The Duck of Minerva

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Creative Rebranding? Human Rights vs. Human Security

October 16, 2013

I had a boy break up with me once by saying “we’re not breaking up, we’re taking a break.”  I guess the boy assumed that “taking a break” would be easier for me to accept than “breaking up.”  He was right: it took me a while[1] to actually figure out that “taking a break” was really synonymous with “breaking up.”  For my teenage-girl angst, “taking a break” just sounded better.  For the boy, “taking a break” was probably the safer option.

In both advocacy and research concerning of how people are treated by governmental and non-governmental actors, I think the same type of linguistic gymnastics occurs between the terms “human rights” and “human security.” However, I think the strategic use of the terms could have ramifications for both our research and advocacy.

At the most basic level, I am at a loss for what exactly “human security,” defined in the 1994 United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report as freedom from want and fear (consistent with FDR’s Four Freedom’s Speech, of course), adds to advocacy/research that hasn’t already been discussed in the literature on “human rights.” The UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t just focus on freedom from torture or freedom of association – it includes the rights to adequate standards of living, health, leisure, and education. Although much traditional human right scholarship focuses on government respect for rights within a country, we know that rights permeate borders and that respect for certain rights do not occur in isolation – all central ideas of the more recent “human security” push.  Human rights scholarship and advocacy long ago moved beyond a legalistic approach; it addresses many possible state and non-state solutions to a wide variety of human rights abuses.  Like Rhoda Howard-Hassmann’s 2012 Human Rights Quarterly piece, I think “human security” may just be a creative rebranding of ideas long-established within the human rights community.  Besides just new creative advertising, however, Howard-Hassmann (2012) argues that “human security” discourse could undermine conditions on the ground:

                “…the human security discourse allows states to convert human rights obligations into “policy talk” making policy choices as to which aspect of human security they might focus on.  The individual has much stronger standing in international human rights law than she has in the human security discourse” (111).

Howard-Hassmann (2012) makes a persuasive argument, one worth including in grad seminars on human rights/security: does the rebranding of “human rights” into “human security” really undermine the central goal – protecting individuals and societies and ensuring individuals the best possible circumstances?  I think much more research is needed on the topic.

Anecdotally, I think populations react differently to these terms and I’d be interested in research that addresses how the terms “human rights” and “human security” invoke different emotional responses at the individual level.  Even though these terms reflect the same underlying concepts, there appears to be a division in the choice of these terms for scholars and practitioners.  Let me give two completely unsystematic examples:

  1.  I think “security” oriented individuals like the term “human security” more than “human rights.”   Before coming to Mizzou, I taught in Kansas State’s Security Studies program.  The program was mainly comprised of Army officers from the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.  The first time I taught a grad course on government repression I called the course “Global Human Rights.”  Not a single soldier signed up.  The second time I taught the course I called it “Human Security.”  The course maxed out and most of the enrollees were active-duty military.  The content of the course was exactly the same.  Of course, the increased enrollment the second time around could be due to the students having more information about me as an instructor.  However, when I’ve talked to both undergrads and grad students about this, they seem to have strong beliefs about whether they want a “human security” course or a “human rights” course showing up on their transcripts. There could also be a gendered component here – whenever I term the course “human rights,” there are more women that enroll in the course. 
  2. I think the academic community studying government behavior towards citizens likes the term “human rights” more than the term “human security” and downgrades research using a human security frame.  My coauthors and I submitted a paper to a human rights journal last fall where I used a human security frame.  The content of the paper concerned how military interveners and NGOs influence government respect for freedom from torture, political killings, etc – clearly a traditional human rights topic. It also focused on how outside interveners influenced development and health outcomes, which are also both human rights and human security concerns. The paper was rejected based solely on a referee report that stated that our use of the “human security” frame meant that we didn’t know the existing human rights literature. We deleted some of the human security framing and sent the exact same paper – same literature cited, same theory, same empirics- to another human rights journal.  Paper accepted.  Again, this is just a N of 1 but I’ve seen ISA and APSA discussions with the same basic tone.


What do these examples mean?  I take the first example to imply that human security may be a rebranding strategy that works to get security-oriented individuals excited about how humans are treated.  Regardless of whether human security is just “old wine in new bottles,” this could be important for actually getting human rights ideas into a larger audience. Whatever gets people excited about what I research, advocate for, and study, I’m fine with.  Of course, once you have students in the seats or an audience reading your “human security” scholarship, then it is important to address the argument Howard-Hassmann (2012) makes about state obligations towards individuals being more than just human security “policy talk” (111).


Second, I think we as scholars need to do a better job discussing how the things we study could be framed as either human security or human rights.  Work that could be important for the well-being of individuals will never see the light of day if we systematically downgrade research based on a “human security” frame.  To the extent that it is possible, it seems to be that we can address much of the creative rebranding in footnotes.


In short, just like telling a teenage girl that you are “taking a break” instead of breaking up with her, telling policymakers or those with a background in security that you study “human security” instead of “human rights” may allow your message to be accepted without complaint.  People may be more likely to read the work.  And, at the end of the day, getting students, advocates, and policymakers excited about the well-being of individuals is why I got in this business in the first place.

[1] Long enough for him to walk away.

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Amanda Murdie is Professor & Dean Rusk Scholar of International Relations in the Department of International Affairs in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. She is the author of Help or Harm: The Human Security Effects of International NGOs (Stanford, 2014). Her main research interests include non-state actors, and human rights and human security.

When not blogging, Amanda enjoys hanging out with her two pre-teen daughters (as long as she can keep them away from their cell phones) and her fabulous significant other.