By Walter Dorn


Paper prepared for the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre for use in courses. The PPT used at the PPC and elsewhere is "Human Security: Four Debates" (pdf, 2.7 MB) (ppt, 2.2 MB)


"The world can never be at peace unless people have security in their daily lives."

With this statement, the authors of the 1994 Human Development Report began an exploration of the "new concept of human security." This people-centred concept, which quickly gained adherents, was based on the same premise as the related concepts of human rights and human development, namely, that the individual human being is the principal object of concern, regardless of race, religion, creed, colour, ideology or nationality. Like its sister concepts, human security has the characteristic of universality: it is applicable to individuals everywhere.

The 1994 Human Development Report defined human security as people's "safety from chronic threats and protection from sudden hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily life." Seven types of security were listed as components of human security: economic security; food security; health security; environmental security; personal (physical) security; community security; and political security. The Canadian government, which has become one of the champions of the human security concept, adopted a similar definition: "Human security means freedom from pervasive threats to people's rights, safety and lives." Depending on what one considers as constituting "people's rights and safety" the scope of this definition is either narrow or broad2. In practice, the Canadian government chose to focus its Human Security Agenda on the personal (physical) security dimension, in part to make it more distinct from the concept of human development and to permit a sharper concentration on issues that seemed to cry out for international attention.3

In the post-Cold War world, a series of horrendous internal conflicts had claimed the lives of millions of people in regions like Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The spectre of genocide, ethnic cleansing, failed and lawless states, and massive refugee flows begged a coordinated international response. In an age of global communications around a shrinking global village, governments could no longer turn a blind eye to human atrocities in hotspots in the world. The international media contributed to an emerging global conscience through the transmission of live images of brutal conflict and the concomitant human suffering. The resulting "humanitarian imperative" (sometimes dubbed the CNN effect when caused by media reports) pressured nations as well as individuals to develop new initiatives and policy responses to save lives and alleviate human suffering. In the human security domain, where the sanctity of human life is paramount, the pressing need was to find effective means and mechanisms to protect human beings, especially the many innocent victims of armed attacks. This humanitarian action was to be complemented by an active effort at both conflict prevention and post-war recovery, that is, through the entire timeline of conflict. Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy made human security his hallmark and brought Canada to a leadership position on the issue. In 1999, he summarized Canada's human security policy thus:

"It is, in essence, an effort to construct a global Society where the safety of the individual is at the centre of international priorities and a motivating force for international action; where international human standards and the rule of law are advanced and woven into a coherent web protecting the individual; where those who violate these standards are held fully accountable; and where our global, regional and bilateral institutions - present and future - are built and equipped to enhance and enforce these standards."

The Canadian foreign ministry developed a "Human Security Agenda" with the following five themes: protection of civilians; peace support operations; governance and accountability; public safety; and conflict prevention. The implementation of the Agenda has taken various forms, from the negotiation of arms control agreements (especially for weapons causing widespread human suffering, like landmines and small arms) to targeting aid for post-conflict peacebuilding (e.g., in the former Yugoslavia), from improved UN early warning and prevention capabilities to new establishing legal bodies like the International Criminal Court. Within each theme, Canada chose sub-issues or groups of persons for special attention, such as war-affected children (under protection of civilians), rapid deployment of peacekeepers (under peace support operations), security sector reform and individual criminal accountability (under governance and accountability), trans-national organized crime (under public safety) and early warning (under conflict prevention). To help implement the Human Security Agenda, a Peacebuilding and Human Security Division was created in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade ( It has developed new initiatives and produced interesting and useful documents on human security, including the brochure "Freedom from Fear: Canada's Foreign Policy for Human Security", which is available at

Canada, along with Norway, also sought to foster wider interest and commitment to human security by creating the Human Security Network (, which currently has thirteen countries as members4 and uses a variety of informal mechanisms, including annual ministerial meetings, to discuss and advance the human security cause.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan also found a place of choice for human security in his speeches: "Ensuring human security is, in the broadest sense, the United Nations' cardinal mission. Genuine and lasting prevention is the means to achieve that mission."1 Thus, the concept of human security has gained a significant position in international parlance.



Still, there were a number of countries, groups and academics who question not only the definition and scope of the human security concept, but its very utility. Some academics and practitioners have wondered if human security was the "radical departure" in foreign policy, as sometimes claimed. Concerns about human safety have been with the international community at least from the time of the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the 1860s. Some questioned if the concept was really needed since all the initiatives in the human security agenda were already advancing before the advent of the concept5. Proponents of human security responded that the concept was a convenient and useful way to group together and collectively push the wide array of people-centred initiatives.

