HIV/AIDS and Human Security

13th October 2008

The concept of ‘security’ traditionally has often been explained in militaristic terms as the defense of the state, involving “structured violence manifest in state warfare.”[MacLean] HIV/AIDS, however, does not fit into the traditional definition of security. As a result of this and other non-regular security related items, the term ‘Human Security’ first appeared in use in a UN human Development Report in 1994. It was characterized as surrounding the issues of economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security and political security. Essentially human security can be taken to mean the well being and safety of people from threat, both violent and non violent. Like other existing concepts of security, such as national security, economic security and food security, it is about protection.

The primary concepts of economic, food, health, environment, personal, community and political security together form the broader understanding of human security. This results in its definition shifting away from a state centered and military strategic focus towards a more interdisciplinary and people centered approach that employs the ideas of empowerment and participation. [Acharya, 2008 p.494.]  Human security, as a result, implies taking preventative measures to reduce the vulnerability and minimize risk toward people and for the implementation of remedial actions where or when prevention fails. According to Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axeworthy, “Human Security is best understood as a shift in prospective or orientation. It is an alternative way of seeing the world, taking people as its point of reference, rather than focusing exclusively on the security or territory of governments.” [Axworthy, 1999 in Brower and Chalk p.5.]

“Human security, in its broadest sense, embraces far more than the absence of violent conflict. It encompasses human rights, good governance, access to education and health care and ensuring that each individual has opportunities and choices to fulfill his or her potential. Every step in this direction is also a steep towards reducing poverty, achieving economic growth and preventing conflict. Freedom from want, freedom from fear, and the freedom of future generations to inherit a healthy natural environment — these are the interrelated building blocks of human – and therefore national – security.”[Annan, 2000. Press Release SG/SM/7382.]

Human security presumes “freedom from want”, “freedom from fear” and “the Freedom to Live in Dignity” [1], as well as access to and control of resources and opportunities. The basic elements of human security include survival, safety, opportunity, dignity, agency and autonomy. However, in the world today there are millions of people that do not have these basic elements. There are millions of people affected by some form of human insecurity, Infectious and parasitic diseases, internally-displaced persons, HIV and AIDS-positive people; even the lack of drinkable water. Since Human security encompasses a host of issues that together form the basis for guaranteeing each person safety at the societal, community and individual levels, the HIV/AIDS epidemic can not simply be looked upon as a health issue. Its spread and resulting impact has affects all levels of contemporary society causing significant consequence for the development of the concepts of human security. James Wolfensohn , ninth president of the World Bank Group, said that:

“In AIDS, the world faced a war more debilitating than war itself… The world faced a major development and security crisis. Without economic and social hope, there could not be peace, and AIDS undermined both. Not only did AIDS threaten stability, but a breakdown in peace fuelled the pandemic.”[Wolfenson, 2000]

Even as early as 2000, the United Nations Security Council recognized that the spread of HIV/AIDS could have a unequaled and destructive impact on all sectors and levels of society. They stressed that if “left unchecked it may pose a risk to stability and security.” [UN Security Council Resolution 1308, 2000] Setting a precedent, the United Nations Security Council held a special session on HIV/AIDS as a security issue in January 2000. Resolution 1308 was adopted by the Security Council at its 4172nd meeting, on 17 July of the same year. This resolution identified HIV/AIDS as a threat to international peace and security. Additionally, other International organizations and governments have also identified HIV/AIDS as a threat to security. In May 1999 an Inter-agency Standing Committee (IASC) working group endorsed an action plan which emphasizes the importance of incorporating HIV/AIDS also into humanitarian action [Piot, 2001] In 2000 the United States` National Security Council categorized AIDS as a global infectious disease with non-traditional security implications.

In 2001 in a statement to the Security Council, Peter Poit, executive Director of UNAIDS voiced that “HIV/AIDS has adverse effects on all sectors of society. It is, in fact, the breadth and scope of these effects that make AIDS a threat to human security and a potentially destabilizing force worldwide.”[Piot, 2001] In December of 2004 Report of the Secretary General, the UN High-Level Panel on security threats identified HIV/AIDS as a major security threat by making the distinction that “any event or process that leads to large-scale death or lessening of life chances and undermines states at the basic unit of the international system is a threat to international security.” Infectious disease was included as part of one of the six clusters mentioned on this topic. [United Nations, 2004 p.2] During the World Health Organizations’ Consultation on Health and Human Security Lamboray stated that at the end of 2001 the number of people living with HIV or AIDS stood at about 40 million. He also went on to say that there were 5 million new infections in 2001 alone and that the epidemic claimed 3 million lives just in 2001. In voicing his concern he said that “with over 20 million accumulated deaths, HIV/AIDS is the worst epidemic in human history.” [Lamboray,2002]

Recent data from the World Health Organization now suggests that the percentage of people living with HIV has reached a plateau and that the number of new infections has fallen as a result of the impact of HIV programs. However, in 2007, it was estimated that 33.2 million people were living with HIV, 2.5 million people had become newly infected and 2.1 million people had died of AIDS. These figures alone stand testament to the fact that HIV/AIDS is a killer. Lacina & Nils reported that the best estimate for lives lost during armed conflict for 2005 to be only a little more than 1% of the reported figure for AIDS/HIV deaths in the year of 2007, HIV/AIDS far surpassing war as a threat to human life.

