Doing human security — where are the people?

”The ultimate units… are not states… but individual human beings”

Toby Fenton
Feb 2 · 6 min read
Photo by UK MOD on

“[T]he ultimate units of the great society of all mankind are not states… but individual human beings, which are permanent and indestructible in a sense in which groupings of them of this or that sort are not.”

~ Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society (1977)

Human security, a concept that’s long been centre-stage in the international development and humanitarian communities, is an increasingly pivotal theme in defence community discussions around how military forces adapt to the complexities and ambiguities of modern conflict and crisis situations.

For instance, in January 2019 the UK Ministry of Defence published Joint Security Publication 1325 on Human Security in Military Operations, marking the first time that human security has been situated squarely within formal UK defence policy. In April 2019, the UK defence secretary announced plans to establish of a Centre of Excellence for Human Security which would “build on the amazing work already being done by the UK,” such as the human security courses run by the UK Defence Academy (although when, or even if, the Centre will become operational remains to be seen).

NATO is also ramping up efforts to integrate human security into its operations. In October 2019, for instance, NATO held a concept development workshop in Madrid on the Military Contribution to Human Security. In December 2019, the official declaration by member states following the NATO summit in London announced they will be “stepping up NATO’s role in human security.”

“People rather than territories”

Yet, a core challenge for military actors attempting to operationalise (or ‘do’) human security is that the human security concept itself often comes across as just a little too, well, conceptual — something that’s couched just a little too comfortably in the language of high-level abstraction, but with few apparent hooks on which to hang a whole suite of considerations relating to mission planning, analysis, resource allocation, and so on.

The concept of human security has its roots in the development and humanitarian worlds. Although the ethos of human security can be traced back at least to Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” speech, the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) 1994 Human Development Report is widely cited as the point from which human security began to be taken seriously, with its twin pillars identified as freedom from fear and freedom from want. As the UNDP describes it, the report introduced

“a new concept of human security, which equates security with people rather than territories, with development rather than arms. It examines both the national and the global concerns of human security.”

Bridging the conceptual-operational ‘gap’ — moving from a conceptual level understanding to a more operationalise-able understanding of human security — that’s where some big challenges come in. The remainder of this article looks at two challenges in particular: one that’s inherent to the human security concept; and another that’s both a challenge and, potentially, an opportunity.

1. Proliferation and fractionation

When the referent level of security if shifted from the level of the state to the level of individual people and their communities, two interesting and related things being to happen.

First, the number and variety of security threats proliferates, which isn’t surpising. In People, States and Fear (1983), a Cold War-era study on the concept of security, Barry Buzan wrote that “people represent… the irreducible basic unit to which the concept of security can be applied.” However, Buzan argued that the difficulty in determing the security of individual people is such an undertaking that it would require a wide-ranging enquiry “into the realms of politics, psychology and sociology.” This is because when it comes to thinking about security at the level of individual people,

“the factors involved — life, health, status, wealth, freedom — are far more complicated, not infrequently contradictory, and plagued by the distinction between objective and subjective evaluation. Many of them cannot be replaced if lost (life, limbs, status), and cause-effect relationships with regard to threats are often obscure. Dictionary definitions give the flavour of this ambiguity with their reference to notions like being protected from danger, feeling safe, and being free from doubt. The referent threats (danger and doubt) are very vague, and the subjective feeling of safety has no necessary connection with actually being safe.”

After dipping below the nation-state level of analysis and moving deeper to focus on the security of individuals, questions arise around focus and scope. Whom, exactly, is to be made more secure; and from what, exactly? As the population is increasingly disaggregated below the nation-state level, and as the analysis of human security issues becomes increasingly granular in detail, the inter-sectional complexity of these issues rises almost exponentially.

For instance, threats to the human security of a population in the north of a country might be assessed, identified and prioritised, but why stop there? Threats to a population in the north-east of the country might be different to those in the north-west. Furthermore, threats to people in Town A in the north-west might be different to those in Town B in the north-west. And that’s before we even start to think about how this situation differs from the situation in towns in the north-east… And so on, and so on …

The concept of human security is predicated upon (amongst other things) the principles of people-centredness and the contextual nature of security. The moral impetus at the beating heart of the concept is a focus on enhancing the security of the individual human being. It therefore follows that what’s required is an assessment of threats, issues and vulnerabilities that’s fractionated all the way down to the level of the individual. A mammoth undertaking, undoubtedly.

2. Fears and wants

While human security is often described in terms of the twin pillars of freedom from fear and freedom from want (as mentioned earlier), the notion of what security ‘means’ at the individual level — the human level — remains complex.

Perhaps it’s because individuals and the societies in which they live are complex — complex systems nested within complex systems. Perhaps it’s because people differ widely in their levels of resilience, such that the nature of what consitutes a threat at the individual level, and what affects someone’s vulnerability to different threats, is such that what security means depends on the particular combination of contextual factors at play.

This is one of the reasons why the way in which military forces ‘do’ human security might remain anchored in a more traditional security framing for the near future — in particular, looking at violent threats, which aligns with the freedom from fear pillar. Indeed, this is the approach taken in, for instance, the UK’s aforementioned Human Security in Military Operations document, which frames the military’s role as “protection [of populations] from physical violence, whether from the state or external states, [or] from violent individuals and sub-state actors.”

As Buzan wrote in People, States and Fear (1983), the factors related to threats to individual security are “plagued by the distinction between objective and subjective evaluation”. It’s true that a strong degree of subjectivity is similarly inherent in the concept of human security. But, as with many other complex challenges, increasingly better answers often come through asking the right questions. And in this case, embracing subjectivity may present an opportunity as much as a challenge.

If contemporary notions of human security are couched in the twin pillars of freedom from fear and freedom from want — as is currently the case — then military forces seeking to build people-centred human security considerations more tightly and comprehensively into the planning and conduct of operations could seek to develop a stronger understanding of this subjectivity by asking, from the ground up:

What do affected populations fear, and what are their wants?

Toby Fenton

Written by

What’s happening? Where are we going? Opinions are purely my own. Coherence not guaranteed.

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