Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air? by Roland Paris — A Summary

Paris, Roland. 2001. “Human Security: Paradigm Shift or Hot Air?” International Security 26 (2). The MIT Press: 87–102.

Human security is being hailed as a new paradigm for thinking about international security beyond its realist preoccupation with the military. However, the concept is not precisely defined. And its proponents seem to be interested in keeping it that way.

The term, in short, appears to be slippery by design. Cultivated ambiguity renders human security an effective campaign slogan, but it also diminishes the concept’s usefulness as a guide for academic research or policy-making.

What is Human Security?

Human security can be said to have two main aspects. It means, first, safety from such chronic threats as hunger, disease and repression. And second, it means protection from sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life — whether in homes, in jobs or in communities.

UNDP Human Development Report 1994

The report also identifies seven specific elements that comprise human security: a) economic security; b) food security; c) health security; d) environmental security; e) personal security; f) community security; and g) political security.

This definition remains the most cited and most authoritative. However, the definition and the elements specified are so comprehensive that it is difficult to see anything that could be excluded. The meaning and boundaries of human security are thus extremely vague.

Definitions offered by academics are no less vague and are often in the “laundry-list” format of the UNDP. Jorge Nef suggests five constituents of human security while Laura Reed and Majid Tehranian offer ten constituent elements. Those that choose not to give lists offer equally comprehensive definitions. Caroine Thomas talks about “basic material needs” and “human dignity” while Robert Bedeski sees human security as encompassing the totality of knowledge, technology, institutions and activities” which enable and enhance human life.

If human security is all these things, what is it not?

A Guide for Research and Policymaking?

Given the range of values that human security encompasses within its vast “inclusive” and “holistic” sweep and the reluctance in ranking these values, policy makers have little use for the concept.

A similar problem lies for academics as human security, with its hodgepodge of principles, seems to be capable of supporting virtually any hypothesis along with its opposite! The holism of the concept also makes analytical interventions difficult as it is impossible to talk of, let’s say, socio-economic factors causing an increase or decrease in human security as these they are themselves implicated within the definition of human security.

To illustrate, consider John Cockell’s efforts to apply the concept of human security to international peacebuilding operations in disturbed countries. He states that “peacebuilding is a sustained process of preventing internal threats to human security from causing protracted, violent conflict.” Since, safety from violence is a part of the definition of human security itself, Cockell is effectively saying that peacebuilding tries to reduce threats to human security by reducing threats to human security!

Attempts to Narrow the Concept

Gary King and Christopher Murray seek to incorporate only “essential” elements in the concept of human security, elements that are “important enough for human beings to fight over or to put their lives or property at great risk”. These indicators of well-being are identified as poverty, health, education, political freedom and democracy. Kanti Bajpai proposes construction of a “human security audit” that would include measures of “direct and indirect threats to individual bodily safety and freedom”.

The problem with projects like these is the identification of certain values, which are chosen, as more important than others without justification. Why, for example, are “threats to safety and freedom the most important”? What about, say, education? Why should the “essential” elements comprise of “poverty, health, education, political freedom and democracy”? Is a rich, healthy, and educated area of London necessarily secure? The challenge is to narrow the definition but give compelling reasons as to why certain values are preferred.

Narrowing down human security also creates another problem. The ambiguity of the concept unites a diverse and often fractious coalition of states and organisations. Making human security more specific would run the risk of aggravating certain groups and alienating them.

What is the merit, then, in narrowing the concept of security?

Human Security as a Category of Research

“Human security may serve as a label for a broad category of research in the field of security studies that is primarily concerned with non-military threats to the safety of societies, groups, and individuals, in contrast to more traditional approaches to security studies that focus on protecting states from external threats.”

The point of this suggestion is that despite the vagueness of the concept, human security could still play a useful “taxonomical” role. This would be well-aligned to the slippery and volatile nature of the concept itself.

Security studies has broadened and deepened since the Cold War. Broadened in that it has moved beyond the conventional military understanding to include a host of non-military threats. Deepened in that it is now willing to consider individuals and groups as referent objects rather than states alone.

Using the notions of deepening and broadening, it is possible to construct a matrix to situate the literature in the field of security studies.

Roland Paris Matrix Security Studies

Cell 1 contains works that concentrate on military threats to the security of states. Cell 2 contains works addressing non-military threats (instead of or in addition to military threats) to states. Cell 3 focuses on military threats to non-state actors like societies, groups and individuals. Cell 4 is concerned with military and non-military threats, or both, to the security of societies, groups, and individuals. This last area of literature is what would be called “human security”.

Using human security to describe this category of research is intuitive as the issues covered echo many of the concerns of human security. It avoids the problem of framing precise hypotheses about human security — a problem that has turned out to be an unsurmountable one. Using human security as a descriptive label frees it from presupposing any normative agenda.

This exercise also helps differentiate the principal approaches to security studies. It is no longer sufficient nor reasonable to define security studies in dualistic terms — the state-centric realist approaches as opposed to the “disorderly bazaar” of alternative approaches. It could also help draw attention to existing works through the very “fashionability” of security studies.

This is not to assert that these compartments are watertight. They are permeable.


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I am chronic procrastinator.