Is Religious Freedom a Forgotten Freedom Within the Human Security Framework?

Elena López Ruf is a lawyer who teaches philosophy of law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina and “Religion and the Global World” at Austral University. This post is based in part on her chapter “Religious Freedom, Human Security, and Human Fraternity: Is Religious Freedom a Forgotten Freedom Within the Human Security Framework?” in Security, Religion, and the Rule of Law: International Perspectives (Routledge 2023).

Today it is the humanity of man that is no longer self-evident, and the issue we face is: How can a human being achieve certainty of his humanity?[1]

—Abraham J. Heschel

At the end of the Second World War, a legal revolution was taking place with a new world order in which (1) war was outlawed, (2) human rights became the “Magna Carta” of international relations, and (3) a new framework of international cooperation was set for the development and flourishing of humanity.[2]

Security, peace, and the promotion of human welfare were the main issues of the post-war period, and the responses in advancing them were the seeds of two evolved concepts central to the present global agenda: (1) sustainable development and (2) human security. Even so, the notion of human security has received little attention.

The roots of the human security approach can be traced back to 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his famous speech, “The Four Freedoms,” sharing his liberal vision of a world in which the four fundamental human freedoms would prevail: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. Based on this speech, as Lombardi and Wellman suggest, a new movement of human security emerged.[3]

At the San Francisco Conference of 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed. On that same occasion, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States introduced their collective security arrangement for the post-war period and what would become the United Nations’ main purpose: to provide mechanisms for settling disputes between nations and to forestall future aggression. But as the Conference started, tensions about the understanding and scope of security issues were evident. As Glendon notes, it was the Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik who expressed that the proposed agenda was too narrow and stressed that measures for the maintenance of peace and security would not be sufficient if the causes of conflict and aggression were not addressed. The peoples of the world were yearning for a better and freer existence.[4]

As countries faced the transition to the post-bipolar world era, the nature of security threats changed, which permeated the limits of the nation-state and led to increased acknowledgment of states’ mutual interdependence. The traditional understanding of security, with the national security of the sovereign state as the main subject, was changing. A new paradigm emerged that conceived a comprehensive notion of security.[5]

The objective of human security is “to protect the vital core of all human lives from critical pervasive threats, in a way that is consistent with long-term human fulfillment.”[6] However, the definition of human security has oscillated between narrow and broad understandings, and arriving at a common definition has been difficult.

Today, human security provides a “multidimensional analytical framework” and comprises a “comprehensive methodology” approach that allows for a broad perspective and “a new way of thinking about the range of challenges the world faces in the [twenty-first] century and how the global community responds to them.”[7] It is characterized by five fundamental principles that are mutually reinforced: people centered, comprehensive, context specific, prevention oriented, protective, and empowering.

An in-depth analysis of the history of this paradigm would exceed the purpose of this post. It is relevant, however, to highlight at least four milestones in its development:

The UNDP Human Development Report 1994: New Dimensions of Human Security introduced the concept of human security within the broader framework of human development and proposed that, as “the dark shadows of cold war recede,”[8] it was time to focus attention on the daily insecurities people were facing. The Ogata-Sen Commission enriched and deepened this vision. But it was not until the U.N. General Assembly Resolution 66/290 of 2012 that the notion of human security was mainstreamed by defining human security 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.”[9] Furthermore, after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction in 2015, and the Agenda for Humanity at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, human security has been revitalized and understood as an approach to be integrated into policy design. Rather than competing, such an approach enhances and reinforces Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “to ensure that no one is left behind.”

In January 2022, the UNDP released its 2022 Special Report (SR) New Threats to Human Security in the Anthropocene: Demanding Greater Solidarity. If the 1994 Report refocused the security debate from territorial security to the security of people, inviting us to look beyond the protection of the nation-state, the SR aims to update the definition of human security and explain what it implies for the context of the Anthropocene, in which humans are driving biospheric and planetary change.

The SR identifies a new generation of interacting threats: the downsides of digital technology, violent conflicts, horizontal inequalities, and evolving challenges to healthcare systems. In response to these threats, the SR hopes to set the foundations for a new generation of human security strategies by proposing two elements to enrich the human security framework: the agency approach and solidarity. First, the agency approach refers to the understanding that everyone could drive changes by having meaningful participation at different levels of decision-making.[10] Second, solidarity is added to the human security strategies of protection and empowerment so that the three prongs, working together, can strengthen interdependence across people and between people and the planet. It is important to highlight that, in the context of the SR, solidarity is rooted in the recognition of a shared humanity.[11] Des Gasper and Gómez affirmed that the report presents solidarity “as a required commitment to others, globally; as an implication of interconnectedness; and as a required response to uncertainty.”[12] At the same time, however, they point out that the lack of in-depth theorization of solidarity in the SR provides an open door for subsequent work.[13]

Human security, as well as the notion of human development, have been influenced by Sen’s capability approach, understood as a moral framework to find adequate criteria to assess quality of life from the perspective of human freedom: “The focus here is on the freedom that a person actually has to do this or be that—things that he or she may value doing or being.”[14]

