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There’s this idea, captured in terror management theory, that the unique awareness of our own mortality is the ‘worm at the core’ of the human condition. It’s an awareness that drives almost everything we do as a species, whether we realise it or not (and generally we don’t, so goes the theory). The concept of human security also has a worm at its core. And not unlike the one put forward by the terror management theorists, it says something quite important about the human security concept that’s rarely given much, if any, airtime. It’s important because it suggests that the human security concept is, deep down, more concerned with the age-old problem of preventing conflict and war than people might otherwise think.
Take a look at writings on human security and you’ll typically find descriptions (including in my own articles on Wavell Room) to the effect of: human security is about moving beyond traditional state-centric views of international security, and instead looking at the wide range of threats to the security, safety, and wellbeing of individuals and communities. This means it’s not just about adding more things to the box labelled ‘threats to international peace and security’. No, it’s about bringing the security of individual human beings under the spotlight, rather than just the security of states. Underlying this idea was a realisation that security for the latter (typically the purview of national security) doesn’t really guarantee security for the former.
This is all good and well. Except it doesn’t quite gel with what appears at the core of the human security concept.
To state the obvious: new concepts don’t come out of nowhere. They’re a response to something. One way to get at the core of an idea or concept is to ask: Why did it come about in the first place, and what was its purpose? As a new conceptual tool or framework, what was the problem that the human security concept was trying to solve? Here we can look to the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) 1994 Human Development Report as the first de facto articulation of the concept at the international level.1
Although this document has been picked apart for the past three decades, there are some key parts that haven’t been looked at very closely. Given that a foreword sets a document’s tone and vision, it’s a good place to start hunting for the core purpose of the human security concept. Here’s what the report’s foreword says:
“Behind the blaring headlines of the world’s many conflicts and emergencies, there lies a silent crisis – a crisis of underdevelopment, of global poverty, of ever-mounting population pressures, of thoughtless degradation of environment. This is not a crisis that will respond to emergency relief. Or to fitful policy interventions. It requires a long, quiet process of sustainable human development… [This report] explores the new frontiers of human security in the daily lives of the people. It attempts to discover early warning signals that can spur preventive diplomacy and preventive development in order to save a society from reaching a crisis point… [This is] a time to reiterate very clearly that without the promotion of people-centred development none of our key objectives can be met – not peace, not human rights, not environmental protection, not reduced population growth, not social integration. It will be a time for all nations to recognize that it is far cheaper and far more humane to act early and to act upstream than to pick up the pieces downstream, to address the root causes of human insecurity rather than its tragic consequences.”
The foreword gives some insight into the problems the new human security concept was trying to solve. From the outset, it frames human insecurities as crucial to address because they underpin “the world’s many conflicts and emergencies”. It says the report “attempts to discover early warning signals that can spur preventative diplomacy and preventative development in order to save a society from reaching a crisis point”. Among the UNDP’s key objectives, the objective of “peace” – which, in general parlance, means the absence of war – is listed first. In short, it seems the core purpose was tackling the enduring problem of how to prevent the onset of conflict.
What seemed to be new, however, was the desire to do this in a more sophisticated way. A way that would reflect the dynamic complexities of the modern world. And so support from sceptical corners of the room was sought by promising that the concept offers a “far cheaper and far more humane” approach to tackling this problem by acting “early” and “upstream” of conflicts and crises. In other words, getting ahead of the conflict curve seems to be something that’s both morally and economically right. Now it makes sense why the desire to “address the root causes of human insecurity” is positioned as compelling not primarily because it’s a good thing to do (which it is), but because ignoring these root causes will invite “tragic consequences”. Which, of course, means conflict and crisis.
