Redefining security: human rights and economic justice

Security is impossible without people’s freedom to organize and defend their rights, a cornerstone of the exercise of citizenship. History gives us ample evidence of this, say Lydia Alpizar and Masum Momaya

Masum Momaya Lydia Alpizar
18 May 2011

Three weeks ago, US President Obama touted the killing of Osama bin Laden as a victory in the global war on terror and a symbol that “justice has been done.”  Thousands celebrated publicly across the United States and around the world. 

Meanwhile, women’s rights activists and their allies lamented once again that government actions in the name of “security” have consisted primarily of violent military solutions.  This type of aggression circumvents longstanding, widely agreed-upon conventions that detail proper courses of action for addressing injustice and atrocity.

The celebrations of those that felt vindicated by bin Laden’s death stood in contrast to a silent four-day march for Peace with Justice and Dignity by more than 15,000 people across Mexico nearly a fortnight ago.  There, a broad spectrum of people who have all been affected by widespread violence and rampant militarization in the name of Mexico’s war on drugs gathered to protest “a war in which Mexicans are killing Mexicans.”

Ironically, the very insecurity that the Mexican government is purporting to address in its militarization campaigns are a result of public policies that involve increasing military spending and rolling back social development and civil liberties. Such policies have fueled poverty and inequality and created growing instability, uncertainty and insecurity.

Plagued by violence, including feminicides, disappearances, kidnappings, mutilations and murders, Mexico has become one of the most violent countries in the world. According to statistics from the Mexican government, 40,000 people have been killed since January 2007.  Countless more have been seriously affected. Hundreds of families now have relatives who disappeared.  Thousands of children have been orphaned. There is a significant increase in violence against women, including killings, which in some places like the State of Chihuahua translates into a chilling statistic of one woman being killed every 20 hours in 2010.

Ironically, Mexico is not officially recognized worldwide as a “conflict zone.” The brutality and persistent, escalating state of insecurity there remain invisible to most outside the country.

An overwhelming majority of Mexico’s citizens, though, including women, peasants, farmers, laborers, youth, LGBTI people, migrants and indigenous peoples all recognize the government’s strategy of militarization as bogus, corrupt and repressive.

According to journalist Daniela Pastrana, protestors last week were demanding “a radical change from a ‘war strategy’ to one of citizen security with respect for human rights, an economic policy that creates opportunities for the young, and a political reform to include the power to recall politicians before the end of their elected terms, citizen candidacies and the democratization of the media.”

Sadly, Mexico is only one of many examples where militarization in the name of security has led to greater inequality, deterioration, desperation, fear and poverty.

The protestors’ demands – and similarly those of people today on the streets of Albania, Cote d’Ivoire, Greece, Honduras, Libya, Thailand and Syria – underscore that rather than being about patrols, policing and military might, security only comes about through a full spectrum and exercise of rights - rights fostered within development models that are environmentally sustainable and contribute to social and economic justice.  Such rights include quality, affordable food, water, health care and education; decent jobs that pay living wages; freedom of speech, including dissent; freedom of association; participation in free and fair elections; access to justice; bodily integrity; and freedom from violence in all forms. 

And of course, such rights are only possible with sound economic, fiscal and monetary policies that enable necessary systems to be prioritized and funded.

Longtime feminist and women’s rights advocate leader Charlotte Bunch has long argued for a revised notion of security that encompasses human security.  Bunch points out that real threats to security are inherent “in poverty and the everyday violence of HIV/AIDS, of racism, of domestic abuse, of ethnic conflicts and massive displacements.  The numbers of people in the world who are dying every day from these causes far exceeds the threat of terrorism, and further, they often feed the hopelessness and rage behind terrorist acts.”

In contrast, Bunch posits that human security involves an integrated approach that sees peace, justice, equality, human rights and development as interrelated.

Peace, justice, equality, human rights and development, though, are far-flung in Mexico and many other countries today.  On the contrary, recent attacks on, disappearances of, torturing of and killing of women human rights defenders and other defenders of rights in Mexico and elsewhere are indicative of just how bad situations have become. 

The right of people to ask for and defend their rights no longer exists – and this is the ultimate sign that basic systems that ensure justice and dignity have broken down.  Again, Mexico is not alone in this regard.  According to UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, women human rights defenders in China, Guatemala, Honduras, Iran, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe and many other countries around the world face similar circumstances.

These situations are particularly disturbing. Security is impossible without people’s freedom to organize and defend their rights, a cornerstone of the exercise of citizenship.

History gives us ample evidence of this.

For example, Liberian market women’s organizing was instrumental in the peace process that ended the 14-year civil war there.  When the conflict was over, they made sure that economic justice and security were part of the restoration efforts. 

In Rwanda, women were prominent players in the system of Gacaca courts that presided over the peace and reconciliation following years of ethnic conflict and genocide.  Recognizing the multi-pronged nature of security, they tied truth-telling and restorative justice processes to political accountability and economic reform.

In Argentina, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo were central in the mobilization against the military dictatorship in the seventies and early eighties, and became a symbol of human rights activism, courage and dignity in their country and around the world.

Accountability, in particular, is the piece of the puzzle that has been most elusive.

As Amartya Sen points out, rights are also about duties, including the duties of governments to help realize rights in people’s lives.  Charlotte Bunch adds, “we all know that you don’t get your rights just by having laws and mechanisms.”  But many social movements utilize the laws and mechanisms in their political struggles.  Having rights frameworks in place and the mechanisms to ensure them upholds the notion that someone - primarily the government - is responsible for realizing rights.

Also, human rights themselves are enshrined in the role and position of the United Nations (UN), whose aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and world peace. In recent decades, right-wing forces, many global corporations, some governments and numerous fundamentalists groups have been working to weaken the role of the UN, limiting it to humanitarian operations rather than allowing it to enforce human rights and advance sustainable development policies and programs. 

So long as the role of the UN remains limited and weak and governments use the UN to legitimize aggression, security will be difficult to achieve.

With each passing day, the number of countries that can be unequivocally labeled as secure for their peoples, diminishes. 

Instead of more killings, police patrols and military prowess, justice will actually only be done and security only achieved when human rights are fully realized and economic justice with environmental sustainability is achieved.

Throughout history, in all of their bold, visible and unheralded actions, women have long been forging this kind of security, in which peace, justice, sustainable development, equality and rights are indivisible.  From May 23rd-25th, brought together by the Nobel Women’s Initiative, women leaders will gather once again to discuss how to make this kind of security a reality.

To read openDemocracy's full coverage of the conference click here


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