NATO and Human Security: Obfuscation and Opportunity

Is it cynical, even paradoxical, for a military alliance like NATO to be talking about human security? In his contribution to a new volume published by NATO Watch, Richard Reeve argues that there is opportunism and considerable room for confusion in NATO’s embrace of the concept, but also the opportunity for a deeper conversation on how, and by whom, real security can be promoted.

Human security as a concept has been around for getting on for three decades. Like many post-Cold War ideas, it had become a little stretched and stained during the War on Terror and was beginning to look distinctly unfashionable by the time the resurgence of great power competition was noted in the 2010s. Yet the rippling failures of the ‘forever wars’, the looming existential terror of the climate crisis, and the very immediate concerns of pandemic disease have all propelled a resurgence of interest in human security in the last few years.

Neither NATO nor individual militaries have been immune to this second wave of human security. This short essay looks at how the human security approach emerged and how it relates to armed conflict, how that meaning has been co-opted and reshaped by military actors, and how NATO specifically is engaging with the concept. It concludes that, while it is right that NATO grapples with broader understandings of security, it does not follow that NATO should be given either the resources or the responsibility to tackle real human security issues. Indeed, the alliance would do well to consider how its core functions contribute to human insecurity before assuming that it is part of the solution. 

What is Human Security?

The human security approach came to prominence in 1994 when it was championed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its annual report on human development. It began as an effort by development economists, social scientists, international lawyers and feminists to move away from the military security of competing states and geopolitical blocs (of which NATO was by then the sole survivor) and to present a framework for understanding what security might mean for individuals. It aimed to stimulate ideas of how security practice and resources could be reshaped and redirected to promote wellbeing as much as provide protection.

So human security looked not just at how the UN and national governments could uphold freedom from fear, but also freedom from want, not least hunger, and freedom from the indignity of autocracy and rights abuses. It broke security down into seven categories: economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community and political. Latterly, the UN has placed emphasis on four complementary principles of people-centred security, comprehensive approaches to implementation, context-specific planning, and an orientation to preventing rather than resolving conflict and insecurity.

Over time, different components of human security have waxed and waned in global thinking. Environmental security – which was originally conceptualised more around clean air and safe water – has had a steep ascendancy in line with clear evidence of climate and environmental breakdown. Economic security hit critical mass with the 2007-09 financial crisis, austerity and mind-bending inequality. UN action on food insecurity won last year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Health security is our current fixation. None of these insecurities are going away. Community security has perhaps waned on the international agenda since the 1990s surge in inter-ethnic conflicts and atrocities, but Myanmar, Xinjiang, Tigray and Karabakh show such concerns should remain paramount.

Human security in the mouths of soldiers

The military world has come late to the idea of human security but the terminology has increasingly been adopted by some European armed forces since the later 2010s. In the intervening quarter-century the term has been filtered through a number of other policy imperatives, including understanding the “human terrain” of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise and decline of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative, the growing significance of the Women, Peace and Security agenda since UN Security Council Resolution 1325 was passed in 2000, and the realisation that responding to the threat of climate chaos is a challenge and opportunity for military planners.

What has come out the other side is less an adoption than a co-optation of language, meaning something quite different. For the UK armed forces, which began using the term in peacekeeping operations in 2014, human security has become shorthand for Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, including specific measures to protect women and children. It has also seemingly become conjoined with the military application of Women, Peace and Security, including responding to sexual violence in conflict, a priority of the 2010-15 UK coalition government.

The looking glass image of militarised ‘human security’ within the UK was rendered ludicrously real in April 2019 as soon-to-be-sacked Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson launched the Ministry of Defence’s new Centre of Excellence for Human Security, in the MoD press office’s words, “in front of a backdrop of 100 personnel, armoured vehicles and AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopters”. Human security had essentially become a muscular, patriarchal exercise in humanitarian intervention to protect the weak (foreign women and children) from their own menfolk.

NATO and human security

Human security appeared in NATO vocabulary at much the same time that it went mainstream in the British Armed Forces and appears to have superseded the alliance’s adoption of Protection of Civilians (PoC) policy and operating concept in 2016-18. In 2019 NATO set up a Human Security Unit in the Secretary-General’s office. It is headed by his Special Representative for Women, Peace and Security so, as in the UK, the two concepts are conjoined in NATO thinking.

As in the UK, NATO also includes within human security, Cultural Property Protection (i.e. protecting cultural monuments like Nineveh, Palmyra or the Bamiyan Buddhas from wanton destruction in war) and tackling human trafficking, a NATO commitment since 2004. Whereas the former of these has some resonance with the original human security focus on community (or cultural) security, the latter is potentially problematic in relation to human wellbeing and development. The human trafficking commitment began as part of a zero-tolerance approach to sexual exploitation but has become, since the 2015-16 ‘migration crisis’, attached to the European project to intercept, return and deter movement of asylum seekers from Western Asia to Greece. Treating the flight of refugees as a criminal issue of human trafficking is very much contrary to the humanitarian principles from which genuine human security derives.

The recent Reflection Group report on NATO’s vision for 2030 adds little new to the idea of human security within NATO but clearly recognises that embracing and clarifying (sic) the relationship between human security and NATO’s core mission is likely to help boost its appeal to non-traditional audiences, including civil society, and thus promote wider political support for the alliance. It recommends that:

“NATO Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) should emphasise NATO’s ongoing work on human security into its public messaging to highlight NATO’s positive impact and relevance, especially to the concerns of the younger generation.”

NATO 2030: United for a New Era, Nov 2020, p.43.

While the commitment to getting better at protecting civilians and monuments during violent conflict seems sincere, and has its own strategic rationale, it is hard not to conclude that the term human security is opportunistic window dressing that conceals or obfuscates more than it reveals of NATO’s intent.

Obfuscation and opportunity

Should civil society, then, get behind NATO’s embrace of human security or call it out as cynical co-optation? The answer perhaps depends on one’s strategy. As it stands, the human security terminology used by NATO and the UK is confusing and threatens to undermine the very different use of the term by civilian academic and development workers. There is nothing wrong with protecting the most vulnerable or reducing the impact of violence on civilians, but that is rightly called Protection of Civilians. Relabelling PoC as human security threatens to turn a transformative approach of promoting wellbeing, freedom and development from a positive into a negative, static concept. It is defensive rather than preventive. It bends ‘freedom to…’ back on itself to become ‘protection from…’.

Yet there is also an entryist opportunity in the co-optation of human security by NATO and other military actors. Since we each endorse it, there is room for a conversation on what we believe human security and wellbeing to be about and which actors ought to be involved. The expanding grab-bag of principles and agendas folded under the military human security umbrella suggests that the idea is far from fixed. There may be more useful approaches that can be included too.

Or perhaps the end-point of the conversation that opens up is a recognition that real human security is not something that a military alliance, let alone one committed to weapons of mass destruction, can reasonably be tasked with delivering. Yes, NATO should work to rapidly reduce its carbon footprint. Yes, troops may bring useful expertise and labour to help respond to epidemics or natural disasters where normal resources fail. But military actors should not be leading responses to threats and challenges that are not military in nature. And if those challenges to our human security are far larger than threats from militarised violence, NATO should not be competing for resources with those that really can protect us.


This post was first published by NATO Watch on 16 February 2021 as part of its volume Peace research perspectives on NATO 2030: A response to the official NATO Reflection Group.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.


Image Credit: UK Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson announces the MoD Centre of Excellence on Human Security, 04 April 2019.

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