Afghan women protesting for rights.

Promoting Human Security Around the World

The Human Security Lab at UMass Amherst conducts research in service of protecting vulnerable populations from violence, conflict, human rights abuses, economic inequality, and other threats to human freedom, dignity, and physical safety.

From climate change to armed conflict, gun violence to the varied forces driving migration, people around the world face a range of threats to their basic security and human rights.

Former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali first articulated “human security” as an approach that puts the well-being of people, rather than protection of state borders, at the center of security thinking. This is the guiding principle behind the work of the Human Security Lab at UMass Amherst: an initiative that fosters interdisciplinary research and stakeholder engagement in the service of protecting vulnerable populations threatened by violence, conflict, human rights abuses, climate change, and economic, health, and food insecurity.

Charli Carpenter, Kevin Young, and Bernhard Leidner
From left, UMass Amherst faculty Charli Carpenter, Kevin Young, and Bernhard Leidner founded the Human Security Lab to foster interdisciplinary research and stakeholder engagement in the service of protecting vulnerable populations.

The lab is led by Charli Carpenter, professor in the Department of Political Science, who specializes in international relations and foreign policy, particularly with regard to national security and human rights. Carpenter co-founded the lab in 2020 with Associate Professor Kevin Young in the Department of Economics—a scholar of international political economy who teaches on globalization, inequality, and business advocacy—and the late Bernhard Leidner, professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, a social and political psychologist known for his research on intergroup violence, international conflict reduction, and justice. Though Leidner passed away in late 2022 from complications of a life-long disability, Carpenter said he was critical in launching the lab and his legacy continues to inspire its work today. [Read an obituary of Leidner.]

The National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and several UMass departments and programs have supported the lab’s research, which is often conducted in partnership with or to inform the work of practitioners, such as government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) concerned with human rights and security issues. Recent projects have focused on places including Afghanistan and Ukraine, and on issues such as gender equality, humanitarian disarmament, and protection of civilians.

“It's very exciting what you can do when you combine science with big questions that practitioners need to inform foreign policy—all while mentoring students and engaging the public,” said Carpenter. “This work allows us to really elevate marginalized voices of civilians in these places of the world that are very hard to access, and bring them into the global conversation about human security.”

Beyond convening dialogues and sharing the outcomes of their research with practitioners, the researchers frequently engage with other scholars, the media, and the public by hosting webinars and writing op-eds based on their research.

“All our work contributes to a sense that there’s something scientists have to offer these conversations,” said Carpenter.


Gender Dynamics in Places of Conflict

As they seek to address overarching issues impacting global human security, the lab’s researchers take a deep dive into factors affecting civilians’ lives in some of the most conflicted areas of the world.

Following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in summer 2021, the lab convened a Rapid Working Group of over 25 conflict scholars from around the world and conducted stakeholder engagement conversations with Afghan intellectuals, conflict NGOs, think tanks, and policymakers to examine the possibility of standing up a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. Though such a mission ultimately didn’t come to pass, these discussions led to a contract for the lab with USAID.

“We were asked to investigate what the U.S. could do to support women in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan,” Carpenter explained. The lab convened a working group of experts in gender and conflict and consulted with Afghan civil society organizations and global humanitarian stakeholders to produce an internal working paper for USAID. Based on the same research, they also produced an independent briefing note, Rethinking America’s Women, Peace, and Security Agenda in Afghanistan.

Carpenter and Leidner then continued this line of research by conducting a large-scale survey of Afghan civilians, with support from a $200,000 grant from the NSF.

“We noticed there was a real dearth of information on what ordinary Afghans were thinking about all of this,” said Carpenter. The USAID project had collected data from a sampling of Afghan civil society actors but, Carpenter explained, “We wanted to enhance the information gathering done by NGOs by getting a much broader, more representative sampling of Afghan public opinion.”

This work allows us to really elevate marginalized voices of civilians in these places of the world that are very hard to access, and bring them into the global conversation about human security.

Charli Carpenter, Director, Human Security Lab

For the survey, the lab partnered with a Canadian global research firm, RIWI Corporation, which has patented an effective methodology for getting internet surveys into high-risk areas in a very confidential way. They ran the survey for three months in spring 2022 and collected 26,000 responses from a diverse sampling of Afghans around the country, including over 3,000 who completed the lengthy survey.  

