The concept of Human Security


The Global Unit for Human Security addresses the concept of human security and develops it beyond a mere analytical tool. The aim is to develop a progressive framework for intersectional, human-centric and justice-oriented security policy making.

Graphic: Chessboard with people walking on it

The concept of security is potent! It carries the whole weight of humanity’s fears and discomforts towards both external and internal dangers at all levels. There is no individual, community or nation who would not put “protection from harm” as one of their top priorities. Yet, the dominant theoretical and practical discourse of security, hardly manages to make sense of risks and mitigations beyond the framework of states as the main stakeholder. This is clearly reflected in the largely unquestioned record high military spending by states throughout the world, often explained and justified with reference to spiraling geopolitical threats and the deterioration of peace and security. In this framework, the security perceptions and demands of (particularly vulnerable) individuals and communities in the face of intersecting and complex crises are rarely engaged with beyond the often isolated discourses of development, human rights and international humanitarian law.

Need for a conceptual shift in foreign and security policy

With the nature and intensity of harm facing humanity in the current context of polycrisis, demands on governments and international systems of governance to develop better and more responsive peace and security policy have increased. These demands reflect a need for a shift in focus in security policy towards recognizing more systemic risks facing an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world of actors and stakeholders. In addition, new technologies, notably AI, are increasing the complexity in many core areas of international relations, from defense policy to geoeconomics. Finally, foreign and security policy is also increasingly exposed to demands from civil society for more participation, transparency and justice. In other words, there is a need for a conceptual shift in foreign and security policy; one that the Global Unit in Vienna, is exploring through the notion of ‘human security’.

‘Freedom from want’ and ‘freedom from fear’

Unlike the dominant security frameworks, human security has a broader frame and is based on two overall notions of individual and community ‘freedom from want’ and ‘freedom from fear’, and as a corollary, the right to dignity. The scope and the emphasis varies from the narrowest protection of individuals and communities against violence to an intersectional understanding of individual and communal security, i.e. placing security at the intersection of different areas of critical and pervasive threats to human wellbeing: climate, food, health, education etc. In doing so, human security not only enables us to develop gender sensitive security programming, it also allows policy makers to recognize and act on the interlinkages between peace, development and human rights.   

By putting the protection, development and wellbeing of individuals and communities as the first building block of analysis and policy making, the concept of human security creates a space where different actors and stakeholders, whether local, national or international, can find a common ground in humanity, while making security programming more people-centered, sustainable and effective.

Addressing the root causes of conflict

The human security discourse provides a rich conceptual ground for reimagining individuals and communities as equal stakeholders in our quest to face critical and pervasive threats to peace and security. It bears the potential to create more pluralistic and inclusive debates and exchanges when thinking about questions of security, and in doing so it allows us to get closer to addressing the root causes of conflict and lived experiences of insecurity.

At the Global Unit, we are aware of the many criticisms of human security, both conceptual and practical, since its inception in the 1990s. These include claims regarding the (over)broadness of the concept and the difficulty of implementing it in a security paradigm dominated and controlled by states, many of whom have for long seen human security as a threat to their strict interpretations of sovereignty. While acknowledging these claims and staying conscious of the continuous attacks from some actors, we are also witnessing a re-engagement with the concept during the past few years, beyond the United Nations (UN) and amongst some of the world’s most ‘traditional’ security players, including NATO.

It is in this context that we stay committed to further explore the fundamental principles at the heart of human security and seek to create and promote more direct, focused and policy oriented engagement with the concept. Moreover, we aim to look at synergies and overlaps between equally important approaches to foreign and security policy, especially Feminist Foreign Policy. In doing so, we aim to offer alternative voices within the security paradigm (especially from the ‘Global South’) a forum and to help them gain more visibility, and hence enable engagement with human security beyond a mere analytical tool, towards as a progressive framework for intersectional and human-centric and justice-oriented security policy making.