Other criticisms of human security, using a different line of reasoning, were more harsh. From an extreme conservative hard line point of view, human security was seen as 'pulpit diplomacy', 'foreign policy for wimps', and contrary to the national interest. Some claimed the human security concept to be counterproductive.

This well-intentioned if still somewhat vague initiative, however, denies long-established principles of state sovereignty, and may well encourage unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of other states, issuing "a blank cheque for virtually limitless UN interventionism." In fact, the potential for greater human insecurity may be fostered, ".as governments fortify against a possible intervention by repressing their populations into servility."6

Some developing countries expressed similar reservations about the adoption of human security fearing that, having universal application, human security could be used to justify major power or UN intervention in matters which they considered domestic. Some great powers held similar reservations because they did not want to be forced to intervene when such action was not deemed to be in their national interests. This is one reason why the term human security has not yet been used in Security Council resolutions, though it has been used in statements of the Council President and reports of the Secretary-General.


Human Security and Related Concepts

The power and novelty of the concept of human security is perhaps best shown when it is compared and contrasted with related concepts which are widely accepted. For instance, human security and human development are often described as twin concepts, being simply "freedom from fear" and "freedom from want," respectively. To elaborate, human security is the ability to enjoy the fruits of human development in a safe environment. Human development is one important means to create human security. The two initiatives are complementary and mutually reinforcing. Without one, the other becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Similarly, human security and human rights are intertwined. Firstly, human security (at least in its narrow definition) is a human right. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person" (emphasis added). Many national constitutions including those of the US and Canada, reaffirm the same right.7 Conversely, it is recognized that when human rights are respected, then human security is well advanced.

The power of the human security concept is most clearly evident when it is contrasted with the traditional concept of national security. In the human security approach, the welfare of human beings around the world is the object of concern rather than military and strategic interests of a particular state. The defence of human life is more important than the defence of land, and personal integrity is as important as territorial integrity. Interstate wars in the world remain an important concern but they are not necessarily more important than internal wars, which are known to cause even more human suffering. The use of threats and force are not excluded as tools of international diplomacy under human security but they are minimized because of the potential damage to human lives in their application. The deployment of armed forces for defence, collective security and humanitarian intervention is permitted, if not encouraged, but only so long as the application of force is justified, proportional, and legitimate under international law, while minimizing if not eliminating deaths of innocent people. Human security puts a premium on human life. Thus, peacekeeping is preferred to war-fighting, which is only seen as viable as a last resort. Proper procedure, due process and fostering cooperation are preferred to surprise attack, armed deterrence and robust defence as modus operandi. Transparency and factual reporting in military operations replace secrecy and one-sided propaganda as the characteristic of information dissemination. Emphasis is placed on conflict prevention in place of armed reaction because prevention can save lives as well as maintain human progress, and can be less costly in many ways. In the human security sphere, weapons are not the major tool; they are largely replaced with a host of cooperative endeavours to broaden dialogue and understanding.

Human security and national security are complementary concepts and need not necessarily contradict each other. Both seek protection against harm. To organize and ensure human security, armed forces are necessary. To provide for national security, the removal of threats, at home and abroad, is needed. Defence of the "enlightened self-interest" leads one to affirm the central tenets of human security and the organization of human security on the international level leads to a respect for national security.

The human security paradigm itself leads to a special but natural set of tensions. The concept of human security is a people-centred approach that embraces both the dichotomies of individuality and universality, of indivisibility and personal freedom, of individual rights and collective rights. Obviously, a balance point has to be reached, one which must take into account both the authority of the state and the freedom of the individual.

In the human security approach, a much wider range of actors contribute to security. Expanding from the notion of military and police forces as the security providers, the human security providers include the development community and civil society (meaning the engaged elements of society, especially non-governmental organizations providing humanitarian aid). These organizations help furnish the basis not only for development but also for disarmament. Civil society often assists in the movement towards better gun controls and can actually led in the implementation of disarmament measures (as has been seen in "goods for guns" programs in Central America, Eastern Europe and Africa sponsored by local groups). Civil society can also play a vital role in promoting adherence to national legislation (for example, through support of community policing) and in the verification of international treaties (as in the case of the civil society evaluation and promotion of state compliance with the anti-personnel mines convention).

The rise of the human security concept can help explain the rapprochement of the security and development communities. As the issues of security and development tend to converge, so have many projects in these two fields, especially in war-affected regions. The development community has found itself playing an important role in fostering disarmament and the security community is now thinking of development as a way to secure the peace.



Human security is a people-centered approach which has gained considerable attention in recent years. Because it is founded on the fundamental principle of the centrality of the individual, it is a concept that is likely to stay permanently in the international dialogue. How it is defined and applied is still a matter of discussion and growing experience. But the struggle to find the proper means and ends is a natural process which will see many successes and failures. As is often the case, international situations and practice will help define both the debate and the rules which arise from it, especially treaty and customary international law.

