Human Security Backgrounder

What is 'human security'?

Human security is the combination of threats associated with war, genocide, and the displacement of populations. At a minimum, human security means freedom from violence and from the fear of violence.

How does human security differ from national security?

Unlike traditional concepts of security, which focus on defending borders from external military threats, human security is concerned with the security of individuals.

Human security and national security should be—and often are—mutually reinforcing. But secure states do not automatically mean secure peoples. Indeed, far more people have been killed by their own governments than by foreign armies during the last 100 years.

When did the concept of human security come to prominence?

The United Nations Development Programme first drew global attention to the concept in its 1994 Human Development Report (HDR).The report’s broad definition of human security encompasses everything that constitutes freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Which threats are considered human security issues?

All proponents of human security agree that the individual should be the focus of security. However, consensus breaks down over exactly which threats to the individual should be addressed as human security issues.

Supporters of the narrow definition of human security argue for a focus on violent threats to individuals and communities.

Supporters of the broad definition outlined in the 1994 HDR argue that hunger, disease, pollution, affronts to human dignity, threats to livelihoods, and other harms in addition to violence should all be considered human security issues.

The two approaches are people-centred and are complementary rather than contradictory.

Which definition of human security does the Human Security Report Project (HSRP) work with?

We work with the narrow definition, which takes violence to be the main indicator of human insecurity.

Our reasons for adopting the narrow definition of human security are largely pragmatic. As there are already several reports examining trends in global poverty, disease, and other indicators of human insecurity covered by the broad definition, there would be little point in duplicating their analyses. Moreover, it is necessary to isolate the trends in organized violence from the trends in poverty, for example, in order to analyze the relationship between the two threats.

What are the policy implications of human security?

Focusing on the individual has important implications for policy. Traditional security policy emphasizes military means for reducing the risks of war and for prevailing if deterrence fails. Human security’s proponents, while not eschewing the use of force, have focused on non-coercive approaches. These range from preventive diplomacy and conflict management, to addressing the root causes of conflict by building state capacity and promoting equitable economic development. 

Additional Readings

  1. Schnabel, Albrecht. “The Human Security Approach to Direct and Structural Violence .” in SIPRI Yearbook 2008, Appendix2C, 87-95. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  2. UNESCO. Human Security: Approaches and Challenges . Paris:  UNESCO Social and Human Sciences Sector, 2008. 
  3. Krause, Keith. Towards a Practical Human Security Agenda . Policy Paper 26. Geneva:  Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), 2007.
  4. Burgess, J. Peter and Taylor Owen. “Editors’ Note, Special Section: What is Human Security?” Security Dialogue 35, no. 3 (2004): 345-346.
  5. Krause, Keith. “Is Human Security More than Just a Good Idea?” in Brief 30: Promoting Security, But How and For Whom? Contributions to BICC’s Ten-year Anniversary Conference, 43-46. Bonn: Bonn International Center for Conversion, 2004.
  6. Mack, Andrew. “The Concept of Human Security.” in Brief 30: Promoting Security, But How and For Whom? Contributions to BICC’s Ten-year Anniversary Conference, 47-50. Bonn: Bonn International Center for Conversion, 2004.
  7. Alkire, Sabina. A Conceptual Framework for Human Security. Working Paper 2. Oxford: Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity (CRISE), 2003.
  8. Commission on Human Security. Human Security Now . New York: Commission on Human Security, 2003.
  9. MacRae, Rob and Don Hubert, eds. Human Security and The New Diplomacy: Protecting People, Promoting Peace. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2001.
  10. Suhrke, Astri. “Human Security and the Interests of States” Security Dialogue 30, no. 3 (1999): 265-276.
  11. United Nations Development Programme. The Human Development Report 1994: New Dimensions of Human Security. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.