July 6, 2020

To What Extent Does Human Security Constitute a Fundamental Rethinking of Security? Individuals, Institutions and Human Security 

By Smera Jayadeva


At the end of the Cold War, the embers of policy philosophy were ignited to bring a new concept to the fore: human security; confronting the growing threats to the individual that went beyond traditional notions of war and conflict of states allowed for a broadening and re-evaluation of what constitutes a threat. The production of the UNDP Human Development Report in 1994 articulated the concept of human security, not as a theoretical framework, but as one with the capacity to influence security documents of states. The utopian notions that drove the need to protect the individual from poverty, famine, natural disasters and so on are not without fault.

Human security was​ a fundamental rethinking of security since conflicts were no longer identified largely between states, but instead from tumultuous domestic environments that bred issues such as inequality, terrorism or genocide. However, by atomising security to the level of the individual, ambiguity in the approach has led to gaps in application. A plethora of concerns surrounding the individual, and the architecture of the social institutions in which they exist, have not been established in the foundations for analysis.

This essay seeks to highlight how human security has not effectively re-evaluated traditional security perspectives. Divided into two sections, there will be an analysis of the role, or lack thereof, played by marginalised communities in policy process and, secondly, the conceptual origins in democratic institutions. Thus, it will attempt to highlight who counts as the individual in analysis and the means assumed to have the capacity to address their issues.

How is the Subaltern heard?

As a policy-making tool in the field of International Relations, human security, from its formal conceptualisation in 1994 to the present-day integration into national security documents, draws upon academic literature and discourse which has largely evolved within eurocentric and imperial analytical structures. Moreover, theoretical frameworks of security studies intended for policy praxis are not merely shaped by power but are themselves a form of imperial power/knowledge (Weldes et al., 1999).

The ‘coloniser’s view of the world’ has dominated not only security studies, but also multidisciplinary approaches to International Relations and Development Studies. As theorists, academicians, and policymakers delve into human security, the professional output thus produced is plagued with a hierarchical conception of world history and geography. For example, ‘the long peace’​ of the Cold War portrays the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union on a pedestal above the wars that this conflict bred (Gaddis, 1986); on the other hand, the use of terminology such as the ‘Middle East’ instead of West Asia allows for a continuation of the great power perspective of the ‘West’ or ‘global North.’

In response to these limitations, voices of the ‘have-nots’ and the ‘rest of the world’ have challenged existing ideas, concepts, theories and frameworks. While establishing that there is no unified theory of postcolonialism, they have nevertheless opened a space for a postcolonial critique.

Postcolonial scholars have put forth the need to engage in contrapuntal analyses that place the coloniser and the colonised in the same analytical frame; a method drawn from Western classical music’s concepts of contrapuntality and fugue by Edward Said.  Although there is space for the criticism of contrapuntal reading as overwhelmingly pluralist, Geeta Chowdhry (2007) argues that it is instead “a plea for ‘worlding’ the texts, institutions and practices, for historicising them, for interrogating their sociality and materiality, for paying attention to the hierarchies and the power-knowledge nexus embedded in them, and for recuperating a ‘non-coercive and non-dominating knowledge’”.

Therein lies the issue of securitisation. Sarah Bertrand (2018) typifies three ways that securitisation theory marginalises the subaltern: locutionary silencing​ (speech act is silenced due to the threat of violence as evidenced by witness intimation or honour killings), illocutionaryfrustration​ (unwillingness of the audience to accept the message as seen in UNSC refusal to treat events in Rwanda as genocide), and illocutionary disablement​ ​ (role of ‘disabling frames’ or epistemological structures which influence our perception of reality, say misogyny and racism).  Thus, as one explores a globalised world built upon ‘eurocentric, patriarchal, neoliberal and secular international political culture’ (Dingli, 2015), those who are pressured into maintaining silence or cannot articulate their issues and concerns through that political, socio-cultural and linguistic rubric face losing their voice and representation (Bertrand, 2018)

The illocutionary disablement in the practices of sovereign states or international organisations in an anarchic world fail to include the subaltern in the securitisation process. Moreover, securitising ‘for’​ ​ another individual, community, or even sovereign state can lead to a burial of their experiences through what Marx categorised as ‘Verstraeten’ (the political act of speaking for) and ‘Darstellan’ (re-presentation as a philosophy).

The aforementioned concepts are rarely acknowledged in the study of security, let alone in the policy perspectives of states. The privileged elite constitute a small percentage of the global population with the economic and social capacity to study beyond secondary education. It is not unlikely for states to weaponise the study of History and the narratives it engenders.  At higher levels, particularly in universities and the equivalent, Eurocentric curriculum has shortcomings.

When academia is limited to the concerns and philosophies that have emerged from Europe and North America, students that may influence future policy decisions have a skewed perception of world politics.

In order for human security to be revolutionary and meaningful, it would require not only epistemological criticism but also the capacity to catalyse social transformation practices.

Subjecting the individual to Democracy

Proponents of human security maintain that the approach is consigned to bring about comprehensive change to human society and the environments in which it has developed. This paradigmatic shift away from the military and state-centric ethos of traditional security studies has brought the individual to the core of analysis. In adherence to the 1994 HDR, members of the UN have, if arguably only to a nominal degree, attempted to guarantee the values of ‘freedom from want’ and freedom from fear.’ Thus, they address seven critical areas: health, food, environmental, community, personal and political security, in an attempt to revise earlier approaches and confront human integrity and dignity (Landman, 2006).

