The War of Ideas Continues

Peace & Security06 Dec 2013David Sogge

Talk of ‘human security’ began to be heard soon after the end of the Cold War, amidst rising violence and social breakdown in Eastern Europe and Africa.  Its emergence coincided with the rise of stabilization as an aim of Western military doctrine, which accepted the need for legitimizing socioeconomic measures in settings affected by conflict. These policy aims for the military converged with a resurgent paradigm in the aid sector focusing on sustainable human development. For aid and military strategists, that opened up the possibility of ‘capturing the potential peace dividend’.

This was promoted by actors associated with UNDP, like Mahbub ul Haq and Inge Kaul. In addition, the influence of Amartya Sen has been evident throughout human security’s intellectual history and its codification in UN publications. Adding to these voices were those of a small number of security strategists, for example from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a prominent British think-tank, and academics like Barry Buzan and Ken Booth, in a sub-discipline that came to be called Critical Security Studies.1 Out of this embryonic policy coalition came the argument that peace could be better promoted by assuring the social and economic security of individuals than by reinforcing the security of states. In these terms, stabilizing troubled settings requires fewer jets, more jabs, fewer guns, more butter.

But as the persistence of small wars and collective violence shows, notions of human security are today still far from triumphant.  Indeed for more than two decades, behind the placid façades of policy-making about security and peacebuilding, a battle of ideas continues. This article presents views on the human security paradigm, its backers and critics.  It notes the paradigm’s advances and its setbacks in the contested terrains of statecraft and development politics.

Rival ideas

After the turn of the century, human security talk became harder to hear. By 2010 it seemed to observers like Mary Martin (LSE) and Taylor Owen (Oxford), that official pioneers of the concept, notably Canada and the UN, had lost their earlier enthusiasm.2  New policy coalitions had meanwhile begun rallying to rival ideas. One forceful competitor was the ‘Responsibility to Protect’. This echoed earlier assertions, heard loudly in both Washington and Paris in the 1990s, about the ‘right to intervene’.3

Yet as these humanitarian norms competed for attention, a realpolitik coalition continued to dominate.  Under the unrivalled American hegemony that has been in place since the Second World War, this coalition’s motto has been, above all else, security.  Its chief instances have been ‘national security’ and ‘collective security’, the latter being an all-for-one, one-for-all norm realized effectively only by NATO. In the post-Cold War period, with the concurrence of Western national security councils, security strategists began promoting notions of state failure and ‘fragility’. That perspective enabled both American and European security strategies to locate security threats in certain countries, thereby qualifying them for intervention or at least containment.4 As fears about ‘failed states’ grew, bio-politics including humanitarian aid were further harnessed to the War on Terror and to military interventions in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere instead of human security approaches in action.


Eclipsed for some years, human security today appears alive and well, reanimated at conferences and in UN statements, books, training programmes, policy studies and project funding. Many NGOs now use the term, as it embraces aims – from Millennium goals to peace-building to counter-terrorism –  that most share. If the exact term ‘human security’ is no longer dominant, then kindred expressions such as ‘protection of civilians’, a term used for the intervention in Mali for example, or ‘equitable access to power, security and safety’ are appearing in its place. These crop up, for example, in policy statements by the European Union.

In September 2012 a UN General Assembly resolution reaffirmed member state commitment to human security as a framework. It agrees a ’common understanding’ of human security to help states address “challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people”. Amidst repeated references to human rights, the resolution holds that all individuals are entitled to “freedom from fear and freedom from want”, echoing Amartya Sen. It calls for “people-centred, comprehensive, context-specific and prevention-oriented responses that strengthen the protection and empowerment of all people and all communities”.

Norms and wishes

The resolution ended discord about what human security should be. In United Nations debates, some members of the G77 group of 130 non-Western states had objected that it implied threats to their sovereignty.  Those misgivings had to be ironed out by making clear what human security should not be. Hence the UN resolution stipulates that it is distinct from the Responsibility to Protect, the UN norm codified in 2005 in terms making sovereignty a conditional, not an absolute, privilege of states. The resolution of 2012 further holds that human security “does not entail the threat or the use of force or coercive measures” and that it must be based on national ownership and the retention by governments of primary responsibilities for security of all kinds.

But with all real or implied threats removed, the UN resolution exposes human security to the charge that it never had any teeth to begin with. In 2001, security scholar Roland Paris called the talk about human security “hot air”.5 Human security talk has led to alliances altering international politics, but the concept does not offer a useful framework for analysis.

