Cynthia Cockburn on Human Security

This is an extract from a message from Cynthia Cockburn to the 2009 WILPF seminar on Women Challenging Security. Cynthia sent this message from Seoul in South Korea where she was conducting research.

Recently I found some wisdom from an unlikely source. A United States Secretary of State, it was, in a speech made June 1945, who said,

The battle of peace has to be fought on two fronts. The first is the security front where victory spells freedom from fear. The second is the economic and social front where victory means freedom from want. Only victory on both fronts can assure the world of an enduring peace.”

The language is curiously military, though the message was right on.

But it would be another half century before the UN Human Development Report (1994) put a name to the idea that ‘security’ isn’t merely absence of threat to the nation in a world of belligerent nation states. It’s also the absence of threat to the wellbeing of people in a world of need. Since then, the notion of ‘human security’ has entered everyday common sense.

It was sometime around then, I think, that Johann Galtung was writing about ‘structural violence’, another useful addition to the security lexicon. It’s been hugely important to have a way of saying that not every threat and every harm is immediate. A politician with power can be as much or more of a threat to life than a man with a gun. Oppression, poverty and exclusion may cause injury and death, over decades, showing up as shorter life expectancies, higher infant mortality, more women dying in childbirth. The bruises on a woman’s body are the effects of direct violence. That she is unable to leave her violent partner is the effect of structural violence. The two concepts together, human security and structural violence, have made particular sense to women. Feminist thinkers on security have made good running with them.

It has interested me to learn that North Korea’s attitude to ‘security’ changed markedly (though not permanently) during the late 1990s when the country experienced a severe famine. When the death toll was near a million, the need for humanitarian relief for a moment overshadowed the long-perceived need to maintain closed borders and a defensive military stance towards the world.

What interests me particularly is the lessons Korean women have learned, living in a country that’s partitioned, divided into two super-militarized entities, about what a women’s peace movement has to be. First, women’s organisations were quick to respond to the famine in the North by organizing relief, and a lot of them saw what they were doing not as ‘charity’ but as a step towards peace. At the same time, women’s organisations in South Korea have given a lot of energy over the years to addressing the abuse of women who work as prostitutes in the camp towns around the US bases, and related sexual violence by soldiers against women who are not sex workers.

Once you are alert to violence against women by the military, ‘military security’ begins to look a bit of an oxymoron. But also, an antiwar movement that goes on the streets against what soldiers are asked to do in wartime, but fails to campaign against what they do during ‘rest and recreation’, seems somehow blinkered. And then again, why activate against violence against women by men in uniform, yet not against the violence of men who don’t wear khaki: ordinary men at home, and on the street?

So what I’m hearing Korean women saying is what you’re probably saying right now in this seminar: when you see security, insecurity and violence from the perspective of women, you find you’re in a movement that isn’t quite the same movement as the one you join on a Saturday afternoon as it marches through the city centre demanding ‘stop the war’ or ‘troops out’ or ‘disband NATO’. That is a non-violent movement against militarism and war. The one in which our chosen activism positions us may be better described as a movement for a non-violent world.

It could be useful, I think, to note and explore the difference and tensions between the two kinds of movement, how women and men experience each of them, and how mutually supportive the movements can be.