Why is human security important?

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Dr Hayley Watson | Director, Sociotech Innovation
Kush Wadhwa | Chief Executive Officer & Chief Technology Officer

Date: 7 April 2020

Never has the concept of human security been as important as it is today as the world responds to the global pandemic COVID-19, which broke out in Wuhan, China in December 2019. On the day of writing, 7 April 2020, the World Health Organisation has reported 1,247,244 confirmed cases, 69,213 confirmed deaths and 211 countries or territories with cases, with forecasts for millions infected and countless deaths.

In this article, we seek to show why taking a human security approach provides a critical lens for planning for, responding to and recovering from crises that require situational awareness of the human environment on the ground.

What is human security?

As a concept, human security can be traced back to the humanitarian arena, where the focus has been placed on a human-centric approach to assessing the wellbeing of the individual and the interconnection to driving insecurity. In 1994, the UNDP report on Human Development stressed the importance of a human security approach that focused on human life and dignity. The twin-pillars of freedom from fear and freedom from want have been two central components to human security, with a leaning towards the first. Accordingly, the authors stressed the importance of four characteristics of human security: “Human security is a universal concern…Components of human security are interdependent…Human security is easier to ensure through early prevention than later intervention…Human security is people-centred”.

They consider human insecurity factors across seven macro-categories: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political.  Importantly, these issues are not isolated from one another and require a holistic lens to understand their interconnectedness and potential cascades.


Such an approach continues to be upheld by The United Nations Human Security Unit, which views human security as “a comprehensive framework for addressing widespread and cross-cutting threats. Recognizing that threats to individuals and communities vary considerably across and within countries, and at different points in time, the application of human security calls for an assessment of human insecurities that is people-centred, comprehensive, context-specific and prevention-oriented.”  United Nations, Human Security Unit: Strategic Plan 2014-2017, 2014.

As identified by King and Murray, over time, freedom from indignity has increasingly been cited as a pillar of human security. This additional pillar seeks to address democratic governance, rule of law, and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Another pillar, the freedom to ‘take action on one’s own behalf,’ was first articulated in 2003 within the Commission on Human Security (an in independent Commission on Human Security supported by the UN) Human Security Now report and focused on an empowerment model that seeks to provide an enabling environment for individuals to determine the trajectory of their lives without interference or impediment. Further, the UN General Assembly released the report, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All (2005) where the focus was placed on the pillars of freedom from Fear, Freedom from Deprivation and Freedom to Live in Dignity. Over time, the concept of human security and the pillars upon which it sits for the UN has expanded. In 2012, The General Assembly adopted UN resolution 66/290 entitled Follow-up to paragraph 143 on human security of the 2005 World Summit Outcome. Here, human security was defined as “an approach to assist Member States in identifying and addressing widespread and cross-cutting challenges to the survival, livelihood and dignity of their people.”

Conceptually, much can be said and indeed is debated about the concept of human security, from how to define it, what it constitutes and how it should be used as a framework for analysis. As we have illustrated elsewhere, the concept of human security is critical in building the resilience of civilian populations, working towards the promotion of security before, during and after a crisis and building stability and peace. To do so, it is necessary to develop a better understanding of the kinds of issues that threaten the security of people — of individuals and their communities. This is what we call — a people-centric, human security-focused approach to crisis.

Human Security & COVID-19

Using the lens of human security, the global pandemic presents decision-makers with an array of complex threats and vulnerabilities, threatening the wellbeing of citizens, the economy and in some countries, human rights and civil liberties – amongst others!

Let’s consider a couple that are emerging.

In the UK, as the toll of the pandemic became increasingly apparent in March 2020, it was clear that greater measures were required to respond to the pandemic and its impact on the wellbeing of citizens and the ability for the health service, the NHS, to respond to the growing demands placed upon it.

As the restrictions on movement and the need for social distancing rose, so too did various inter-connected issues: shutting down schools and the availability of free school meals for vulnerable groups; keeping schools open for children of essential workers, shops being able to keep shelves full amongst heightened ‘panic’ buying, economic packages for businesses and the self-employed, heightened cybersecurity risk and threats of organised crime, increased threats to individuals at risk of domestic abuse. Elsewhere, Dr Pieri, from the University of Manchester’s School of Social Sciences, has warned of the impact of measures imposed as a result of the pandemic in some places, leading to the creation of “inequalities, as well as exacerbating existing social inequalities that were already experienced in pre-pandemic times.”

The list of impacts goes on and will continue to evolve as time passes.

How then do we unscramble such a complex picture to create a comprehensive picture of the human security environment to support decision making and the targeting of resources to strengthen societal wellbeing and resilience?

Human Security Analysis

Data becomes a rich and integral tool to understanding underlying threats and vulnerabilities and their wider cascading effects and potential social impacts. Whilst a lot of data exists, they are often buried within a mountain of resources, in disparate locations and formats. Take COVID-19 – a vast array of data exists:

  • Pandemic data tracking the numbers of confirmed infections, deaths, recoveries exist, such as that managed by the World Health Organisation and elsewhere by Johns Hopkins University.
  • Rolling news coverage of government response and public reaction across the globe.
  • Social media data including reaction across the globe, including requirements at the individual and business level, availability of help (e.g., from volunteers) and social commentary
  • Social data: Crime data, unemployment statistics, market data, health data, social care provision

This is just a snapshot of some of the variables that require an assessment to build the human security picture. But data is messy, and decision-makers have limited time for analysis. Understanding wider impacts such as the impact on employment, tourism, farming and food security, trade, crime (among others) become critical, and data will play a pivotal role. Responsible, privacy-conscious and ethical solutions that provide meaningful insights enabling fit-for-purpose interventions and intelligent policies become critical.

A key part of our work at Trilateral is the provision of interdisciplinary social and technical services, in the form of STRIAD® solutions. STRIAD® solutions combine Trilateral’s technical sciences, social science and data protection expertise. Our solutions provide users with state-of-the-art cloud software and machine learning to support data-driven decision making around complex social problems and associated services to support uptake and analytical capabilities.

Prior to COVID-19, we started working with the UK-MOD to provide a socio-technical approach to building an application, HAMOC, for human security analysis to support situational awareness and military planning. HAMOC brings information together into a single location to enable a quick and relevant analysis of the human security environment. By layering and combining different types of data, users can better see how changes relating to one human security issue (e.g. health security, including pandemics such as COVID-19) combine with other issues (e.g. migration or displacement) to raise the density of human insecurity in a given area of concern.

Elsewhere, we have been working with UK law enforcement to develop a data-driven application, CESIUM, that allows users to conduct risk identification, risk analysis and risk case management to combat child exploitation. The application supports tactical, operational and strategic situational awareness. This provides insights that enable informed single- and multi-agency decision making, collaboration and early intervention approaches. Doing so supports efforts to reduce harm to children from potential victim and offender perspectives.

Such tools have a wider benefit to decision-makers across the public and third sector, specifically in the area of human security. This is particularly pertinent when considering growing concerns around the wider cascading impact on civilians and nations at an individual, community, regional and global level (e.g., violence to the person, displacement and migration, conflict and health crisis). Whilst we are dealing with the eye of the storm in terms of the immediate impacts of the pandemic, our understanding of wider mid- to long-term impacts needs to grow.

We continue to work with the public sector in a co-design manner to realise the benefits of data-driven decision-making with a particular focus on social problems and human vulnerabilities whose complexities can be best addressed through a human security analytical lens.

Note that this is the first in a series of blogs addressing key issues in the domain of Human Security.

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