The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Whither Human Security?

October 4, 2010

In an International Affairs article earlier this year, Mary Martin and Taylor Owen point out that the term is all but dead, both in the UN system and within the governments who once championed the concept:

“The term ‘human security’ has all but vanished from the reports of the UN Secretary-General and high-level panels, and from branch organization use… Canada, one of the principal initial proponents of the human security agenda, is also going through a period of withdrawal from both the advocacy and use of the concept… ‘human security’ was among a group of term blacklisted in government parlance.”

But Martin and Owen also show that human security concepts are increasingly penetrating and transforming state practice – even among governments, like the US, who once obstructed norm development in the broad area of human security:

At the same moment that the first generation of human security (represented by the UN and Canada) appears to be in retreat, a second generation is emerging. This second generation is being driven by the EU, and also finds an echo in new security thinking and military doctrine about population-centered security in the United States. By moving away from the very broad, development-focused conceptualization envisioned and then discarded by the UN, and fostering a much tighter crisis or threshold-based conceptualization, it may well be that the second coming of human security achieves a far greater impact than its early forms.

Martin and Owen then go on to explain the failing UN experiment with achieving a consensus definition of “human security,” which has been subject to a heated debate over how broadly or narrowly to draw the boundaries, how to measure it, and whether to think of it as a goal, a set of tactical initiatives, or simply a lens for framing many disparate policy objectives. And they evaluate new initiatives within the EU that, they argue, can improve upon the earlier UN approach only through clarity of conceptualization, and they propose two ways forward: first, policymakers might use threshold-base definitions of human security, which “limits the inclusion of threats by their severity rather than their cause.” Or second, human security can be conceptualized as a set of principles for guiding foreign policy.

My experience so far this term in playing with these different approaches and frameworks with a class full of sharp undergraduates suggests that the “principles” approach is by far more useful. The threshold approach helps narrow in what sort of threats a policy might focus on (traffic accidents v. terrorism for example) but that will always remain contested and at any rate it does not prescribe an operational framework for solving policy problems. However if you forget about thresholds and definitions and simply ask of any policy problem what sort of solutions a human security approach would lend itself to, the discussion becomes much richer and more interesting.

A set of such principles is described by Mary Kaldor in a recent series of essays (p. 184-190), and includes:

1) The primacy of human rights;

2) the exercise of authority according to legitimate and accepted rules;

3) a multilateral approach to global policy problems; and

4) a bottom-up strategy in which the needs and capacities of those most affected by a policy are accounted for in shaping the policy.

Arguably, one could evaluate any set of actors engaged in any policy issue on the extent to which they are or are attempting to behave according to such basic principles. The overall measure of the rights and well-being of civilian populations could become a metric for determining the extent to which such policies, however well-intentioned, represent improvements over other alternatives.

Open questions about such a framework include: When “human rights” conflict in a specific context, which rights and whose rights should be “primary” and according to which principles should the policy analyst decide? When the rule of law and the protection of human rights conflict, which is most important? How shall the analyst weigh variation in the likelihood of specific harms to different groups, the gravity of those harms, or the scope of those harms?

My students will be playing with these tensions all semester, as will I in working to clarify the conception of ‘human security’ that I’ll be working with in my book project. I wonder if readers have ideas about how to resolve such tensions, or if you have other thoughts on the extent to which ‘human security’ is or can become a more useful analytical perspective even as it recedes as a political buzzword.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.