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Reflections on non-violent conflict, Part I

A lot of my life’s work in gender-related development unfolds in conflict and post-conflict zones.

Sometimes the conflict is cultural or religious; in other cases, the conflict refers to civil war, violent insurrection, or genocide. I lead a life saturated with conflict and I regularly think about the concepts and applications of dispute resolution and post-conflict reintegration of ex-combatants into peacetime communities.

Witnessing the effects of violence has made me abhor it as a means of social change, even for causes I support and struggles with which I identify. Learning more about non-violent conflict and civil resistance at Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Non-Violent Conflict has convinced me not only of the value, but also of the effectiveness of non-violent change. This week, many months after attending FSI and in light of developments from Cairo to Oakland, I will be writing about some of the key lessons I derived from my participation at FSI. I am sharing these kernels not as a transcript of the course, but as a record of what fascinated me and surprised me, with the hope that it can be relevant to the conversation on civil resistance movements gaining momentum worldwide today.

What is non-violent conflict? 
According to the International Center on Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC), the term refers to “a conflict in which at least one party uses nonviolent action as its means to wage the conflict.” This is significant because peaceful protesters’ actions can still classify as non-violent, even if they are met with a violent response from a government, the police, the army or another authority. And what is non-violent action, according to ICNC? “A general technique of conducting nonviolent protest, resistance and intervention without physical violence.”

Relationships of power
Power and authority involve questions of consent. When people deprive a leader (or oppressor) of their consent, it reduces his or her legitimacy. Frederick Douglas expressed this dynamic as “power concedes nothing. […] The limits of tyrants are prescribed the endurance of those whom they oppress.” When discussing this concept, Jack DuVall, the co-author of A Force More Powerful and President of ICNC, clarified that once civil resistance takes the pretense of consent away, the truth about oppression surfaces, thus driving up the cost of oppression.

Room for persuasion
One cannot force participation in a non-violent resistance movement. Leaders and members of a movement need to reason with others and persuade them, rather than coerce them, to join. DuVall emphasized the point that civil resistance efforts are not efforts to stage a coup; they are attempts to change a society, not a regime. What movements seek to accomplish, said DuVall, is to change people in ways that make authoritarianism impossible later. It is not atypical for competition to exist in the early stage of movement formation. Different groups may want to engage in civil resistance towards the same cause, but they have competing visions and agendas. According to DuVall, while civil resistance is highly strategic and tactical, we cannot presume that “action requires protected space.” Some movements started with little political, civic or social space for disagreement. The question to ask is: “Where is there opportunity for independent (inter)action?”

Notes on effectiveness
A 2005 study found that “nonviolent civic action was a key factor in driving 50 of the 67 transitions from authoritarianism between 1972 and 2005.” A 2008 study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth compared 323 violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. Among the findings was that “major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns.” However, it is important to note that strategy is significant for nonviolent campaigns: Resistance efforts cannot succeed only on the ground that they are nonviolent and it is strategy that sets the more successful movements apart.

This is the most persuasive argument I find in favor of non-violent civil resistance: It works. If practiced correctly, it fulfills the goals of a movement without some of the horrifying consequences of violence. In the next installment of this series, I will summarize responses to common critiques of non-violent action and briefly look at the elements of successful non-violent campaigns.

Additional resources: Daryn Cambridge has thoroughly documented the proceedings of FSI 2011 here. The ICNC website has a phenomenal FAQ and Resource Library on non-violent conflict. Some of my favorite books on this topic are:

A Force More Powerful: A century of nonviolent conflict, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall
Nonviolent social movements: A geographical perspective, Stephen Zunes, Lester R. Kurtz, Sarah Beth Asher
Why Civil Resistance Works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan

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