In 1994, the opportune moment of the end of the Cold War and the hopes for a peace dividend led to the public outing of the concept of human security in international policy circles through the UNDP Human Development Reports (HDRs). Describing it in short as ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’, Mahbub Ul Haq, the lead author of the 1994 HDR, sought to draw attention not just to levels of human development achieved, but to the security of gains made by focusing on downside risks such as political conflicts, wars, economic fluctuations, natural disasters, extreme impoverishment, environmental pollution, ill health, illiteracy and other social menaces. Human security was characterized as “safety from chronic threats such as hunger, disease, and repression as well as protection from sudden and harmful disruptions in the patterns of daily life – whether in homes, in jobs or in communities” (UNDP, 1994: 23). The Report also identified seven overlapping and interdependent Page 15categories of human security: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political security.
Yet, Mahbub Ul Haq was not the first to use the terms ‘freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’. They had already been introduced on January 6 1941 by President Roosevelt during his annual State of Union Address as part of his vision of a world founded upon four essential human freedoms: Freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. From these four freedoms, two survived as global ideals, which the founders of the United Nations sought to address in an inter-dependent way through collective efforts in peace, security and development.
Connections between underdevelopment and security were already at the heart of the demands of the South since the mid-1970s, who, under the banner of Group of 77 in the United Nations, argued that a more stable and just world order demanded some level of equity, safety and rights. The response to their demands was provided in the Report of the Independent North/South Commission chaired by Willy Brandt, which raised “not only traditional questions of peace and war, but also how to overcome world hunger, mass misery and alarming disparities between the living conditions of rich and poor” (Independent Commission on International Development Issues, 1980: 13). This was followed by the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security, chaired by Olaf Palme, that raised the question of morality in the international economic and political systems, again placing threats other than military ones on the table, especially in the Third World, where it was argued that hunger and poverty were immediate challenges for survival (Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues, 1982: 172). In 1987, the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Bruntland Commission) highlighted the linkage between environmental degradation and conflict. By the early 1990s, the South Commission, chaired by Jules Nyerere, argued in its Report Challenge to the South that insecurity stemmed from poverty, de-institutionalization, environmental degradation and deficit of democracy (South Commission, 1990: 11).
The evolution of reports within the United Nations system shadowed geopolitical realities of their times. During the Cold War, the notion of security was generally understood in relation to the security of the state, in terms of preserving its territorial integrity and political sovereignty from military threats, and peace was understood as the absence of war (negative peace). The end of bi-polar competition precipitated powerful transnational actors – private companies, international organizations, NGOs and non-state entities –to becomePage 16relevant actors in international relations. Intra-state unrests and new wars, often fuelled by the socio-economic and political marginalization of certain strata of society, also became new threats to be dealt with. The notion of security was broadened to include not only the military and territorial security of a state, but also non-traditional treats such as economic and environmental degradation. These changes prompted policymakers and scholars to go beyond military defence of state interests and territory and to include welfare beyond warfare.
More than a decade and a half later, the concept of human security continues to be a point of contention between those who accept a broad versus a narrow definition and those who reject the notion altogether. Definitional debates apart, the broad notion of human security, this article argues, represents both a conceptual shift and an operational one. Conceptually, it has led to broadening ways that the notion of security is identified and addressed. Operationally, it has introduced a methodology that emphasizes the perspectives of and impacts on individuals and communities in how we understand, assess, plan, implement and evaluate policies, programs and projects. This article will argue that as a theoretical concept, human security embodies a number of added values for the fields of security studies and human development. As a normative and political concept, it was adopted as the basis of principled-based foreign policy by a number of governments and regional organizations. Yet, the concept has also become closely associated with certain norms in international relations, such as ‘enlightened self interest’ and ‘responsibility to protect,’ which deviate considerably from the original and broad understanding of human security as a universal notion based on equality and justice, applicable to all societies developing or industrialized alike.
Within a few years after its introduction in the UNDP Report, what was supposed to be a simple, noble, and obvious idea soon became engulfed in a definitional debate. A cacophony of political and academic debates in the past decade has centered on the definitions, their advantages and weak points, and on the changes that would be necessary to develop the theoretical and practical implications (see Tadjbakhsh & Chenoy, 2006: Chapter 2). The two approaches to human security floating in the policy world and the myriad of academic definitions seem to reinforce the view that the ‘truth’ about definitions lies in the eyes of the beholder. Within the policy world, the minimalist approach to human security, i.e., ‘freedom from fear’, was adopted by the government of Canada, by the Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, A Responsibility to Protect (2001), and by the EU doctrine for HumanPage 17Security (2004). The maximalist approach is adopted by the UNDP, by the Government of Japan, and by the Commission on Human Security (2003).
The three different schools of thought surrounding the acceptability of the concept of human security and its definition can be categorized as such:
A first school, composed mostly of realist and neo-realist scholars, argues that human security lacks analytical rigor, and is consequently, at best as a “rallying cry” and at worst as unadulterated “hot air” (Paris, 2001: 88, 96). To this group, human security is not a new or analytically useful paradigm but a mere political agenda.
A second school, while accepting the term, insists on limiting it to a narrow definition focusing on ‘freedom from fear’ and factors that perpetuates violence. Proponents of the narrower version argue that a useful and workable definition should be restricted to threats falling under the realm of tangible violence (Owen, 2004), measured, for instance, by the number of battle related deaths. As their argument goes, broadening the agenda of threats to include poverty or food shortage for example would be the equivalent of making a ‘shopping list’ of bad things that can happen, making the concept unworkable (Krause, 2004: 367). As Roland Paris states, if human security includes a “laundry list” of threats, in the end, it “effectively means nothing” (Paris, 2001: 91). This school of thought does not reject the concept of human security but instead concentrates on direct threats to individuals’ safety and to their physical integrity: armed conflict, human rights abuses, public insecurity and organized crime.
A third school, of which this author belongs, argues for a broad definition, based on freedom from want, freedom from fear and freedom from indignities, as essential for understanding contemporary crises. Defenders of the broad definition argue that instead of lamenting the lack of workable definitions, research should be...