What are we talking about when we talk about human security?

With the end of the Cold War, the concept of human security began to take root. Historically, that concept has been associated with the 1994 Human Development Report on Human Security, drafted by Mahbub ul Haq under the auspices of the UN (MacFarlane & Khong 2006). The report argued that, over the previous decades, the traditional concept of security had been interpreted narrowly, emphasizing freedom from external aggression and protection of national interests, on the one hand, or safeguards against the nuclear threat, on the other. In this sense, the traditional concept was focused more on the state than on individuals. The report sought to build a bridge to the United Nations Charter, written in 1945, wherein the question of security rested on the dynamic between “freedom from want and freedom from fear,” ensuring that individuals did not fall victim to violence or poverty.

As the report argued, human security should be understood as a concern for human life and dignity broadly conceived; it would go beyond exclusive preoccupation with the threat posed by weapons. It was also a universal concept, relevant to all people, whether from wealthy nations or poor states. It was focused on people in general, as the concern was about how they live in the societies to which they belong, how they express their political and social choices, whether they can access the market economy and enjoy social opportunities, and whether they live in peace or in conflict. In this sense, the report identified seven core components that together express the full scope of the concept of human security: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security, and political security. Now that the bipolar conflict was over, the time had come to bring forth human development as the main concern for the international community (Kaldor 2011: 2).

However, the comprehensiveness of the definition of human security embodied in the report generated deep criticism. As Sabine Alkire points out, the main assessment was that, because of the unclear interconnection between human development and security, the report in the eyes of many had an “idealistic” component and “naive” recommendations (Alkire 2003: 20-21). These criticisms helped to substantiate the concept of suman security in two dimensions: one broad and the other narrow.

The concept’s broad dimension, in line with the 1994 Human Development Report, holds that human security is “concerned with human vulnerability overall, and therefore encompasses all forms of threats from all sources.” In other words, it includes, in addition to organized political violence, other threats such as natural disasters, disease, climate change, hunger, and economic problems (Fukuda-Parr & Messineo 2012: 5). By contrast, the narrow formulation advocates a less holistic view. Assuming that the broad version is too comprehensive to be useful, critics contend that the quest for human security must be limited primarily to protecting individuals against political violence and coping with specific threats; a focus on long-term strategies for achieving sustainability and promoting human development allegedly would take security studies too far afield. As a result, the problems to be addressed turn out to be relatively traditional, such as armed conflicts, human rights abuse, insecurity, and the fight against organized crime. Contrary to the broad view, proponents of the narrow approach seek to prevent the concept of human security' from becoming a shopping mall of threats too numerous and diffuse to be addressed fruitfully

Established in 2000, the Commission on Human Security put forth an independent report in 2003 seeking to bridge these disparate definitions of human security. Building upon the definition presented in 1994, it refrained from listing all potential threats to human security, instead advancing a set of elementary rights and freedoms that every human being should enjoy as a “vital core.” Its main contribution was to stress the importance of involving multiple actors beyond the state, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), regional organizations, and civil society, in managing human security'. In this sense, it has clearly shown that “the empowerment of people” was to be seen as “an important condition of human security,” emphasizing that “security' and human security' are mutually reinforcing and dependent on each other” (Fukuda-Parr & Messineo 2012: 6).

In sum, the question of human security falls within a broad concept of security that over time has shifted its referent from the state to people, and from the individual and the society to the whole of humankind. The process of securitization (Emmers 2010) makes it possible to address not only the issues of poverty and political and identitarian violence but also those of food security', pandemics, climate change, and migration.

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