Defining Human Security

Defining Human Security

Eileen Babbitt, PhD
Dr. Eileen Babbitt is a Professor of Practice of International Conflict Management. She served as Director of the Leir Institute from 2014-2020.

Key Points
Human Security defines security as:

Human security asks:
-Security for whom?
-Security from what?
-Security by what means?

Defining Human Security

Human security argues that seeking the security of the individual or community, as defined by that individual or community, is as important–and sometimes more important–as seeking the security of the state.  Although the term “human security” is relatively recent, originating in the 1990s post-Cold War era, the question of whose security is primary–the individual’s or the state’s–is seminal in international relations scholarship. The argument revolves around differences of viewpoint on what obligations the state has to its people in terms of providing for their security, and whether individuals have claims beyond the state if/when their security is threatened.  In the 1990s in particular, these discussions included expanding the definition of security beyond physical safety (e.g., to include economic, identity, and rights-based dimensions), the recognition that entities other than the state provide for individuals’ security when the state either can’t or won’t, and the need for including vulnerable groups in decision-making about security provision.

Human security covers a broad range of issues and practices, but they all share four main analytic components:

  1. person-centered, focusing on security as it is experienced by individual people and communities;
  2. context-specific, working from the ground up rather than top down to define challenges and design solutions;
  3. multi-dimensional, requiring both an interdisciplinary approach and one that integrates all voices and perspectives; and
  4. preventive, choosing to look at root causes and early indicators to be pro-active rather than reactive to threat.  

Human security thus provides a powerful lens through which to analyze all threats to the security of individuals and communities.

The issue areas in which the human security lens is often applied include: gender-based violence; climate change; human trafficking; forced migration; drug policy; civilian protection through human rights or non-violent action; multi-track diplomacy; youth and conflict; financial inclusion; and provision of basic services such as healthcare and education. However, it is also important to ask how the human security lens can and should be used to analyze causes of and responses to “hard” security challenges such as non-state armed groups, terrorism, and cybersecurity.

In practice: Security from what? Security for whom? Security by what means?

In its application, human security begins by asking the questions: Security from what? Security for whom? Security by what means?  These questions originate in the critical security and feminist security literature that preceded the development of human security. They take into account that the human community is not monolithic, and security threats may be seen differently according to gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, etc.  These questions also recognize that the state itself may be the biggest threat to the human security of its citizens and protection may need to begin by involving other actors. Finally, they create a vision of security that is not only based on the absence of violence but on attaining freedom and dignity.

To be an effective human security practitioner, it is also important to be aware of one’s own assumptions, values, and biases that one brings to our work.  Such reflective practice is crucial for being truly able to understand and appreciate the perspective of others, which is the basis of effective human security analysis.

Cite this Brief
Babbitt, Eileen. Leir Briefing Room: Defining Human Security. Medford: Leir Institute for Migration and Human Security, 2023.

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