I’ve been thinking a lot about security lately, inspired by a couple of great feminist books – ones I won’t name because I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read them earlier. Their main arguments were already known to me: feminist scholars have challenged the idea of state-defined (or national) security, and introduced a concept of security that is related to women’s sense of control over their own lives. To do so, they examine patterns of peace and violence in women’s everyday lives, regardless of the proximity to conflict zones. Thinking about peace, violence and security all together has been reshaping my understanding of two situations which have been on my mind a lot. The first is the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which escalated again this month, and the second (which I’ll deal with in a separate post) is the refugee ‘crisis’ as witnessed here in Berlin.
Let’s start with what happened in Karabakh. To say that “violence erupted” or “clashes broke out” is to point to the sense that something – violence, clashes, conflict, war – has been simmering below the surface for some time. Yet by suggesting that conflict is somehow dormant in the periods between clashes, the media erases the traces of violence, pain and injustice that are re-inscribed in everyday life. The wounds of war are etched more deeply with every day that brings news of a minor ceasefire violation, a soldier killed or wounded, civilian homes under attack, a mine explosion, an incident involving a prisoner of war, a diplomatic argument, evidence of cultural desecration, or the commemoration of a major loss inflicted more than twenty years ago. These are stories that never make the international news headlines, but are part of everyday life for Armenians and Azerbaijanis, especially those living in conflict-affected communities.
Other forms of violence are also present in the conflict. Take for example the economic blockade which prevents Armenia, and even more so Nagorno-Karabakh, from reaching its full potential as a society. What is economic violence if not an all-pervasive tactic of war, with psychological and cultural effects, which disproportionately impacts the poor? The continued denial of the right of Azerbaijani IDPs to return to their homes is a similar kind of violence. At least half of IDPs live in over-crowded or unsanitary conditions, and they lack full voting rights. The destruction of their livelihoods and the impact on family structures does more than anything else to ensure that the trauma of displacement will also affect the next generation. We could go on…what about gender violence, which is legitimated through the construction of protective masculinity and vulnerable femininity, the valorisation of the military (which chews up and spits out young men’s bodies) and the degradation of women’s rights (which are inevitably sacrificed to the war machine)? What about government corruption, which has the effect of magnifying economic violence while seeking to blame it all on the conflict?
Once we start thinking about everyday violence, it becomes much easier to imagine what everyday security means. Everyday security does not mean risking losing your sons and brothers because they have been sent to the front line (even if they have volunteered for it). Everyday security does not mean watching your government invest in bigger and better tanks and missiles, while you cannot even access the gynaecological care which you urgently need. Everyday security does not mean waking up every morning afraid to check the news, or struggling to remember a dream you had of home. Everyday security means knowing that you and your family are safe and free to pursue your own needs and interests. The latest clashes are devastating in the sense that they reaffirm the sense of everyday insecurity, rather than shattering the illusion of security, in the region. No one who is familiar with the region was surprised by this “outbreak” of violence. Moreover, they know that enforcing the ceasefire and even renewing the commitment to negotiations is only one of many steps needed to address security issues.
How does this concept of security relate to peacebuilding as it is practiced in the region? One of the main aims of peacebuilding is establishing cross-border dialogue, in the hopes of reducing stereotypes and harmful perceptions, and providing common ground for peaceful solutions. The other is more akin to peace education: promoting the idea of nonviolent conflict resolution and civic participation in the peace process (for feminist NGOs this also means opposing gender-based violence and promoting UNSCR 1325 on Women, Peace and Security).
But peacebuilding does not end there. The idea that the dogma of peace might slowly be infused into society through trainings and seminars must also take reverse feedback into account. Peacebuilding must aim to create a platform where everyday security concerns can be articulated and addressed at the appropriate level – local, national, or international – and in the context of cross-border dialogue. It seems to me that this tends to happen in spite of, rather than because of, the usual peacebuilding format. Last week I spoke to several people who are deeply concerned that their peacebuilding work has been derailed. People can’t imagine how they are going to re-establish trust in the community. This has been a recurring problem for peacebuilders, but it is one that could be creatively avoided (to some extent) if peacebuilders geared their work more towards listening than telling. Maybe the imposition of ‘peacebuilding’ on conflict-affected communities brings with it its own forms of violence and exclusion?
Personally, I do not want to abandon the idea of peacebuilding and I believe that there is value and purpose in bringing people together. But I also agree with the anonymous feminists who wrote this week that peace and conflict resolution programmes can only succeed when coupled with the dismantling of patriarchal and militarist systems. This simply cannot be done without rethinking security from a feminist perspective.