Scroll Top



Human rights and national security are two phenomena, perceived to be at war with each other since time immemorial. States worldwide have imposed restrictions on civil liberties at one point of time or several in the name of national security. So, it comes as no surprise that the two have been placed on opposite ends of the spectrum by States and scholars alike.  A question now arises, can human rights and national security co-exist without the presence of one exercising dominance over the other? Is it possible to reach such a midground between the two seemingly contradictory concepts? This article seeks to explore the same.

Human Rights

Human rights are those fundamental rights that are available to every citizen by virtue of his being a person. They are norms that aspire to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses.[1] The international community, through several charters, treaties and conventions has set out certain rights which are available to every citizen, given that his country is a signatory and has ratified the document. Thus, creating a moral obligation on the State to comply with their directions of providing these rights and protecting them.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all human rights can be categorized under six heads, namely – (1) Security rights; (2) Procedural rights; (3) Liberty rights; (4) Political rights; (5) Equality rights; (6) Social rights.[2]

Other important instruments of human rights law include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979) among others.

National Security

The term ‘security’ has been defined by many scholars in different ways so, the term by itself, assumes a fluid definition. Samuel Makinda defined security as “the preservation of the norms, rules, institutions and values of society.”[3] He further argued that all such principles, institutions and rules of society need to be protected from “military and non-military threats.” Security, therefore, can be used as a powerful political tool by individuals, organizations and governments alike.

According to the National Defense College of India, “National security is an appropriate and aggressive blend of political resilience and maturity, human resources, economic structure and capacity, technological competence, industrial base and availability of natural resources and finally the military might.”[4] Therefore, national security has many dimensions: military security, political security, economic security, infrastructural security, energy and natural resources security and cybersecurity.

The Relationship Between Human Rights & National Security

The relationship between national security and human rights is conflict-ridden. States often face difficulty in achieving a balance between the two. As a result, they always end up compromising on one over the other. Over the past several decades, the pattern indicates that governments often end up choosing national security over human rights. And this comes as no surprise considering the maintenance of territorial integrity and sovereignty are regarded as more important by governments than human rights.

The United Nations created the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and listed 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in it. SDG 16, of the Agenda deals with achieving Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. The 12 targets within this goal also require states to promote the rule of law and respect human rights. Over the years, the world has witnessed States committing several human rights violations, under the guise of protecting their citizens. Sometimes, these attempts have been made for genuine reasons, other times based on faulty intelligence which has unfortunately led to civilian casualties. The civil liberties of people have been commonly curbed in the following ways –

Regulation and Shutting down of Communications: The most commonly used tools for controlling communication to ensure national security include sedition laws and internet shutdowns. Common law jurisdictions of India, the UK and the USA, all deemed sedition a crime at one point of time. However, the situation has not changed in countries like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Senegal and Sudan.[5] In countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan Maldives and India, it is commonly observed that the rate of imposing ‘virtual curfews’ or ‘internet shutdowns’ has increased drastically in recent years.[6] The same stands as a contradiction to SDG 9 which aims at increasing access to information and communications technology. Moreover, these practices directly infringe on citizens’ fundamental right to information.

Arbitrary Arrests and Excessive Punishments: One of the easiest ways to serve political interests in the name of national security is by performing arbitrary arrests and detention and awarding excessive punishments to individuals who pose a threat to political order and the nation’s stability. The practice stands in violation of Article 5[7] protecting the right to life and liberty in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It has been time and again reported that people have been detained at Guantanamo Bay by the US without even being charged with crimes[8] while, China has been arbitrarily arresting religious leaders, government critics, human-rights activists etc.[9]

Military Intervention: States are also notorious for engaging their military prowess whenever they sense a potential threat or a probable crisis coming. They find military intervention to be an easy way to control threats and prevent conflicts. These actions, however, are not limited to the territory of one’s own country and often also result in the internationally recognized violation of a state’s sovereignty in the form of, ‘intervention.’ Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter[10] places an obligation on all member states to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other states, thus, prohibiting intervention.

The use of military intervention can be made by any state. The Human Rights Watch stated “‘Targeted Killing’ and the Rule of Law:  The Legal and Human Costs of 20 Years of U.S. Drone Strikes” before the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 9, 2022, highlighting the major human rights violations committed by the US primarily through drone strikes.[11] Similarly, Russia’s actions towards Ukraine also pose as a prime example of how states may intervene in the territory of another for serving national interests.


As per the trends in history, national security and human rights appear to have opposing tendencies. And the same doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. With the presence of a security complex among the states, the only way out of this conflict is ‘cooperation.’

Other measures include encouraging the rule of law and raising human rights standards, conducting human rights impact assessments, spreading awareness regarding human rights, holding states accountable for their actions and improving transparency and public participation. These steps are bound to help in establishing a more positive relationship between human rights and national security. Therefore, the international community must strive to take the necessary steps towards the harmonious coexistence of the two.

Author(s) Name: Srishti Singh (Army Institute of Law, Mohali)


[1] James Nickel, ‘Human Rights’ (The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2021)  <> accessed 17 June 2023

[2] Ibid

[3] Samuel M. Makinda, ‘Sovereignty and Global Security’ (1998) 29(3) Security Dialogue <> accessed 18 June 2023

[4] Prabhakaran Paleri, National Security: Imperatives and Challenges (Tata McGraw Hill Publishing Company 2008)

[5] ‘India shares sedition laws with countries like Saudi Arabia’ (News Laundry, 18 February 2016) <> accessed 18 June 2023

[6] ‘46 Internet Shutdowns in India in 12 States This Year’ <> accessed 18 June 2023

[7] Universal Declaration on Human Rights 1948, art 5

[8] ‘NATIONAL SECURITY & HUMAN RIGHTS’ (Amnesty International) <> accessed 19 June 2023

[9] Amnesty International, “CHINA 2022” (2022) <> accessed 18 June 2023

[10] United Nations Charter 1945, art 2(4)

[11] ‘Senate Hearing on ‘Targeted Killing and the Rule of Law’ (Human Rights Watch, 9 February 2022) <> accessed 19 June 2023