Figure 1. Pathways through Which HIV/AIDS Has an Impact upon National Security
[Feldbaum, Lee & Patel, 2006]

Arguments relating to the transnational spread of diseases and the threat that they present to the concept of human security, according to Brower and Chalk, “rests on the simple proposition that it seriously threatens both the individual and the quality of life that person is able to achieve within a given society.” [Brower & Chalk, 2003, p.7.] In the case of HIV/AIDS specifically that it kills. In this very narrow sense HIV/AIDS becomes a security issue and becomes a human security issue in the broad sense of the term in relation to the individuals’ freedom from want and freedom from fear. It can also be found that HIV/AIDS also has a direct impact on the governing institutions of affected areas. Not only does HIV/AIDS have a negative impact on the governments’ ability to provide essential services and to fulfill its governing functions, but it could also undermine the government’s public support and legitimacy. Brower and Chalk explain that “If left unchecked, disease can undermine public confidence in the state’s general custodian function, eroding, in the process, a polity’s overall governing legitimacy as well as undermine the ability of the state itself to function.”[Brower & Chalk, 2003, p.6.]

As disease and sickness reduces a government’s ability to act this situation will worsen, further undermining public confidence, leading to political or social instability. [Brower & Chalk, 2003, p.14.] As governments cope with an increasing numbers of cases in an already weakened health care system, the economic impact on even the most productive segments of society, and the impact on their military and political forces will become increasingly evident. Out breaks of disease adversely affect the economic foundation upon which both state and human security are dependant. Across Africa, the economic costs of AIDS reached 5% of GDP by the end of the 1999. These costs had been doubling about every 3 years and were expected to have reach 15% of GDP by 2005. [Patel, 2000] By that time, it was imagined that the concept of economic costs may cease to be of great interest. Patel went further to say that he felt that “If the epidemic continues unabated, by that time the fabric of society itself may start to disintegrate under this demographic, social and economic onslaught.” [Patel, 2000] Pieter Fourie and Martin Schönteich add to this by saying that they estimate that gross domestic product (GDP) growth in countries with an HIV rate of more than 20 percent decreases by as much as 1-2 percent annually. Further more; they say, that “calculations show that heavily affected countries could lose more than 20 percent of GDP by 2020.” [Fourie & Schönteich]. Poverty, underdevelopment and illiteracy are among the principle contributing factors to the spread of HIV/AIDS, while HIV/AIDS has the effect of increasing poverty. [United Nations, 2001]

The outbreak of disease, sickness and viral infections, such as HIV/AIDS, can often have a negative influence on the states social order and function. As parents and workers are overcome by the effects of AIDS-related illnesses, the structures and divisions of labor in households, families, workplaces and communities are severely disrupted. [United Nations, 2001] Because of this and following this, the effects can be seen to disperse throughout the effected society, reducing income levels, weakening economies and corroding social fabric. [3] Examples of this have frequently occurred in the sub-Saharan countries of Africa, where people who are affected by hardship or illness are traditionally taken care of by the extended family unit.[Kallmann, 2003] But the impact of the AIDS/HIV virus in these areas according to Drimie stretches the human and financial resources of Africa’s traditional safety net – the extended family. For example; where spouses have died prematurely due to infection, children are frequently taken from school to look after sick adults/parents at home. Household income and spending decrease, labor productivity suffers, and the corporate sector suffers due to the loss or reduction of skill sets available. The economy as a whole, both the state and the private sector will have to pay the costs associated with the training of new skilled workers, paying health bills, insurances and so on. This then creates a drain on the financial ability to expend moneys on other essential services. [Drimie, 2002]

The spread of infectious disease frequently has an effect which, most often, increases the effect on regional instability. Because the disease has had greatest impact on working adults, a human resource crisis is reducing the productivity of important social sectors. In certain societies where HIV prevalence rates have reached as high as 30 percent, teachers, doctors ,nurses, migrant workers, miners, transport workers (particularly truck drivers) civil servants, parliamentarians and uniformed services (these include military, police, correctional officers, security services, paramedics and fire fighters) are particularly vulnerable to HIV. These individuals, however, are of central importance to the economic, political, and security operations of states and societies. [Centre for Conflict Resolution, 2005] By straining the countries health and social services, creating millions of orphans, and by markedly reducing the number of health workers and teachers within the system HIV/AIDS is causing social and economic crises which in turn threatens regional and national political stability. “In already unstable societies, this cocktail of disasters is a sure recipe for more conflict and conflict, in turn, provides fertile ground for further infections” [Security Council, press release SC/6781, 2000.]