Forward march

Such criticisms have not discouraged the idea’s backers who met with a receptive response in Western corridors of power. Diplomats and development policymakers often incorporate human security terms in their public statements. Western military strategists have aligned their war doctrines with its norms, as seen for example in the US Army’s field new ‘bible’ on counterinsurgency, Manual 3-24. This bolting-on of human security precepts to military marching orders strikes Professor Andrew Bacevich, a former army colonel and critic of interventions, as “social work with guns”. The routine failure of these approaches, such as in Afghanistan, reinforces his scepticism.

Citing Sudan as a case in point, Frans Bieckmann has argued that it is the absence, rather than the presence, of human security norms that account for these failures. A long cascade of commitments to and endorsements of human security has obscured the fact that its underlying principles, such as social protection, have never been seriously deployed. Nevertheless, many see the human security paradigm as a policy that is crystallizing and gaining influence.

In September 2004, the European Council’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, received a report he had requested from the specially-created Study Group on Europe’s Security Capabilities, chaired by LSE Professor Mary Kaldor. The document, often referred to as the Barcelona Report on European Security Capabilities, sets forth seven principles of the human security approach. It further proposes setting up a Human Security Response Force with a personnel of 15,000 (a third of them civilians), and a new legal framework to govern interventions and operations by European forces.

Yet despite patronage by heavyweight actors in the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament, few of these proposals have moved toward concrete implementation. In 2010,  another report commissioned by Javier Solana and prepared by a study group chaired by Mary Kaldor was published. The report, Helsinki Plus: Towards a Human Security Architecture for Europe, envisioned policy going beyond ‘soft’ interpretations of human security, which treat economic and social development as matters of security.  Rather, the study group proposed a harder interpretation addressing the dangers people face from political and criminal violence.

Meanwhile, far from European seminar rooms and corridors of power, policymaking initiatives have involved the leaderships of states affected by violence.  A recent example is the G7+, a group of 18 states (Haiti, Timor-Leste, Liberia, Burundi, etc) established in 2010 “to promote peacebuilding and statebuilding as the foundations for transition out of the margins of conflict to the next stage of sustainable development.”  The group envisions “better lives for our people, based on human security.”

In his 2013 survey of the concept’s ‘reactivation’, Polish scholar Rafał Tarnogórski foresees it attaining quasi-legal standing: “violations of human security could be equal to violations of human rights.”6 Recent research suggests that states signing up to UN covenants on social and economic rights often adopt new policy discourses, echoing the covenants in aspirational terms.7 More concretely, in some signatory countries, respect for labour rights have improved de facto, possibly thanks to acceptance of these international norms. However, de jure improvements are infrequent; few signatory governments have made social and economic rights legally enforceable.

Some proponents of human security claim that the policy coalition has already helped usher in big gains in global governance. The Human Security Network, a diplomacy-level lobbying initiative set up in 1998, recently held a conference in Bergen, Norway, to mark the its 15th anniversary and to assess its impact.8 Those attending were told of ‘measureable progress’ in human security and reminded of the Network’s ’greatest hits’:

  • the Ottawa Treaty (1997) banning anti-personnel mines;
  • the Rome Statute (1998) creating the International Criminal Court;
  • Security Council resolutions (2009) on Children and Armed Conflict and on Women, Peace and Security; and
  • the UN General Assembly’s endorsement (2005) of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), that codifies UN aims to stop genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.

However, some treaties (Ottawa and Rome) were signed before the Human Security Network had begun lobbying. Governments that later became network members had helped drive these processes; indeed three of them in particular – Canada, Norway and Japan– had led and bankrolled efforts to promote the idea from the outset.

Effects and outcomes

In the 2006 review of human security  included in UNDP country Human Development Reports, Richard Jolly and Deepayan Basu Ray found one report (on Latvia 2003) that strongly highlighted the human security concept.9 The report gave special attention to Latvian concerns about aspects of human security including income insecurity and lack of access to health care. According to Jolly and Ray, senior Latvian officials had paid careful attention to the UN report but that attention failed to germinate. Macroeconomic policies applied during the crisis that hit Latvia in 2008-9 were clearly not guided by norms of human security. In Latvia, social and economic insecurity multiplied as unemployment and emigration exploded and public services suffered cutbacks.

