REFLECTION What is human security, and what dimensions does it encompass? What threats does it face, and how do we manage and resolve them? In recent times, it appears as if threats to human security have been aggravated by global warming, manipulation through social media, and trigger-happy, Mafia-esque leaders who seem more interested in preserving their own privileges than ensuring human security.
Human security can be said to consist of several different layers or dimensions. These have been addressed differently over time, and each has faced different kinds of threats.
Human security as the security of states: Security and peace have long been associated with the security of states, as states are responsible for the protection of their citizens against external attacks from other states. While this can be achieved using military means, conflict resolution and common security can also be ensured using diplomacy, dialogue, and cooperation with others and diplomacy is often regarded as the first line of defense.
Furthermore, states must protect citizens from crime and violence within the borders of their respective countries through the combined efforts of the police and judiciary system. As we know, however, there are many examples from history of states who applied their monopoly on violence against the citizens and inhabitants of their own country, as is the case in Belarus today and the Peoples Republic of China in oppressing the Uighur population. Possessing a large defense force, as the United States does, is no guarantee of human security; on the contrary, strong military-industrial structures can lead to the neglect of other aspects of human security, such as in the former Soviet Union and todays Russia.
The latter part of the 20th century was marked by a significant willingness to cooperate and work proactively to attain peace, thereby furthering the cause of human security. This work required that countries, including the global superpowers, relinquished parts of their sovereignty in favor of forging binding agreements on the disarmament of nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry. It was a time characterized by Western predominance, where the United States was held as a global leader, but also a time of decolonization, with an increasing number of states becoming engaged in multilateral cooperation within the UN, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and EU.
Human security as the fulfillment of basic needs and freedom from want: The UN Charter of 1945, drafted to prevent further suffering, abuse, and systematic massacres, constitutes a commitment on the part of the member states to promote justice, social progress, and better living conditions alongside the realization of peace. In 1994, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) presented a report that emphasized the need for poor people to have their basic material needs met to achieve human security. The fact that these aspects of human security were being given their due recognition was, to a large extent, a function of the fact that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 entailed sharply reduced military tensions and nuclear threats. This led to discussions (including within SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) regarding the possibility of a “peace dividend”, whereby the resources spared by reduced defense funding could instead could be put toward social initiatives and poverty reduction.
Central tenets of human security raised at this time also included the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, or religion; freedom of expression; free press; and independent courts. These themes were also key elements in UN negotiations, such as the World Conferences held in the 1990s, with the aim to enforce women’s right to their own bodies (particularly abortion rights) and to ensure economic rights, such as equal inheritance. While these texts, agreed upon by the state parties of the UN, were not legally binding, they were politically binding and contributed to the adoption of numerous national anti-discriminatory laws.
Human security from the current perspective on global threats: The threats faced in 2020 share the same three dimensions as those previously discussed, but there are also new challenges facing us humans as a collective. These include accelerated global warming, rising sea levels and melting glaciers, the poisoning of lakes and freshwater resources, mass extinction of animal and plant species: threats to human security of a magnitude previously unseen. They stem from our clueless lifestyles and consumption patterns, especially those of the last 75 years, and the exploitation of what we consider to be “our resources”, to be used for whatever purpose we deem fit. The blame is unevenly distributed, as studies by Oxfam indicate that those belonging to the wealthiest one percent of the world’s population account for 15 % of all greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to the combined emissions of the entire EU. In comparison, the poor (and women in particular) consume the least, and hardy cause any emissions.
The threats to our collective human security also include pandemics, such as Covid-19, health risks such as antibiotic resistance, and widespread (male) violence against women, children, and men, which deserves to be considered as a pandemic by virtue of its prevalence.
In addition to these new threats against our collective species, we still face the persisting nuclear and military threats, especially now that confidence in diplomatic dialogue and confidence-building measures are increasingly being replaced by militant nationalism and self-interest.
Human security has always had different meanings for different groups and individuals
The meaning of security and human security differ between people, depending on their position within their society; opportunities for influence, wealth and income; gender; age; ethnicity; and religion. In 2020, the Swedish National Defense University published a research study that reported clear differences between the views of Swedish men and women regarding security is and how it is best secured. A general observation was that, to a much greater extent, men advocated for the use of coercive measures in order to create security. This finding is in line with similar studies that discuss the relatively positive views of men on military defense and the preference of women for other approaches to ensure human security – and the greater preparedness of women to make personal choices in terms of their consumption patterns and lifestyles, the result of which is a decreased risk of global warming.
The threats to human security and the common features thereof
There are a number of apparent threats to human security, and all of their dimensions must be continually addressed.
In spite of the aggressive behaviour of states like Russia, the threat that appears to be of least concern at present is conflict betweenstates. Instead, threats within states appear to be a far greater risk, as these can result in uncontrolled violence or even civil wars. Tension can potentially result from growing economic gaps, unevenly distributed wealth, violations of democratic rights, systematic (and often religion-based) restrictions of women’s rights, violations of free media and freedom of expression, discrimination and lack of respect for the rule of law.
In the last decade, we have seen a change; a move away from liberal democracy, even though most people thought that democracy would reign forever across the globe as recently as 1989. Today, just a few decades later, it appears instead as if President Putin has won. It is his shameless, authoritarian, Mafia-esque style of leadership that has prevailed rather than democracy. We see it in leaders such as Trump (who never criticizes Putin), Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, Orban, and Kaczynsky, leaders in countries that have not previously demonstrated such contempt for the truth, minorities, or people with different opinions.
Modern leaders are men who take criticism of themselves as criticism of their countries and who are keener to protect their own privileges than to ensure human security for their people.
Scarily, we can also see how the ruthlessly violent styles of current leaders are imitated by males at all levels of society. This is evident in schools where bullying is the norm, particularly among females and persons with disabilities.
If we do nothing, we risk a “perfect storm” in which violence rules; diplomacy and common treaties are cast aside; nothing meaningful is done to prevent climate change; democracy is manipulated through Facebook, Google, troll factories, and algorithms; and key actors at the market and well-off voters act with indifference to bullying and the like as long as the economy delivers.
How do we best protect ourselves, and how do we ensure human security for ourselves and future generations? This the great challenge that we face today.
What we need more than anything to defend human security is to promote decency and civility, even against those from whom we differ. We must return to the core values that prevailed until not so long ago, namely dialogue, cooperation, and trust. If we don’t, we will never be able to address climate threats and global warming. Such was the message of David Attenborough in his new film about our fantastically beautiful world that is now being threatened by human greed and hybris.
As during so many other times in history, the resistance to autocrats tends to be weak, fragmented, and disoriented. It is thus imperative to support the forces that stand up for human security, including organizations, groups, such individuals as Navalny and Anne Applebaum, the Uighurs, religious minorities, and feminists across the globe. Evidently, we must act with determination to uphold the rule of law, human security, and protection of the planet.
Gerd Johnsson-Latham is the editor in chief of Mänsklig Säkerhet. She has worked for the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs with for example women’s rights and human rights, and was president of Kvinna till Kvinna. She is also a member of the board of Klimatriksdagen.
Would you like to write an article responding to, discussing or criticizing this text? Contact the editor.