, 2000), originally published as a special issue of Security Studies,Vol. 9, Nos. 1–2 (Autumn 1999–Winter 2000), pp. 1–316; C. Fred Bergsten, “America’s Two-Front Economic Conflict,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 2 (March–April 2001), pp. 16–27; Richard N. Haass, ed., Economic Sanctions and American Diplomacy (NewYork: Council on Foreign Relations, 1998); and Jonathan Kirschner, “Political Economic in Security Studies after the Cold War,” Review of International Political Economy,Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 1998), pp. 64–91.
  • See, for example, John Mueller,“The Banality of ‘EthnicWar,’” International Security, 25, No. 1 (Summer 2000), pp. 42–70; Benjamin Valentino, “Final Solutions: The Causes of Mass Killing and Genocide,” Security Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3 (Spring 2000), pp. 1–59; Barbara F. Walter and Jack Snyder, eds., Civil Wars, Insecurity, and Intervention (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Beverly Crawford and Ronnie D. Lipschutz, eds., The Myth of‘Ethnic Conflict’:Politics,Economics,and‘Cultural’ Violence (Berkeley: International and Area Studies, University of California, 1998); Chaim Kaufmann, “Possible and Impossible Solutions to Ethnic Civil Wars,” International Security, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Spring 1996), pp. 136–75; Donald M. Snow, Uncivil Wars: International Security and the New Internal Conflicts (Boulder; Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1996); Michael E. Brown, ed., Ethnic Conflict and International Security (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993); and Roy Licklider, ed., Stopping the Killing: How CivilWars End (New York: New York University Press, 1993).
  • See, for example, J. Rummel, Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Non-Violence (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1997); Gerald W. Scully, “Democide and Genocide as Rent-Seeking Activities,” Public Choice, Vol. 93, Nos. 1–2 (October 1997), pp. 77–97; and Matthew Krain, “State Sponsored Mass Murder: The Onset and Severity of Genocides and Politicizes,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 41, No. 3 (June 1997), pp. 331–60.
  • Steve Maistorovic, “Politicized Ethnicity and Economic Inequality,” Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, 1, No. 1 (Spring 1995), pp. 33–53; Walker Connor, “Eco- or Ethno-Nationalism,” in Connor, Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 145–64;Ted Robert Gurr, “Why Minorities Rebel: A Global Analysis of Communal Mobilization and Conflict since 1945,” International Political Science Review, Vol. 14, No. 2 (April 1993), pp. 161–201; Saul Newman, “Does Modernization Breed Ethnic Conflict?” World Politics, Vol. 43, No. 3 (April 1991), pp. 451–78; James B. Rule, Theories of Civil Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); Steven Finkel and James
  1. Rule, “Relative Deprivation and Related Theories of Civil Violence: A Critical Review,” in Kurt Lang and Gladys Lang, eds., Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1986), Vol. 9, pp. 47–69; Ted Robert Gurr, Why Men Rebel (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970); and William Ford and John Moore, “Additional Evidence on the Social Characteristics of Riot Cities,” Social Science Quarterly,Vol. 51, No. 2 (September 1970), pp. 339–48.
  • Håvard Hegre, Tanja Ellingsen, Nils Petter Gleditsch, and Scott Gales, “Towards a Democratic Civil Peace? Opportunity, Grievance, and Civil War, 1816–1992,” paper presented to the workshop Civil Conflicts, Crime, andViolence in Developing Countries, World Bank, Washington, D.C., February 1999; Matthew Krain and Marissa Edson Myers, “Democracy and Civil War: A Note on the Democratic Peace Proposition,” International Interactions, Vol. 23, No. 1 (June 1997), pp. 109–18; and Michael Engelhardt, “Democracies, Dictatorships, and Counterinsurgency: Does Regime Type Really Matter?” Conflict Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer 1992), pp. 52–63.
  • These two factors, among others, are studied in Daniel Esty, Jack A. Goldstone, Ted Robert Gurr Barbara Harff, Marc Levy, Geoffrey D. Dabelko, Pamela T. Surko, and Alan N. Unger, State Failure Task Force Report: Phase II Findings (McLean, Va.: Science Applications International Corporation, 1998). For a critique of this report, see Gary King and Langche Zeng, “Improving Forecasts of State Failure,” paper prepared for the Midwest Political Science Association meeting in Chicago, Illinois, November 13, 2000, (accessed on  May 5, 2001).
  • Scholars may conclude, for example, that certain socioeconomic conditions are not associated with any particular threats to human
SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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