Human Security: Noble but Flawed

April 9, 2009

The human security model, while noble in aim, remains fundamentally flawed in definition and implementation.

Supporters claim that its “cultivated ambiguity” allows human security actors to overlook individual disagreements and will bring more participants onto the bandwagon of a particular human security threat, as was seen with the Ottawa Convention’s ban against landmines. Moreover, they claim that it allows a wider paradigm of threats to individual security to be addressed—for instance, infectious diseases, terrorism, nuclear technologies, and environmental threats.

Yet, the actions of the United States in the post-911 ‘war on terror’, and its subsequent wars in Iran and Afghanistan, is sound proof of the danger of the human security model’s ambiguity since it was used in this case to legitimize the US’s own foreign policy agendas.  Indeed, the US war on Iraq points to the vulnerability of ‘human security’ in becoming little more than a puppet in the hands of powerful nations. A Christian Aid study has concluded that “the year 2004 saw $1 billion in aid was diverted to the war on terrorism at the expense of poverty and Millennium Development Goals.”

While it is perhaps too early to see the effects of the economic downtown, the economic climate does not bode well for human security’s development agenda.  In view of the the current worldwide economic fiasco, governments will prioritize saving their economies and well-being of their newly-impoverished citizens over championing the right to clean water in some developing nation.   Moreover, we can also expect that the sentiments of populations will shift from placing priority on human security violations across the globe, to trying to pay their own mortgage.

Optimists have pointed out that there is still hope for the human security model in the current political climate. Indeed with the fast-growing media, more worldwide attention can be brought to human security violations around the globe. The exposure of the hypocrisy of nations manipulating the human security model and the resultant public censure may change the course in which it will play out in the future. And the growth of non-state actors, such as NGOs, INGOs and even the UN, may offer hope for the human security paradigm.

However, even under the most optimistic conditions, human security requires a tighter definition. Without it, as David Chandler has pointed out, human security runs a risk of descending into a mere ad-hoc, short term foreign policy formulation used to legitimize the global policy interests of powerful states.

Tiffany Lam


Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh, “Human Security: The Seven Challenges of Operationalizing the Concept,” paper delivered at UNESCO conference entitled “Human Security: 60 Minutes to Convince,” Paris, September 13, 2005

Roland Paris, “Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?”, International Security, vol. 26, no. 2, Fall 2001, pp. 87-102

David Chandler, “Human Security: The Dog that Didn’t Bark”, Security Dialogue, vol. 39, no. 4, August 2008

Neil S MacFarlane, Carolin J Thielking, Thomas G Weiss,The Responsibility to Protect: Is Anyone Interested in Humanitarian Intervention?Third World Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 5, (2004) pp. 977-992


One Response to “Human Security: Noble but Flawed”

  1. lmcinhk Says:

    Tiffany —

    My apologies for taking so long to comment on your provocative post.

    I would like to play devil’s advocate on a few points you have made.

    As I have said in our class discussions, I don’t view the US invasion of Iraq and the misappropriation of the human security nomenclature to rationalize this failed policy as an indictment of the human security model itself. Political leaders will always seek to rationalize their foreign policies using popularly accepted themes and slogans. Nowadays, every government claims to be democratic and respects human rights. Yet, it is universally recognized that this isn’t the case, even if we don’t all agree on which governments can rightfully claim to be so.

    I actually look at the international breadth and depth of criticism against the Bush administration in Iraq as reason to be optimistic for human security. I don’t know a single person, professionally or otherwise, who could defend or bought into the legitimacy of the US invasion of Iraq on human security grounds. Unilateral military action of this sort is contrary to human security principles, regardless of what school of human security practice (fear, want, etc) one adheres to. If anything, Bush’s actions in Iraq have clarified that the unilateral use of massive military power is not in interest of the states like the US.

    As for the current economic climate and shrinking aid budgets, the more I understand international government aid programs, the less I believe that these government programs are the key to enhancing human security in low-income communities. Too often, these programs are less reflective of community needs, than they are of donor interests. (Read the “Aid Watch” blog for on-going discussions on aid effectiveness I agree with you that governments have less money to spend on these issues, which is not good news. That said, I think this economic climate might also spur on more people-to-people initiatives.

    Tough economic times increases our sensitivity to the economic plight of others. When we have so little faith in the ability of big institutional players (governments, banks) to be effective, we turn to community players. I, for example, have started giving small loans through KIVA ( because I like their people-to- people approach. I can foresee these types of grass-roots, entrepreneurial endeavors doing well despite the grim macro-economic news, which in turn may help validate the human security’s school emphasis on the individual as the proper referent for action.

    Is the human security glass half full or half empty? You say, half-empty, but I’m leaning towards half-full.

    — LMC

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