It has been noted by the U.S State Department via the Bureau of Oceans, International Scientific and Environmental Affairs that certain state militaries may begin to experience the negative effects of HIV/AIDS in the next five years as the increasing number of HIV/AIDS infections in young men reduce the number of acceptable candidates, and as an increasing number of officers, senior NCOs, and trained technicians become ill and die. HIV/AIDS could begin to have drastic effects on human resources available for military intake and militaries overall effectiveness within as little as ten years. [U.S. Department of State, 1995] In terms of military significance, HIV/AIDS “is not a ‘war-stopper”; it will not immediately render large numbers of field troops unfit for combat. However, as the HIV/AIDS pandemic erodes economic and security bases of affected countries, it may be a potential “war-starter” or “war-outcome-determinant”. [Colonel Burke, 1995]

Human security since the 1990’s has been increasingly disturbed by the global and far reaching effects of the HIV/AIDS virus.  Since the international onset of the virus, the effects of HIV/AIDS on political, social and economic sectors can now be seen in “first wave” countries such as those in Africa; soon the cumulative impact of the virus on these societies will be evident due to the number of deaths in younger generation, the increase in child-rearing by grandparents, and the effects of a declining or lost labor force.
Because many of the characteristics of Human security also contain implications relating state centered security such as territorial integrity and survival of the state, it is often difficult to establish a clear distinction between traditional security and human security. It would seem possible to draw the conclusion that human security is also traditional security since any threat that affects the survival of the citizens affects the state.


[1] Freedom from want and freedom from fear and “the freedom to live in dignity are the three titles given to the first three parts of a report delivered to the UN General Assembly by the Secretary General on 21 March 2005 in New York, with the goal to set out priorities for action in the fields of development, security and human rights.

[2] In 2004 about 40 million people were estimated to be living with HIV, 5 million people became newly infected and around 3.1 million people died of AIDS related causes [WHO Statistics 2006 in Baylis Smith and Owens p.499] This would reduce the comparison in death figures to less that 1%.

[3] Social Fabric Can be defined as the make-up of an area in terms of its social geography, such as class, ethnic composition, employment, education, and values. [Farlex Free Dictionary]


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Annan K. (2000) “Secretary-General Salutes International Workshop on Human Security in Mongolia” Press Release SG/SM/7382. [Online] Public:

Annan K. (2000) “We the People: The Role of the United Nations in the 21st Century”, United Nations Secretary General Millennium Report, United Nations Department of Public Information, New York, Chapter 3 p.43-44. [Online] Public:

Axworthy L. (1999, April) “Human Security: Safety for the People in a changing world” Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in Brower and Chalk (2003) “The Global Threat of New and Reemerging Infectious Diseases: Reconciling U.S. National Security and Public Health Policy”, RAND, Chapter 1 Disease and Human Security, p.5. [Online] Public:

Brower J. & Chalk P. (2003, March 19) ”The Global Threat of New and Reemerging Infectious Diseases: Reconciling U.S. National Security and Public Health Policy”, RAND , [Online] Public:

Colonel Burke S.D, MD (1995 January) “Peace-time Threat? Security Threat ?: The Military Importance of AIDS”, Civil-Military Alliance Newsletter, [Online] Public:

Centre for Conflict Resolution (2005, May 13) “The Human Security Dimensions of HIV/AIDS: A Brainstorming Workshop”, Background Document [Online] Public:

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Farlex Free Dictionary (2004) Helicon Publishing

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MacLean, G. The Changing Concept of Human Security: Coordinating National and Multilateral Responses.
See also MacLean G, “Definitions of Human Security: United Nations Definitions” p.8

Patel, M. (2000, January) “Evaluation of the Financial Implications of HIV/AIDS for Africa” UNICEF ESARO, Nairobi, Draft 1.14, [Online] Public:

Piot P. (2000, July 17) Speech, “Statement to the Security Council: New York” [Online] Public:

Security Council (2000, January 10) “Security Council holds debate on impact of AIDS on peace and security in Africa” Security Council Press Release SC/6781, [Online] Public:

Scholte, J.A. (2005) Globalization: A critical Introduction, Second Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, Hampshire U.K p. Chapter 9 pp. 279-315.

UNAIDS & World Health Organization (2007, December) “AIDS epidemic update”, WHO Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data [Online] Public:

United Nations (2001, June 27) “Special Session on HIV/AIDS “Global Crisis – Global Action” Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS” [Online] Public:

United Nations (2004) “A more secure world: Our shared responsibility” Report of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change [Online] Public:

U.S. Department of State (1995 July) “U.S. International Strategy on HIV/AIDS” Compiled by: Bureau of Oceans, International Scientific and Environmental Affairs [Online] Public:

U.S. Department of State (1995 July) “US International Strategy on HIV/AIDS” Bureau of Oceans, International Scientific and Environmental Affairs, [Online] Public:

Wolfenson J. (2000, January 10) “Security Council holds debate on impact of AIDS on peace and security in Africa” Security Council Press Release SC/6781, [Online] Public:

World Health Organization (2007, November 20) “Global HIV prevalence has leveled off” [Online] Public:




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