Freedom from Fear or Freedom from Want? A Consideration of International and Human Security

Published: 2019/12/05 Number of words: 2321

‘Freedom from fear’ and ‘freedom from want’ (Human Development Report, UNDP, 1994): is there a difference between human security and international security?

A simplistic understanding of ‘international security’ will refer only to security issues pertaining to the international sphere. Yet, of course, it is not that simple. There are many interpretations of the term and opinions regarding what it means. Stephen Walt, in his much-cited essay, One World, Many Theories, (1998) outlines three major theories of international relations: the realist approach, which focuses on the persistence of conflict between states for power and security; the liberal approach, which emphasises the benefits to all states of democracy and global economics; and the radical approach, which in modern times manifests itself as constructivism. It emphasises the impact of ideas and the way that discourse can shape ideas and behaviours. From the time of the establishment of the United Nations (UN) in 1945, the realist, state-centric interpretation had been the strongest; it was dominant during the Cold War, the nature of which reaffirmed this understanding of international security. However, the end of the Cold War and the changing nature of many of the problems regarding international security meant that analysts and those working in the field began to shift resources away from the military and defence. They wanted to refocus the minds of policymakers away from the grand arena of super-power conflict to the welfare of individual people. This new emphasis was referred to as ‘human security’, a term which first appeared in the UNDP Human Development Report of 1994. Since then, some ‘middle power’ states, most notably Canada and Norway, have actively promoted this concept and developed a ‘Human Security Network’ of states holding similar power and NGOs.

This concept of human security immediately placed it within an international framework: the term has since been championed by a network which is global in scope. In the 2004 UN security report, human security issues are included under the umbrella term of ‘international security’ along with other, more traditional, issues such as inter-state conflict. It seems, then, that human security can be conceived of within a broad definition of international security. However, this does not provide a satisfactory answer to the question of whether human security is different from international security as both are characterised by enormous conflict and competition between theories of analysis and practice. It has been argued by some that, in fact, the term ‘human security’ is simply the result of the ‘securitization’ of human development for political ends, which is in fact not a security issue at all. By looking at the two terms theoretically, I will argue that striving for ‘freedom from want’ and ‘freedom from fear’ is an issue of security and not only of development; our ability to understand human security using standard security theory is a legitimate and important aspect of this field. These theories are relevant and important because they aid us in our interpretation of a ‘complicated picture’ and help us to ‘explain the assumptions behind political rhetoric about foreign policy’.

In his article on human security, Roland Paris argues that there is a complete lack of consensus on the definition of human security in both analysis and practice. Many attempts to define the term have generally failed to provide any real answers, thus leaving the scope of inclusion wide open. However, Collins credits the field with a little more coherence, dividing it into two main schools of thought. The ‘broad school’ contains the many and varied arguments that human security should include concerns with the protection of people from all life-threatening dangers, including disease and natural disasters, regardless of whether they take place within or outside states. The ‘narrow school’ subscribes to the belief that a threat to human security should only include threats posed by political violence to individuals, groups or societies by the state or any other organised political actor. Collins says that the latter is, broadly speaking, interested in promoting (using the terminology of the 1994 UNDP report) ‘freedom from fear’ whilst the former is interested in helping people achieve ‘freedom from want’. These two views of human security as outlined by Collins are perhaps in as much conflict with one another as are the theories within the field of international security as a whole. However, by considering the theoretical arguments that divide the terms human security and international security, we may be able to develop our understanding of how they relate to one another.

As discussed earlier, since the end of the Cold War there has been a shift towards an increased recognition of the individual as the ‘ultimate referent of security’. However, it is widely accepted that the realists’ state-centric dogma has remained a major focus of international security in the twenty-first century. In the post 9/11 world, realists have been faced with the challenge of incorporating the role of non-state actors into their traditional concept of international security. In order to cope with this, some realists have presented a revamped realist theory of international security which accepts that ‘non-state actors are now able to resort to violence’. This argument could be used by realists to explain the narrow view of human security: political actors – state or non-state – remain the key actors, and threats of a violent nature remain the most important. Furthermore, realists maintain that the adoption of the human security concept by smaller states is an example of arm-twisting by powerful states and international organisations.

