Responding to multidimensional threats: it is (again) time for human security

We live in insecure times. Current global challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic, show that traditional approaches to providing security no longer work. The international legal framework continues to emphasize national security and neglect personal security, resilience and empowerment. The current backlash against human rights and a rule-based international order exacerbates international law’s weakness in creating everyday security. It is time to revive the idea of human security as a guiding principle for international law to counter multidimensional threats.


1. The idea of human security

When the notion of “human security” was coined in the 1994 Human Development Report of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), it called for a shift away from the focus on national security, global security or common security, and placed the individual human being at the center of attention. The UNDP defined human security as “a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, a job that was not cut, an ethnic tension that did not explode in violence, a dissident who was not silenced” (UNDP Human Development Report 1994). The concept suggests that security is multidimensional and that individual human beings are the actual referents of any type of security. They need to be protected from pervasive threats and empowered to gain resilience so as to face risks in seven interconnected security areas: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security. 

The idea of human security gained some traction in foreign policy circles in the 1990s. Canada used it for a while to support an interventionist humanitarian stance in its foreign policy, geared towards protecting civilians from mass atrocities and genocide, before switching to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Japan, confronted with the Asian financial crisis of 1997, embedded human security in a more lasting fashion into its development policies and is, to this day, one of the few remaining advocates of the concept which has otherwise lost its appeal. This, despite an attempt by the UN General Assembly to interest UN member states with a General Assembly resolution devoted to human security in 2012. In this resolution, human security was, however, reduced to little more than a supporting framework for “identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people” (UN General Assembly resolution 66/290). All that is left of human security today in the UN is a Human Security Unit, a Trust Fund, and an Adviser to the Secretary-General


2. Human security is the ultimate purpose of international law

But human security is needed more than ever, not only as a driving force for global policy but also as a guiding principle for international law, in which it never succeeded in gaining a firm foothold, as well as for international law’s global and regional institutions. Human security can support international law in placing the individual human being at the centre of attention. The concept suggests that sovereignty has limits and international law must protect effectively against violence, atrocities and genocide; that national security makes little sense when it leaves individual human beings vulnerable to multiple threats and risks; that security presupposes individuals who enjoy human rights and have agency under international law; and that such goals can be achieved only through multilateral and cooperative global action. 

This is all the more important as recent years have seen a backlash against such a perception of international law’s purpose for providing everyday security. The number of states which reject a rules-based international order, retract from multilateralism, denounce the rule of law, treat human rights with contempt, withdraw from international treaties and resort to nationalism and authoritarianism is growing. In addition, the international legal order seems to have difficulty in responding to new challenges, such as technological advances, the rise of artificial intelligence, or climate change. 


3. Covid-19 and the future of international law: protection, resilience, solidary

The Covid-19 crisis is also on this list of challenges. And again, in this crisis, reliance on national security, territorial integrity and state sovereignty has fallen short of providing an appropriate response to the repercussions of the virus. The pandemic presented us a world in which crossing borders became a dangerous adventure, supply chains were disrupted, every-day lives securitized with little concern for human rights or vulnerability, and the majority of the global population was left behind, in defiance of the solidarity suggested by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Global inequality has become more entrenched, affluent states have encountered Covid-19-related insecurity unprepared, and economically disadvantaged countries have merely added the pandemic to a long list of other existential threats to their population because human security was not taken seriously as the ultimate goal, as Edward Newman has recently shown. 

The idea of human security may have lost its zest over the years but (as Covid-19 demonstrates) not its importance in informing international law about its purpose, direction, and value in confronting multidimensional risks and threats with concern for human rights and rule of law, protection of those vulnerable and left behind, multilateral cooperation, and global solidarity. It is time to revive human security in international law by adopting global legal arrangements geared toward ensuring human security, holding states and non-state actors accountable for endangering human security, and embedding human security more firmly in the institutions of international law, including the UN and its Security Council. 



Gerd Oberleitner is UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Human Security and Director of the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy at the University of Graz. He worked in the Office of the Legal Advisor of the Austrian Foreign Ministry and at the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Human Rights. He was Visiting Professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Universities of Prishtina and Ljubljana, Rutgers University, and DAAD Visiting Professor at the University of Bochum, and teaches in the Global Campus of Human Rights. He is co-editor of the European Yearbook of Human Rights and the publication series Human Rights Go Local. Publications include Blurring Boundaries – Human Security and Migration (Brill 2017, as co-editor), Human Rights in Armed Conflict: Law, Practice, Policy (CUP 2015), International Human Rights Institutions, Tribunals and Courts (Springer 2018, as editor), and the forthcoming Research Handbook on International Law and Human Security (Edward Elgar, as editor).