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Violence - the central issue

1 November 2005
The International Action Network on Small Arms has sent out issue 8 of its bulletin dedicated to  1325 - the 'pioneering resolution on women, peace and security.' In one section, Sílvia Roque and Tatiana Moura from the  Peace Studies Group of the University of Coimbra in Portugal have formulated a set of goals they think 1325 activists should  work towards, as follows:

" · Guaranteeing that States considered at peace do not interpret Resolution 1325 only in terms of what they should do for other  States or oblige other States to do, but that they seek to explore and translate the meaning of the Resolution in their own  contexts given the continuum of violence;

· The approval of a broader Resolution, that aims to address the continuums of violence, which is currently not possible given  the narrow definitions in international law.

. This would require thinking about intervention in a different way, so that it could be applied in contexts of formal peace. In  other words, it means broadening the definition of interventions beyond simply military interventions, to include analysis and  prevention, which should be integrated by a range of sectors.

. This integrated approach to armed conflicts prevention would involve, in addition to (or instead of) military or humanitarian aid,  for example, disarmament campaigns, design and implementation of more inclusive public security policies, effective programs  to combat domestic violence, and policies and projects to bolster development and human rights, among others.

If 1325 could be interpreted in this way, we would have an instrument, supported by member states of the United Nations, to  strengthen the prevention of violence in our societies."

I like their concentration on the notion of violence and their concluding argument, because as this blog has progressed, I have  increasingly had the feeling that that the continuum of violence throughout our societies, from the domestic hearth to  militarised space is the central issue.

Which brings me back - rather late I apologise - to Judith Butler's essay. Her fine essay 'On Being Beside Oneself: On the  Limits of Sexual Autonomy' ends with a recommendation to all who are committed to human rights to reconcile themselves to  what she calls 'cultural translation'. 'Cultural translation' - she argues, occurs when there is an encounter with difference which  'compels each language to change in order to apprehend the other.' She places this ability at the core of her notion of  democracy, as Sarah mentioned, 'Contestation must be in play for politics to become democratic. Democracy does not  speak in unison; its tunes are dissonant and necessarily so. It is not a predictable process...'

Susanne Zwingler comes up ( in part two of her essay published today) with a similar formula in her attempt to answer the question - when  does a global norm - such as women's rights - work best? She too says that you must avoid an empty cultural relativism on  the one hand, and a dogmatic, top-down, authoritarian approach on the other. Her answer is 'transnational implementation  networks', as you'll see tomorrow.

But what is so interesting about Judith Butler's essay from the point of view of this discussion is her opening premises - the  place she starts out from in order to go on a journey which arrives at her insight into the centrality of cultural translation. One of  those starting points is her experience of homophobic bigotry and the extreme violence it can lead to - a violence, as she  decribes it, that has at its centre a desire to destroy whatever challenges the sheltering norms in which many of us live.

But another starting point which is equally specific and central to the way we all live now, is her understanding of 9/11 and the era that has succeeeded it, as raising to an entirely new degree, and in very new constituencies, an issue that many peace  activists have been thinking about for a lot longer - the issue of our physical vulnerability as human beings - and what this  could tell us about the way we ought to live together. What if vulnerability, instead of being a weakness we build fortresses and  enemy images around - were in fact a central strength? After all, we are born into the world dependent on the kindness of  others. Throughout our lives, we remain open to others in the very core of our self-definition - why not build a society, even a  world, on that premise? She argues:

"Although the dominant mode in the USA has been to shore up sovereignty and security to minimize, or indeed,  foreclose this vulnerability, it can serve another function and another ideal. The fact that our lives are dependent on others can  become the basis of claims for nonmilitaristic political solutions, one which we cannot will away, one we must attend to, even  abide by, as we begin to think about what politics might be implied by staying with the thought of corporeal vulnerability  itself..."

It is no accident I think, that it is only possible to raise this question as the central question it is after eight men with penknives  on two planes have been able to breach the fortifications of the strongest military power the world has ever known. We sense  that we are in a new era which has a new definition of security for us to come to terms with -  something we might call  'mutually assured vulnerability' - when we simply have to learn to get on better with each other across differences.

So it is a good time to ask this central questions about violence. Violence at every level and particularly in its continuum  aspect - its knock-on and its spiral effects - has become a liability in a rather new way. Of course, we will be laughed at and  ostracised, as so many who have taken this path before have been... and placed in another of Judith Butler's so useful  categories - the category of 'the unreal'. There is a great moment of the 'unreal' in the other essay I was going on about - "The  Relevance of Gender for Eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction" (Carol Cohn with Felicity Hill and Sara Ruddick,  Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 80, Autumn 05) - what seems weeks ago & actually was a 17 October link - which the three  authors explain very well I think.  But I'll leave you with the story - you can look up their reading of the situation if you wish :

"We start with a true story, told to Dr. Cohn by a member of a group of nuclear strategists, a white male physicist:

'Several colleagues and I were working on modelling counterforce nuclear attacks, trying to get realistic estimates of the  number of immediate fatalities that would result from different deployments. At one point, we re-modelled a particular attack,  using slightly different assumptions, and found that instead of there being 36 million immediate fatalities, there would only be  30 million. And everybody was sitting around nodding, saying, 'Oh yeh, that's great, only 30 million,' when all of a sudden, I  heard what we were saying. And I blurted out, 'Wait, I've just heard how we're talking - Only 30 million! Only 30 million human  beings killed instantly?' Silence fell upon the room. Nobody said a word. They didn't even look at me. It was awful. I felt like a  woman.' The physicist added that henceforth he was careful never to blurt out anything like that again.

Why did he feel that way?"

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