Besides influencing UN reports the UN Trust Fund for Human Security (UNTFHS) has also had an impact through concrete activities . From its establishment in 1999 up to 2012, this Japanese-backed fund provided nearly $370 million across 202 projects of various UN agencies operating in a wide variety of poverty-, climate-, conflict-, refugee- and illness-affected settings. In early 2013, a consulting firm commissioned by the UNTFHS Advisory Board carried out a Rapid Assessment of the Trust Fund’s activities. Based largely on questionnaire responses from 44 country-level United Nations staff spread across seven countries, the report concludes categorically: “Human Security works”. Yet it also shows divergent opinions among UN informants about the relevance and value added of human security when applied in practice. The report’s case studies highlight positive remarks, for example on the mobilization of additional partners or the widening of inter-agency consultation. But the UN’s application of the multi-sectoral, coordination-intensive approach seems to offer no remedies for old afflictions in planning and managing aid projects. Indeed the report records UN staff concerns about procedural complexities and processes “seen as very time consuming”.  It signals “short-term benefits but long-term sustainability challenges”, given persistent doubts about what may happen after projects end. While the vocabulary of human security has evidently advanced in UN field offices, the report expresses concerns about staff unwillingness “to set aside their traditional individual agency-based approaches to planning and delivery.”

Strategic impact

In a recent review of the literature, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr and Carol Messineo refer to the potentials of human security as an evaluative framework, approaching the concept as a purely normative concept.10  There has been little research published that looks at strategic impact. For this article, only the following two studies could be found.

In research on how human security works in practice,11 political scientists Robert Muggah and Keith Krause examined the case of Haiti, where a UN mission was sent in the period 1993-1996 with the security aims to stabilize the situation by force of arms, law and order. Ten years later the UN mission in Haiti operated under a wider mandate that included protecting civilians and other human security norms.  After comparing these two episodes in terms of physical, judicial, social and economic security in Haiti, the authors conclude that in the second period, human security norms had influenced UN talk but had not substantively affected its strategies and outcomes.

A second, more recent study  by a research team from the Balkans examines how human security notions are applied in Kosovo, another conflict-affected land under international trusteeship.12 The study underscores the deficits of real security for most citizens, who have been coping under international mandates and management in the name of security and development for more than a decade. It suggests ways to understand how Kosovo’s citizens themselves define security. They would prefer decent public systems, but as these are not forthcoming under international doctrines and control, they have to rely on their own vernacular strategies of community self-protection, informal economic circuits and self-organisation. The researchers call for greater attention to the views of local people and the self-protecting actions they must adopt in the absence of internationally guaranteed human security.

Criticisms of human security

Many of the discrepancies of the kind just noted – the inflated scope of the concept, the difficulty of translating vague norms into practical measures that do not duplicate ongoing efforts, the stifled voices of those actually facing insecurity –  have been targets of criticism.

Critics attack the human security paradigm from different angles. Some argue that it ultimately reinforces the status quo. In this view, it helps to stabilize and entrench existing power inequities, to ‘securitize’ programme rationales and thereby to undermine the agency of citizens. Rather than opening ways to escape from insecurities, the concept has been hijacked merely to keep the lid on them.

The Canadian scholar Nancy Thede, for example, concludes that “human security is increasingly redefined in practice as part of a broader hard security agenda”, especially in US and Canadian approaches to Latin American countries, such as Haiti, where transitions to democracy  have stalled. British scholar Tara MacCormack locates the core problem in distorted politics: “Whilst the human security framework problematizes the relationship between the state and its citizens, the framework replaces this relationship with relationships with other states or international agencies that lack accountability, effectively further disempowering citizens in weak or unstable states.”13

A leading critic, Professor David Chandler, puts forward slightly different arguments.  Where some critics see Western powers as pursuing clear aims and well-calculated strategies toward non-Western settings,  Chandler sees evasions of responsibility and failures of vision.  During the Cold War, Western aims were cogent, and were pursued with vigour. But in the promotion of the current security-development nexus, Chandler does not detect incisive statecraft toward troubled regions, but  “anti-foreign policy”.14  Ethical foreign policies are de-linked from actual measures, which may be little more than ad-hoc reactions and exercises in damage limitation.  An emerging paradigm of resilience, signalled by Chandler and others, reflects this.