In the development of the concept of human security, especially between the 2003 Ogata-Sen report and the U.N. General Assembly Resolution of 2012, three elements are constantly part of the discussion: freedom from want, freedom from fear, and freedom from indignity. But, in contrast to Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech, there is no mention of religious freedom. One possible reason for its absence is the “value-agnostic” background rooted in Sen’s capability approach,which is based on pluralism of values. This approach implies taking into account the context-dependence of values and the plurality of the source of values, which, as Deneulin states, could also include those from religious traditions.[15]

Deneulin and Zampini point out that religion has been incorporated into the capability approach, first, through maintained awareness that religious beliefs can underpin reasoning and serve as a basis for decisions and actions, influencing people’s lives, choices, and what they value; and, second, through religious narratives, which—when considered “great art or classics”—transcend their original religious context and reach an audience beyond the boundaries of a specific religion, whether or not one believes in the existence of God.[16] Thus, this approach affirms that religious narratives could be a hermeneutic tool to open a space of dialogue, acknowledge the text from other perspectives, and understand it from the context of the reader. Religious narratives can help readers discover “a world of possibility,” inspiring them to find new ways of “being” and “acting” and contributing to public reasoning and the expansion of human capabilities.[17]

Based on this, the relationship between religious freedom and human security can be examined in three different ways. First, we can explore whether religions are drivers of insecurity, conflict, and violence. Scholars have been oscillating between different views, ones that conceive religions as inherently violent and others that conceive religions as rhetorical instruments for violence. Philpott affirms that if states guarantee religious freedom, societies are far less likely to suffer violence so that “religious freedom can become an antidote to religious violence and intolerance.”[18] Second, we can look at the contributions that religious actors and faith-based organizations (FBOs) make to human security through humanitarian work, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and resilience. And finally, we can consider the normative dimension, examining the teachings of religious traditions and how they influence human behavior and intersect with security issues.

In today’s fragmented and polarized world, conflicts are increasing and “slowly turning into a global genuine conflict.”[19] To deal with this complex context, civil society and religious actors have a significant role to play in nurturing the mutual bonds of the social fabric and participating meaningfully in decision-making at different levels. Additionally, innovative and creative responses need to be developed through constructive dialogue between religious actors and policymakers to jointly face the challenges of “living together in diversity” and in a spirit of solidarity and fraternity.


[1] Abraham J. Heschel, Who Is Man? 25 (Stanford Univ. Press 1965).

[2] Oona Anne Hathaway & Scott J. Shapiro, The Internationalists and Their Plan to Outlaw War (Allen Lane 2017).

[3] James K. Wellman, Jr. & Clark B. Lombardi, Introduction: Religion and Human Security: An Understudied Relationship, in Religion and Human Security: A Global Perspective 1, 1–17 (James K. Wellman, Jr. & Clark B.  Lombardi eds., Oxford Univ. Press 2012).

[4] Mary Ann Glendon, The First Lady and the Philosopher Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Malik, and the Human Rights Project, in The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt 199, 199–220 (Oxford Univ. Press 2011).

[5] David A. Baldwin, Security Studies and the End of the Cold War, 48(1) World Pol. 117, 117–41 (1995).

[6] Sabina Alkire, A Conceptual Framework for Human Security (Ctr. for Research on Inequality, Human Sec. & Ethnicity, Queen Elizabeth House, Univ. of Oxford, Working Paper No. 2, 2003).

[7] U.N. Tr. Fund for Human Sec., Human Security Handbook: An Integrated Approach for the Realization of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Priority Areas of the International Community and the United Nations System (Jan. 2016).

[8] U.N. Dev. Programme, Human Development Report 1994: New Dimensions of Human Security (1994).

[9] U.N. G.A. Res. A/RES/66/290 (10 Sept. 2012).

[10] U.N. Dev. Programme, 2022 Special Report: New Threats to Human Security in the Anthropocene: Demanding Greater Solidarity 25 (2022).

[11] Id. at 29.

[12] Des Gasper & Oscar A. Gómez, Solidarity and Human Insecurity: Interpreting and Extending the HDRO’s 2022 Special Report on Human Security, 24(2) J. Hum. Dev. & Capabilities 263, 263 (2023).

[13] Id.

[14] Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice 232 (Harvard Univ. Press 2009).

[15] Séverine Deneulin, Integral Human Development Through the Lens of Sen’s Capability Approach and the Life of a Faith Community at the Latin American Urban Margins (Kellogg Inst. for Int’l Studies, Working Paper 427, Apr. 2018).

[16] Séverine Deneulin & Augusto Zampini-Davies, Religion and the Capability Approach, in The Cambridge Handbook of the Capability Approach 686, 686–705 (Enrica Chiappero-Martinetti, Siddiqur Osmani & Mozaffar Qizilbash eds., Cambridge Univ. Press 2020); see also Séverine Deneulin & Augusto Zampini Davies, Theology and Development as Capability Expansion, 72(4) HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 4 (2016).

[17] Augusto Zampini Davies, CAFOD, Loving God’s Creation: Biblical Stories for CAFOD’s One Climate One World Campaign.

[18] Daniel Philpott, Religion and International Security, in The Oxford Handbook of International Security (Alexandra Gheciu & William Curti Wohlforth eds. 2018).

[19] Press Bulletin, Holy See Press Off., Audience with the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See for the Exchange of Greetings for the New Year, 08.01.2024 (8 Jan. 2024).