Human Security and the UN

Inspired by last week’s class on human security, I had a quick scout around a number of UN organisations’ websites.   More specifically, I looked at annual reports and budget/programme documents for UNEP, UNOPS, UNDP, UNHRC, ILO, UNESCO, WTO and the World Bank.  

Here are my findings: UNDP was the only organisation to use the actual term “human security”.  It was framed in terms of threats: “The programme addresses the different threats to human security…” UNDP also used the term “citizen security”, as did the World Bank.   Interestingly, the World Bank Annual Report used the term “citizen security” more than UNDP’s Annual Report.  Perhaps this was to avoid the definitional dispute between the Japanese and the Canadians.  Food security was used by the most: UNEP, UNDP and the World Bank.  Environmental security, job security and economic security didn’t get past the editors…

What does this mean for human security?  I would have expected the term to have been peppered throughout high-level documents such as biennial programme documents and annual reports.  On a positive note, perhaps the term has been so well internalised throughout the UN system that it is no longer needed as some kind of unifying or packaging device.  After all, the operationalisation of the concept is what really counts.  However, aside from food security, there is little evidence of any mainstreaming of the notion.

Does this mean the term “human security” has seen better days?  Or does the lack of it in formal documents reflect a concern about the word “security” which sounds rather alarmist?   Perhaps the concept has been influencing the shape and design of UN programmes on the ground, but because of linguistic concerns it’s been by and large dropped by the UN spin doctors.   This is pretty hard to tell though given that so many programmes have always been focused on individuals.   

Given the “shareholders” of the UN are nation states it’s not that surprising that human security may have seen better days.  Perhaps civil society organisations will see it breathe another life.





2 comments on “Human Security and the UN

  1. henning says:

    The usage of the term “human security” is common within OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which is part of the United Nations Secretariat and responsible for bringing together numerous UN agencies and other (government and non-government) humanitarian actors. The Human Security Unit (HSU) was established in May 2004 as part of OCHA, and their overall objective is to “integrate human security in all UN activities”. Operationalisation of human security goes through the United Nations Trust Fund for Human Security (UNTFHS). Their website also provides a good overview of projects worldwide – these tend to be coordinated and implemented by other UN agencies, usually with local partners. Some HS expert or project officer would usually inform project planning, implementation and evaluation, so the HS lens does, to my knowledge, factor into projects of most of the UN organisations you mentioned. Still, I do think it’s rather odd that they subsequently refrain from referring to the concept altogether. In practice, it’s certainly much more tangible across the organisations.

  2. Good point Henning, I had forgotten about OCHA. As you say, UN agencies do receive funds through OCHA, so perhaps the absence of references to human security reflects the relative importance of humanitarian objectives for many UN agencies. The UN’s specialised agencies (ILO, WHO, UNIDO, FAO, UNESCO, etc.) for example, are at pains to stress that they are not humanitarian agencies. That said, for the last decade or so, they have been participating in joint humanitarian mechanisms at the UN-level, but this work remains very much peripheral given their focus on long-term development and peace-building.

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