One could also interpret the narrow school of thought regarding human security in terms of liberal security theory: an emphasis on dealing with security threats posed solely by organised and violent political groups could perhaps, in the liberal view, reflect self-interested policy making that uses human security as a tool to further domestic economic interests and political goals. Indeed, this is a view propounded by Paris, who argues that states and organisations have used human security to capture domestic political interest and substantial resources normally associated with more traditional conceptions of the term.

To illustrate this argument, the updated realist and liberal analyses may help explain why, despite the UNDP’s emphasis on ‘freedom from want’ in its 1994 report, The Human Security Network has focussed mainly on issues that concern the ‘freedom from fear’: for example, some of its major objections since its formation have included ‘universalization of the Ottawa Convention on Anti-Personnel Landmines, the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the protection of children in armed conflict, the control of small arms and light weapons, the fight against transnational organized crime…and prevention of conflict’. Realists would argue that human security as acted out through the Human Security Network has focussed on these issues because international security is fundamentally driven by violent conflicts between political actors, whilst liberals might say that the states and organisations that signed up to the Network did so to increase their domestic and international political standing. But despite conflicting arguments concerning the motivations behind the behaviour of the Human Security Network, its pursuits nevertheless provide evidence that some actions are necessary for the protection of human security, and are not merely issues of development.

What, then, of the ‘broad school’; the interest in promoting ‘freedom from fear’, which despite being widely advocated has, perhaps because of its conceptual vagueness, produced little concrete action? It is certainly complex, and in the sense that it is nearly impossible to clearly define a set of objectives within it, it has proved very weak as a vehicle for policy formulation. However, we may be able to increase our understanding of the matter if we look at the concept through the lens of the relatively new constructivist theory of international security. Constructivist thought is that ‘international politics is shaped by persuasive ideas, collective values, culture, and social identities’, and that ‘debates about ideas are the fundamental building blocks of international life. Individuals and groups become powerful if they can convince others to adopt their ideas.’ This theory has been particularly significant in our understanding of the post 9/11 world, which has presented traditional understandings of international security with new challenges in the shape of non-state actors and transnational structures and organisations. As Paris has highlighted, the notion of human security is not a coherent school of thought: it is full of different and competing conceptions of what it should include, and, according to Newman, these may ‘reflect different sociological/cultural and geostrategic orientations’. Constructivists would argue that the emergence of human security ‘as a broad, multifaceted, and evolving conception of security’ is a reflection of the ‘background of evolving transnational norms relating to security and governance’ that characterises the world today. In a turbulent post 9/11 world, in which the concept of what security entails and the forces that shape our security concerns are certainly changing, constructivism does seem to present quite a convincing explanation. It has become clear that ‘the impact of ideas upon international relations is beyond doubt’ including and especially on the development of human security. It is clear that constructivism is never going to be able to explain all the complexities of international or human security – as Snyder points out, the theory does not explain the continuation of human rights abuses ‘despite intense activism for humanitarian norms and efforts for international justice’. However, in terms of the broad school of thought regarding human security, we can see the difficulty in defining the term as a reflection of the current of changing ideas and norms in general.

We have seen, then, that it is possible to look at the issue of human security through the lens of the three prevailing dominant interpretations of international security. An understanding of human security is very different from the typical understanding of international security in that the human, not the state, is the ultimate referent of security. Human security and international security are distinct from each other and each has validity whilst it is important that the individual be considered as the focus of security issues, the state is going to continue in its role as a key actor in international politics for the foreseeable future. However, we cannot separate them completely; human security remains fundamentally an issue of international security because it is through using the conceptual toolbox that academics and practitioners have developed to analyze traditional security issues that we can best understand the new ones that see the human as the centre of security today.


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