As the world becomes more conscious of its interconnectedness and as human beings recognize their responsibilities to each other in the "global village", the concept of human security is bound to find increasing application and wider adherence.

"Not until the creation and maintenance of decent conditions of life for all people are recognized and accepted as a common obligation of all people and all countries -- not until then shall we, with a certain degree of justification, be able to speak of humankind as civilized."
             — Albert Einstein, 1945



The developer of this module, Dr. Walter Dorn, would like to thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for the provision of a Human Security Fellowship for 2001/02.



1. UN Chronicle Online, Volume XXXV, Number 1, 1998, Department of Public Information, United Nations, found at (accessed 19 November 2001).

2. Depending on how one defines "people's rights", the Canadian definition of human security can be viewed as either narrow or broad. If rights include all those covered by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (including the right to work, food, education, etc.), it would be a broad definition of human security. If the more common concept of human rights, as used in the United Nations to cover "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment", is used then the human security concept would be correspondingly narrow.

3. Some of the early Canadian literature on human security was critical of the broad definition used in the 1994 Human Development Report. For instance, an early DFAIT concept paper that was widely distributed said the

"definition advanced in the report was extremely ambitious. ... The very breadth of the UNDP approach, however, made it unwieldy as a policy instrument. Equally important, in emphasizing the threats associated with underdevelopment, the Report largely ignored the continuing human insecurity resulting from violent conflict. ... The UNDP definition of human security was proposed as a key concept during the preparatory stages of the 1995 Copenhagen Summit on Social Development. But it was rejected during the Summit and has not been widely used thereafter." ["Human Security: Safety for People in a Changing World," Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, Ottawa, April 1999, p. 3].

This kind of comparative and competitive approach has been largely replaced by a more flexible and holistic approach, in which it is recognized that "the threats to human security experienced in different regions of the world differ, as do the resources available to address those threats" [Human Security Network, "Approaches to Human Security", previously available at, accessed 31 August 2001].

4. The thirteen members of the Human Security Network, as of October 2002, are: Austria, Canada, Chile, Greece, Ireland, Jordan, Mali, The Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Switzerland and Thailand.

5. The editors of the volume "Human Security and the New Diplomacy: Protecting People, Promoting Peace" (see Bibliography) write in their preface that the human security concept is the core of a "radically new foreign policy agenda" (p. xxi).

6. Bashow, David L., "Reconciling the Irreconcilable: Canada's Foreign and Defence Policy Linkage", Canadian Defence Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 2000. The quotes in the article are from a column entitled "Human Security" in The National Post, 27 October 1999.

7. For example, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person" (Article 7).




Axworthy, Lloyd, "Introduction" in Rob McRae and Don Hubert (ed.), Human Security and the New Diplomacy: Protecting People, Promoting Peace, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 2001, pp. 3-13.

Bain, William, "Against Crusading: The Ethic of Human Security and Canadian Foreign Policy", Canadian Foreign Policy, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Spring 1999), pp. 85-98.

Bashow, David L., "Reconciling the Irreconcilable: Canada's Foreign and Defence Policy Linkage", Canadian Defence Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 2000. [Provides a critical view of human security.]

Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) Canada, "Freedom from Fear: Canada's Foreign Policy for Human Security," Ottawa, 2000. Available at (accessed July 2001). [Provided here as Reading A.]

Dorn, A. Walter, "Small Arms, Human Security and Development", Development Express, No. 5, 1999-2000, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Ottawa, November 2000. Available online, accessed 1 August 2001.

Heinbecker, Paul, "Human Security: The Hard Edge", Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 1, No.1 (Spring 2000), Available at, accessed 20 August 2001.

McRae, Rob and Don Hubert (eds.), Human Security and the New Diplomacy: Protecting People, Promoting Peace (Introduction by Lloyd Axworthy, foreword by Kofi Annan), McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 2001.

Naidu, M.V. (ed.), Perspectives on Human Security: National Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention, CPREA, Brandon University, 2001.

Reghr, Ernie, "Defence and Human Security" in M.V. Naidu, Perspectives on Human Security: National Sovereignty and Humanitarian Intervention, CPREA, Brandon University, 2001.

Sokolsky, Joel and Joseph Jockel, "Lloyd Axworthy's Legacy: Human Security and the Rescue of Canadian Defence Policy", International Journal, Winter 2000-2001, p.1.

Tow, William T., Ramesh Thakur and In-Taek Hyun, eds. "Asia's Emerging Regional Order: Reconciling traditional and human security," Tokyo, Japan: United Nations University Press; 2000; pp. 13-32.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Human Development Report 1994, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.