That’s a theme that continues elsewhere in the report. Chapter 2, titled ‘New Dimensions of Security’, contains the bulk of the principles and pillars (the ‘dimensions’) that served to flesh out the human security concept. But when we peel back the layers and get to the core of it, this chapter appears to emphasise the same focus on tackling the conflict problem as was outlined in the foreword. Chapter 2 talks about the idea that during the Cold War, human insecurities were relegated amidst the struggle of great power politics, which had been characterised by states’ concerns with national security and averting the threat of nuclear war. Therefore:
“Forgotten were the legitimate concerns of ordinary people who sought security in their daily lives. For many of them, security symbolized protection from the threat of disease, hunger, unemployment, crime, social conflict, political repression and environmental hazards… For most people, a feeling of insecurity arises more from worries about daily life than from the dread of a cataclysmic world event. Will they and their families have enough to eat? Will they lose their jobs? Will their streets and neighbourhoods be safe from crime? Will they be tortured by a repressive state? Will they become a victim of violence because of their gender? Will their religion or ethnic origin target them for persecution? In the final analysis, human security is a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut, an ethnic tension that did not explode in violence, a dissident who was not silenced.”
Given the preceding focus on tackling the conflict problem by getting upstream of it, the reader may be left with the impression that these insecurities – disease, hunger, unemployment, and so on – are not just intrinsically more important in the post-Cold War world due to their greater scale or severity. Additionally, they are more salient as drivers of conflict and violence. And so the core focus on preventing conflict gets centre stage again:
“When people perceive threats to their immediate security, they often become less tolerant, as the anti-foreigner feelings and violence in Europe show, or, where people see the basis of their livelihood erode – such as their access to water – political conflict can ensue, as in parts of Central Asia and the Arab States. Oppression and perceptions of injustice can also lead to violent protest against authoritarianism, as in Myanmar and Zaire, where people despair of gradual change.”
A passage like this suggests that the underlying purpose isn’t primarily to address people’s perceptions of insecurity or danger in order to improve, say, human wellbeing writ large. Instead, the core purpose is in alleviating those human security threats because of the negative downstream consequences of not doing so. The core concern, which is explicit in the paragraph above, is that people’s perceptions and feelings of insecurity might, if left unchecked, drive violent behaviours and ultimately conflict. Indeed, the chapter gives prominence to a quote from the US Secretary of State in 1945 which makes the same fundamental point:
“The battle of peace has to be fought on two fronts. The first is the security front where victory spells freedom from fear. The second is the economic and social front where victory means freedom from want. Only victory on both fronts can assure the world of an enduring peace… No provisions that can be written into the Charter will enable the Security Council to make the world secure from war if men and women have no security in their homes and their jobs.”
Making progress towards securing ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’ – which typically remain the core pillars of the human security concept to this day – come across here as two key vectors for achieving the goal of preventing conflict. Or, in the US Secretary of State’s words, achieving “an enduring peace” and making “the world secure from war”.
More examples of this underlying purpose could be found. But what should be made of all this? For one thing, it’s notable that while people make reference to the UNDP’s 1994 report as showing how human security reflects something like a paradigm shift in the study of security (I’ve also thought about this), rarely are the conceptual layers peeled back to look at what the report suggests is at the core of the concept. (If someone has already done this and I’ve missed it, please let me know.) It’s hard to say why. But it’s also hard to ignore that there’s clearly a foundational emphasis on the goal of better preventing conflict and war.
Additionally, I think this might point to one of the enduring tensions in conversations around human security. At risk of generalising too much, there appears to be this one camp that believes the human security concept is an overly idealistic, even naive, view of the nature of security, conflict, and violence on the world stage. (They might point to the Russia-Ukraine war as an example of how the ‘old’ kind of conflict hasn’t had its sunset just yet). Then there’s this other camp who believe it represents a commendable and human-centred breath of fresh air in breaking the stranglehold of the established, state-centric views of security. When we dig through the layers of the human security onion and get to what’s at the core, it seems that neither of those camps is completely right. Nor completely wrong, for that matter.
All that said, it’s worth noting that the core of a concept does have a certain ‘gravity’ which the layers surrounding it don’t. In this sense, it’s hard to see how the concept of human security, as captured in the 1994 report, could constitute a real game-changer, a genuine ‘paradigm shift’ in contemporary security thinking. At its core, it more closely resembled an upgrade to the prevailing operating system of how we might prevent and mitigate conflict, violence, and warfare in an increasingly dynamic, complex, and chaotic world.
Toby Fenton explores security and defence challenges through the application of research, innovation, and technology development. He currently works as a Product Growth Manager at Trilateral Research, where he focuses on ethical AI tools to help tackle complex societal problems. He holds an MA in International Peace & Security from King's College London.