Skip to content

back to resources listing

The Global Governance Challenge of Human Security

Issued on


by John Morrissey, Associate Director of the Moore Institute for Humanities at NUI Galway

“The pandemic has reminded us, in the starkest way possible, of the price we pay for weaknesses in health systems, social protections and public services […] Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges”
– UN Secretary General, António Guterres, April 2020

In the history of the world, there has possibly never been a greater realisation of our interconnected global precarity. That precarity is experienced in unequal ways, of course, but there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has elicited a recognition of a connected vulnerability at a global scale that prompts a considered reflection on global governance and how global governance institutions and systems function.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) failure to oversee coordination of pandemic preparedness plans for COVID-19 has prompted many to reflect on the inadequacies of existing global governance structures, and to argue that there is little evidence of a committed global politics of cooperation or transnational solidarity (Davis 2020). Evident too, however, is a prominent contrapuntal concern for the most precarious in societies across the globe and particularly in the Global South. UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for instance, has repeatedly acknowledged in recent months that COVID-19 has reminded us that we need to “redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies” (Guterres, 2020a). For Guterres, the UN’s roadmap in response remains its 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals. He has been particularly vocal too in stressing the importance of protecting the environment for future generations and ensuring human rights (Guterres, 2020b).

But such rhetorical pronouncements must be activated in concrete and legally enforceable ways, and this requires strengthening the global governance capacity of UN agencies with effective instruments to oversee states and corporations complying with global conventions and regulations. How can this be meaningfully achieved?

Franklyn Lisk and colleagues (2015: 33) have noted how “little attention” has been paid to “accountability for health and human security” in global governance, citing the shortcomings of the WHO in enforcing “rules on member state adoption of pandemic preparedness guidelines”. This critique is acutely relevant in our current moment and begs the question how best to oversee global human security in practice? How can we oversee, for example, what UNEP (2020) set out as the most important global governance challenge we face: addressing the “multiple and often interacting threats to ecosystems and wildlife to prevent zoonoses from emerging, including habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal trade, pollution, invasive species and, increasingly, climate change”. In this, curbing the excesses of ‘Big Farm’ agribusiness and regulating how we produce food is vital (Wallace 2016; Cohen 2020; Einhorn 2020); and attaining a broader sense of human security can only be achieved on a global scale, involving cooperative and collective action.

For the UN, cooperative and collective action on human security has been championed for a generation (UNDP 1994; Morrissey 2020). It has increasingly underlined the law as the key to its attainment in practice, envisaging ‘human security’ and ‘human rights’ as “mutually reinforcing”:

Human security helps identify the rights at stake in a particular situation. And human rights help answer the question: How should human security be promoted? The notion of duties and obligations
- (UN Commission for Human Security 2003: 10).

As Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (2016: 3, 9) argues, there is considerable scope to build upon “existing legal international obligations” to link the law constitutively with the effective delivery of human security through a “precise normative grounding” of “human rights law”:

the interaction between human security and human rights holds promise for more expansive and integrated legal interpretations that result in increased protection for persons and groups in their everyday lives, especially those in conditions of vulnerability (2016: 251).

Human security, in other words, can become a focal tool for the state in identifying where it is “compelled to take additional measures regarding concrete human rights as foreseen in normative instruments, standards and indicators” (Estrada-Tanck 2016: 254).

Extending this argument more recently in the wake of COVID-19, Estrada-Tanck reflects further on how a human security-human rights synergy can productively “shape national constitutional and legislative debate and to become policy-prescriptive in matters impacting on the rights of all persons” (Estrada-Tanck 2020).

A new awareness of interconnected global precarity has elevated the import and usefulness of human security as a concept and strategy in terms of effective global governance. Global human security goals depend on collective, cooperative and coordinated action that requires a robust global governance architecture. That requires a more committed legal activation and administrative resourcing, not just rhetoric.



John Morrissey is Associate Director of the Moore Institute for Humanities at NUI Galway, Senior Lecturer in Geography and Programme Director of the MA in Environment, Society and Development. His books include Spatial Justice and the Irish Crisis (2014); The Long War (2017); and Haven: The Mediterranean Crisis and Human Security (2020).



Cohen, N. (2020) ‘Surely the link between abusing animals and the world's health is now clear’, The Guardian, 11 April, (accessed 14 April 2020)

Davis, M. (2020) ‘In a plague year’, Jacobin, 14 March, (accessed 16 March 2020)

Einhorn, C. (2020) ‘Animal viruses are jumping to humans. Forest loss makes it easier’, The New York Times, 9 April, (accessed 26 April 2020)

Estrada-Tanck, D. (2016) Human Security and Human Rights under International Law: The Protections Offered to Persons Confronting Structural Vulnerability. Oxford: Hart Publishing

Estrada-Tanck, D. (2020) ‘Reclaiming Universal Economic and Social Rights in a Convulsed Legal and Economic Order’, McGill University Centre for Human Rights & Legal Pluralism Blog, (accessed 22 April 2020)

Guterres, A. (2020a) ‘Recovery from the coronavirus crisis must lead to a better world’, The Guardian, 2 April, (accessed 2 April 2020)

Guterres, A. (2020b) ‘We are all in this Together: Human Rights and COVID-19 Response and Recovery’, United Nations Covid-19 Response, 23 April, (accessed 28 April 2020)

Lisk, F., Bindenagel Šehović, A. and Sekalala, S. (2015) Health and human security: a wrinkle in time or new paradigm? Contemporary Politics 21(1): 25-39

Morrissey, J. (2020) ‘Intervening for human security’, in: J. Morrissey (ed.) Haven: The Mediterranean Crisis and Human Security (pp. 1-20). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing

UN Commission on Human Security (2003) Human Security Now. New York: UN Commission on Human Security

UNDP (1994) Human Development Report 1994: New Dimensions of Human Security. New York: Oxford University Press

UNEP (2020) ‘Coronavirus outbreak highlights need to address threats to ecosystems and wildlife’, United Nations Environment Programme News and Stories, 3 March, (accessed 3 April 2020)

Wallace, R. (2016) Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science. New York: Monthly Review Press


Image by Edgar Winkler from Pixabay

DSAI provides a platform for dialogue for development studies research, policy and practice across multi-disciplinary perspectives. This opinion piece is published as part of DSAI's call for contributions to our COVID resource sectionas a space for pooling and sharing knowledge. Content is published with permission of the author. Views expressed are the authors own. 


Back to top