By replacing the state with the individual as the primary referent object in the concept of security, imperative questions arise: who is empowered to safeguard human integrity and dignity? and by what means? The state then arises by default of the existing architecture of international politics as the means to protect and support individuals, and the communities into which they are organised, to flourish.

One does find lacunae in the application of democratic ideals; confronting issues of systematic marginalisation, influential lobbies and super PACs, distorted information flows and media, and nepotism amongst others determine which individual ought to receive protection and at the cost of whom.

International polity often highlights democracy, particularly liberal western democracy, as the best-suited institution to address the threats to human security. Critical tenets of democracy, say equality and fundamental rights, overlap with human security and development. Nevertheless, such ‘declaratory’ linkages do not provide empirical data that proves democracy is the best equipped political institution (Landman, 2006). Similarly, tautological claims about human security lying at the centre of democracy are also ineffective.

Certain features of democracy, however, can be instrumental in reducing threats to human security. The degree of connection to human security is dependent on the conceptualisation of democracy itself. Procedural definitions address, to an extent, freedom from fear and from want through necessary rights protections for contestation and participation. Liberal definitions, through invoking legal concepts such as habeas corpus and fair trial, provide an institutional dimension which is essential for ensuring accountability and constraint on power.

Democratic institutions, empowered by electoral bodies, are expected to maintain and provide rights, equality, and accountability. Legislative bodies are bound by the rule of law and their national constitutions, codified or otherwise, to provide the aforementioned. However, as

Buchanan (1975) and Usher (1992) argue, governments not only require power to protect their citizens, but also to prevent the government itself from becoming the predator. The concept of power, therefore, has not transcended traditional realist theory. Nevertheless, it is imperative to note Alvin Toffler’s (1990) conceptualisation of power which is the amalgamation of knowledge, wealth and force, thus, further expanding traditional notions of power to fit the ‘knowledge-based civilisation’ of the contemporary world order.

The origins of democracy in Europe, a region leading numerous debates in International Security, has been in a relatively homogenous cultural setting. Here, equality before law is viewed as the sine qua non​     ​ of liberal democracies. On the other hand, in most societies of Asia, Africa, Pacific and South America (to an extent North America), certain communities have been disadvantaged, either before or after colonisation. For example, India approached the overwhelming diversity concern by linking “equality for the individual with equality for diverse communities” (Mahajan, 2006). Representation in diverse states have given rise to instances of reservation and affirmative action so as to ensure equity over traditional equality. Andrew Ellis (2006) identifies three distinct dilemmas in representation: politics of identity, politics of leadership, and political competition and state-building.

While politics of identity exists in a myriad of states, post-conflict and post-colonial states face particularly challenging futures in developing into advanced democracies. In catering to the sympathies and emotions of communities, particularly in urban areas and swing states, vote bank politics, for example, catering to identities over viable development policies has been on the rise as seen in the case of Ghana.

With the rise of populism, politics of leadership has been brought to the fore of debates concerning politics and the weakness of democracy. Even in Europe, vociferous political leaders have accrued substantial popularity even if they aren’t successful in consolidating power at the national level. In states facing high levels of corruption, it is the portrait of candour they paint which appeals to voters, instead of their programmes. In the age of large-scale information flows, cases of media deception and fake news as observed by Cambridge Analytica’s role in the US elections, has further allowed for populist leaders to reach positions of power.

The use of democratic institutions of former colonial powers by de-colonising states has opened the floodgates of majoritarianism. As religion has become an increasingly volatile space, politics has nurtured the dangerous use of sectarianism to mobilise the masses against one or more (often) minority groups.

Often the international community has pressured many states towards democratisation. However, with the issue of state-building, Robert Dahl (1989)  has been pragmatic to note that ’the democratic process presupposes a unit. The criteria of the democratic process presuppose the rightfulness of the unit itself. If the unit itself is not considered proper or rightful . . . it cannot be made rightful simply by democratic procedures’. Moreover, with a fragmented populus, the state cannot be expected to represent common interests, instead, the state is “another particular interest” itself (Rubin, 2002). Thus, across the world, states expected to uphold human security have not been successful due to numerous inherent weaknesses in democracy.


An approach that attempts to understand the complexities inherent to security and its study by viewing the individual as the primary referent is commendable. The capricious political climate of the contemporary world requires such an approach; one that recognises the need to secure the individual in order to secure the state. However, without clarity on the individual itself or the institutional resources available for effecting radical social transformation, human security is possibly nothing more than “hot air” as Roland Paris (2001) observes.

Domestic turbulence fuelled by individual and communal relations often surrounds the lack of recognition of identity and the possible negation of certain identities itself. Channels that are normatively assumed to assist in amplifying their concerns often use methods that may further silence the marginalised. Preconceptions surrounding democratic institutions and liberal values originating in a European domain ought to be problematised.  The belief that they can be applied to more ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse states can accelerate dangerous neo-colonial ambitions. Thus, since the very foundations of human security are too thin and ambiguously presented, any form of utility in contemporary policies are not only minimal but inherently problematic. Therefore, human security itself ought to be revised such that the ‘rest of the world’ can find viability in application in the hope of catalysing social progress and transformation.


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Mahajan, G. (2006). “Democracy, Conflict and Human Security: Further Readings.”​

International IDEA, pp. 111–122. Paris, R. (2001). “Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?”​ ​ International Security. 26(2), pp. 87-102. https://doi.org/10.1162/016228801753191141

Toffler, Alvin. (1990). Powershift​​: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence in the 21st Century. New York: Bantam Books.

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About the Author


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