Developed during the 1990s, the concept of human security offers a comprehensive approach to the subject. Despite criticisms made of both its doctrinal basis and its practical application, human security enables us to shed light on the numerous multisectoral threats that imperil the lives and wellbeing of individuals.

Developed during the 1990s, the concept of offers a comprehensive approach to the subject. Despite criticisms made of both its doctrinal basis and its practical application, human security enables us to shed light on the numerous multisectoral threats that imperil the lives and wellbeing of individuals.

The individual under threat

Mentioned for the first time in the 1992 Agenda for presented by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, human security fits within a post-Cold War trend of expanding and deepening the security concept. The new concept deterritorializes security, moving beyond a state-based and military framework. The UNDP’s 1994 Human Development Report gave a definition that has since been widely adopted: “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 .” The report gives human security’s four essential characteristics: it is “a universal concern”; its components are interdependent; it is “easier to ensure through early prevention than later intervention”; and it is “people-centered” – focused on the .

This report also identified seven sub-categories of security: economic security, food security, health security, security, personal security, community security and political security. The concept rapidly gained prominence on the international scene as various initiatives came into being: the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security, financing programs in food security, health and education; the Human Security Network, created by Canada and Norway in 1999; and then, on Japan’s instigation, the UN Commission on Human Security, co-chaired by Sadako Ogata and Amartya Sen, established in 2001. In its first report, Human Security Now, published in 2003, the commission defined six key concerns: people caught up in violent conflict, people on the move, recovering from violent conflict, economic security, health and education.

Countries requiring external aid to cover their food needs, March 2018

Source: FAO, Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture (GIEWS),

Comment: The FAO’s global information and early warning system permanently monitors world food safety. The map shows that in Africa, in the spring of 2018, food insecurity affected 44.5 million people. Widespread lack of access to food is seen in large countries in terms of population and/or land area, where there is recurring violence and many displaced persons: Nigeria, Niger, Chad, South Sudan, DRC, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Yemen, with 17 million individuals, and North Korea. The highest risk of famine occurs in certain areas of less populated countries.

Issues around definition and application

Despite this success, human security remains a contested concept. It is understood in different ways: on the one hand, supporters of a more limited definition focus on the goal of “freedom from fear”; on the other, advocates of a broader vision aspire to achieve “freedom from want,” too – both aims having been specified in the UNDP report. Those in the former camp fear that an overly broad, non-operational concept lacks applicability and even risks becoming counter-productive, by diluting attention. The latter – a coalition of middle development agencies and NGOs, according to Roland Paris – use the concept to promote various political agendas combining and policies, with outcomes such as the signature of the Ottawa Treaty (Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention) in 1997 and the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998. The concept’s relationship to the state is controversial, too: while a comprehensive definition spotlights and state violence, the limited concept is founded on strengthening state apparatus via reference to standards and via . When human security lends a character of urgency to development policies, intervention becomes a tool for implementing these policies. This was the context that facilitated the emergence of the concept, or R2P. Yet critical works like those of Mark Duffield have highlighted the strategic usefulness of human security to legitimize and perpetuate particular modes of and intervention in the global , where under-development is constructed as a threat to international stability and the security of the . A similar criticism is directed at the concept of , used in particular of adaptation to and – and tending to devolve responsibility for this adaptation onto vulnerable populations.

Population potentially exposed to natural disasters, 2015

Source: European commission, Joint Research Centre, Atlas of the Human Planet 2017: Global Exposure to Natural Hazards,

Comment: This graph was constructed from several sources: one size shows the size of populations exposed to the risk of natural disasters (6 billion, irrespective of type, in 2015) and the other, its increase over a 40-year period. The distribution by country shows how, for some, a significant proportion of the population faces multiple risks (Philippines, Japan, Mexico: cyclones, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions).

Multisectoral insecurities

For all these criticisms, human security casts light on the multisectoral insecurities that threaten individuals in their day-to-day lives. It also echoes the goal of emancipation developed by critical security studies. In its broader definition it highlights not only the daily insecurities marginalized by traditional security studies but also their interdependencies within a global and structural perspective: threats to in its various dimensions – access, availability, quality, and stability; vulnerability to natural disasters; unequal access to medical care; personal security issues experienced by individuals in relation to their , sexual orientation and/or or ethnic affiliation. These various dimensions of security are reflected in the current sustainable development goals (SDGs) negotiated at the UN in 2015 as part of its .

Maternal mortality and doctor density, 2015

Source: World Bank,

Comment: The map, which links global maternal mortality to the number of doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, reveals substantial inequalities throughout the world with regard to such an important aspect of human safety. Wherever the number of doctors per 1,000 habitants falls below 1, maternal mortality is high; the highest figures are found in 10 African countries (where they can reach beyond 1%). In 2015, they were between 0.68 and 0.26% in most other African countries.


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" Human security " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:


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