The lab’s analyses of the data to date include policy-relevant findings. For example, just before his death, Leidner discovered that it was not Afghan women but, rather, fathers of first-born daughters who showed the strongest support for gender equality. “This is actionable information that human rights organizations and the U.S. government can use in their campaigns and programming," said Carpenter. “It's not the kind of finding that would ever come out of the sort of methodologies that were being used prior to this study.”  

The first scientific paper resulting from the data, produced with Young and UMass Data Analytics and Computational Social Sciences graduate student Kristina Becvar, is now under review at the journal PLOS ONE. The lab's researchers will continue working on the data this summer to produce and document other novel findings.

In addition to multiple choice questions, the survey asked respondents to explain their answers in their own words. Carpenter has teams of trained students working in the lab to analyze that textual data in rigorous, thoughtful ways to discern meaningful patterns in the responses. In addition, the lab has partnered with a firm that produces sophisticated data visualizations for organizations like The New York Times, and is developing a website with interactive data tools that will highlight these Afghan voices. These tools can be used by other scientists, the media, and the public to answer their questions about the views of Afghan civilians and the U.S. legacy in that country. 


Word cloud

Carpenter and her colleagues are still in the process of analyzing the survey results, but have already gleaned findings of interest.  “We know that a majority of Afghans across the political spectrum care about women’s rights. The Taliban is completely out of line with the Afghan public on the question of women’s rights,” she said. In addition, “We know that, interestingly, half the country actually wants U.S. sanctions to remain in place to pressure the Taliban for a more open and inclusive government, even though the sanctions are hurting them.”

Learn more about the lab’s work in Afghanistan, or check out the Afghan Voices “Data Explorer."

The lab is also studying issues of gender and human rights in Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has sought to build military strength through a law preventing civilian men from fleeing the country during the war with Russia. This runs counter to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects civilians’ freedom of movement and bars discrimination on the basis of sex.  

By curating comments from online petitions sent by Ukrainian citizens to Zelenskyy, as well as responses to a random survey the lab ran in Ukraine, the researchers found that Ukrainians were highly supportive of amending this law, if not lifting it altogether.  

“Interestingly, the citizens seem to be basing their opinions on strategic, rather than human rights, reasons,” said Carpenter. “They feel this law is bad for the war effort, and they prefer an all-volunteer force of men who are fit and willing to serve. They’re also concerned about families being at risk of sexual trafficking when they are separated from their men.”

The lab is leading a working group and sharing research-based ideas on Ukraine with the practitioner network in the civilian protection community and the State Department. Their newest briefing note, Protecting Civilian Men’s Right to Flee the Ukraine War: Humanitarian and Strategic Impacts, will be launched this summer.

Learn more about the lab’s work in Ukraine.


Student Contributions

A substantial team of undergraduate and graduate researchers majoring in fields such as political science, legal studies, international relations, psychology, and economics—to date, 19 undergraduates and 11 graduate students in all—have contributed to the lab’s research initiatives and stakeholder engagement. Students receive training in research methods, human rights issues, and qualitative data analysis packages to carry out sophisticated analyses of large volumes of data from conflict zones. After graduating, many of the lab’s former research assistants have gone on to law school while others have taken jobs at law firms, NGOs, and data analytics consulting agencies.

UMass Amherst student Camryn Hughes
Political science major Camryn Hughes '23

Political science major Camryn Hughes ’23, of Southwick, Mass., joined the lab in summer 2022 after taking a course, "Rules of War," with Carpenter in the prior spring. The course sparked her interest in human security studies, and working in the lab opened her eyes to how “hands-on and personal” international relations could be.

Hughes worked on quantitative coding of responses to the survey of Ukrainian civilians, inquiring about their support for the policy preventing men from leaving the country. Later, she served as assistant project manager on the Afghanistan project, digging into survey data looking at public support for women’s rights.

“One of the most interesting things about that survey was how respondents interpreted the term ‘human rights,’” Hughes said. “I wasn’t expecting that to be a polarizing term; I wasn’t expecting, going into the data, to see people say ‘I don’t believe in human rights for women. I think instead of human rights, women need education, health care, and freedom of travel, freedom of dress, marital autonomy.”

“Working in the lab with Dr. Carpenter has built my academic and professional confidence in a way few other experiences have,” Hughes added. “She made me feel like my opinion was truly valued and that my participation matters. It’s been easily one of my favorite parts of my undergraduate experience.”

This story was originally published in June 2023.