Resilience: new talk on the block

Long in use in ecology and engineering studies, the term ‘resilience’ has begun to inform debates on fragility and what to do after conflicts and armed interventions end. The resilience paradigm follows a number of precepts. Among the most salient are the following:

  • Resilience applies mainly to preventing rather than responding to conflict.
  • It locates problems in the incapacities of individuals or groups. These are no longer framed as helpless victims, but as actors with agency. They just need capacity-building if they are to gain resilience and, through self-help, to overcome insecurity.
  • It validates outside intervention, but not the kind that overtly and crudely violates sovereignty. Accordingly, those suffering the misfortune of living in poor and insecure places are left to take ultimate responsibility for their fates.
  • Accompanying the resilience paradigm is a lot of talk about participation, personal empowerment, rights, even social safety nets.  However, there is nothing in the paradigm to guarantee them. It does not emphasize political processes of collective mobilization and capture of state power from below.

‘Resilience’ is still evolving as an interlocking set of discourses; its meaning is still unfixed and contested. It mirrors an emerging trend observed in the domestic policy of Western countries. Here, public service and welfare responsibilities, costs and risks are being pushed down from national level to municipalities, neighbourhoods and charities in the name of ‘participation’ and ‘empowerment’, while power is being re-concentrated at national and supra-national levels. Such transformations are part of the ‘Big Society’ model promoted by the current British government. Also in the Netherlands, the government has recently adopted a ‘resilience’ approach, which it terms the ‘Participation Society’.

Pseudo-solutions or a social contract?

In conclusion, talk of ‘human security’ and auxiliary new terms such as ‘resilience’ have begun to interlock, as illustrated in a recent paper entitled ‘Resilience: A powerful new antidote to security threats’. The idea has begun to influence policy talk, including military doctrine.15 But do the interveners, armed or otherwise, actually ‘walk the talk’, converting their human-centred norms into practices? And if so, can positive outcomes be detected? Definitive answers to these questions are not yet at hand, as systematic evidence is astonishingly scarce.  But from what is currently known, the answers are not affirmative.

There is no disagreement that universal norms claimed for the human security paradigm – ‘the protection and empowerment of all people and all communities’ – are worthwhile. But if they are to gain traction and move forward, those norms require open political steering through public choice and a recommitment to a social contract.


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    2. Martin, M. & Owen, T. (2010), The second generation of human security: lessons from the UN and EU experience, International Affairs, 86, 1, 211-224.
    3. Kouchner, B. (2011),  The Right to Intervention: Codified in Kosovo, New Perspectives Quarterly, 16, (4), 4-7.
    4. Toje, A. (2005), The 2003 European Union Security Strategy: A Critical Appraisal, European Foreign Affairs Review, 10, 133, 2005
    5. Paris, R. (2001), Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air. International Security, 26, 2, 87-102.
    6. Tarnogórski, R. (2013), Human Security: Reactivation of an Idea?, Strategic File, 2, (29) (Polish Insitute of International Affairs), 1-4.
    7. Cole, W. (2013), Strong Walk and Cheap Talk: The Effect of the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights on Policies and Practices, Social Forces, 92 (1), 165-194.
    8. The Human Security Network consists of the foreign ministers of Austria, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Greece, Ireland, Jordan, Mali, Norway, Panama, Slovenia, Switzerland and Thailand, with South Africa as an observer.
    9. Jolly, R. & Basu Ray, D. (2006), National Human Development Reports and the Human Security Framework, A review of Analysis and Experience, Institute of Development Studies.
    10. Fukuda-Parr, S. & Messineo, C. (2012), Human Security: A critical review of the literature, CRPD Working Paper No. 11
    11. Muggah, Robert and Keith Krause (2007) ‘A true measure of success? The discourse and practice of human security in Haiti’ in SJ  MacLean, D R Black and T M Shaw (eds) A decade of human security, global governance and new multilateralisms (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate), 113–126.
    12. Martin, M. & Bojicic-Dzelilovic , V. (2013) The missing link in human security research: Dialogue and insecurity in Kosovo, Security Dialogue, Vol. 43, No. 6, 569-585.
    13. McCormack, T. (2008), Power and agency in the human security framework, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 21, (1), , 113-128.
    14. Chandler, D. (2007), The security–development nexus and the rise of ‘anti-foreign policy’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 10, 362-386.
    15. This linkage is close to the core of an emerging Western paradigm:  “it is the discursive framing of the ‘broader’ human security discourse, with its emphasis upon prevention, resilience and empowerment, that facilitates dominant discourses of international regulation and intervention today, up to and including coercive military actions…”  David Chandler, (2012) ‘Resilience and Human Security: The Post-interventionist Paradigm’ Security Dialogue 43, no. 3, p. 223.