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What is nonviolent conflict?

In a nonviolent conflict, disruptive actions such as strikes and boycotts are used by civilians, who are part of a movement struggling for rights or justice, to constrain and defeat their opponents. Protests such as petitions, parades, walkouts and mass demonstrations mobilize and intensify the people’s participation. Acts of noncooperation such as resignations, refusal to pay fees and taxes, and civil disobedience help subvert the operations of government. And direct intervention such as sit-ins, targeted acts of economic sabotage and blockades can diminish an arbitrary ruler’s ability to frighten and subjugate his people. These are the weapons of nonviolent conflict.

How is nonviolent conflict different from “nonviolence” or passive resistance?

Most of those who have used nonviolent action have not been primarily motivated by a desire to be nonviolent for its own sake or to make peace. They wanted to fight for their rights or interests but chose means other than guns or bombs – either because they saw that violence had been ineffectual or because they had no violent weapons at their disposal. Gandhi called nonviolent action “the greatest and most activist force in the world.” When a nonviolent movement follows a strategy aimed at rousing the people and undermining their opponents’ pillars of support – especially the loyalty of the police and military – it has the potential to wield decisive power and achieve victory. There is nothing passive about marshalling that kind of power.

What are leading misconceptions about strategic nonviolent conflict?

Charismatic leadership?
Not all successful nonviolent movements had visible, charismatic leaders such as Gandhi or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi’s success with the Indian people did not rely on personal charisma but on his persistent campaigns that enlisted Indians from all levels of society to take control of their own lives and weaken British control of the country. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an inspiring speaker, but that talent would have made little difference had he and his lieutenants not identified ingenious ways for African Americans to put pressure on the system of segregation and undercut its economic and political support.
Good leadership, visible or anonymous, requires clear strategic thinking and wise decisions in the course of a conflict. The Chinese students who led the protest in Tiananmen Square had sensational personalities, but their movement collapsed without a strategy to bargain shrewdly with the regime and survive a brutal crackdown.

Potential use against violent rulers?
Some of the 20th century’s harshest oppressors were removed through nonviolent movements. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet commonly tortured and killed dissidents. South Africa’s apartheid regime forbade public assemblies in black townships, and tried to brutally silence or even assassinate nonviolent organizers. Solidarity opened up political space in Poland, at a time when one million Soviet troops occupied the land, and before and during martial law.

Civil society a prerequisite?
In some cases, such as the Serbian overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, and most recently, the democratic insurrection against Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia, existing civil society provided an initial foundation upon which to build a nonviolent movement. However, other successful struggles, for example in India and South Africa, did not have these advantages. In fact, the organization and mass mobilization required of a nonviolent struggle fosters the creation of organizational structures, which then can become the building blocks for civil society once the conflict ends.

How often has nonviolent conflict happened in history?

More frequently than is commonly realized. The British gave up their occupation of India after a decades-long nonviolent struggle led by Gandhi. The Nazis were resisted nonviolently by Danes and other occupied nations of Europe in World War II, raising the costs to Germany of its control of these nations and helping to strengthen the spirit and cohesion of their people. African Americans opted for nonviolent action to dissolve segregation in the United States in the 1960’s. Polish workers used strikes in 1980 to win the right to organize a free trade union, a historic first in communist countries. Filipinos and Chileans resorted to nonviolent campaigns to bring down dictators in the 1980’s. The nonviolent civic movement in South Africa employed boycotts and other sanctions to weaken the apartheid regime, forcing it to negotiate a different political future for the country. At the end of the 1980’s, East Europeans and Mongolians rapidly mounted civilian-based protests to put unbearable pressure on communist governments, crumbling their hold on power. And Serbs ousted Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 after a nonviolent student-sparked movement helped co-opt the police and military and divide his base of support.

Where are significant nonviolent conflicts happening in the world today?

There are several active nonviolent conflicts and nascent civilian-based movements that may lead to democratic governance, self-rule, and greater social and economic justice for tens of millions of people. For example, the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is leading a longtime nonviolent movement against the military dictatorship in Burma. In Zimbabwe, nonviolent, civic campaigns are growing against dictator Robert Mugabe's corruption and gross misrule. Nonviolent resistance to the Chinese occupation of Tibet continues to persist in that mountain-ringed land. Democratic opposition groups in Azerbaijan and Belarus are vowing to continue the civic actions conducted before recent elections that international monitors assessed were neither free nor fair. Palestinian "popular committees" and ordinary civilians are using nonviolent tactics against the Israeli occupation and the barrier being constructed. In Iran, students, women, workers, teachers and health care providers engage in protests and civil disobedience for rights. Pro-democracy dissidents in Cuba have refused to give up in the face of harassment and imprisonment. In none of these nations is it certain that the regime will be able indefinitely to suppress the people’s struggle for their rights.

Have governments, foreign policy circles and the media in the world’s democracies taken into account the potential of nonviolent conflict to promote democracy, achieve liberation, and overturn repressive regimes?

Not often and not consistently. But the international community is now struggling to find ways of responding to global problems that cannot be fully understood by using traditional ideas about conflict and power, and the customary tools of military force, diplomacy and economic sanctions are no longer enough. Action by states to deter or resolve conflicts by threatening or cooperating with each other have not checked global terrorism, rogue states trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, or internecine violence in many regions.
Globalization and new technologies have empowered non-state actors driving their own agendas. Some of these are fanatic movements using terror against perceived oppressors, while others are civilian-based movements using nonviolent strategies to achieve freedom and self-rule. At the same time the success of civilian-based nonviolent struggles in overthrowing corrupt, oppressive, authoritarian governments over the past half century points the way to a new strategy for addressing fundamental sources of global instability.

What can governments and pro-democracy institutions around the world do to aid nonviolent struggles?

Democratic nations should develop a comprehensive international strategy to support (but not interfere with) such civilian-based movements by helping to underwrite independent efforts to furnish tools, equipment and training in strategic nonviolent conflict, and rally international pressure and media coverage.
In the 1990s, for example, the US relied on diplomacy to end Slobodan Milosevic’s aggression in Bosnia, but it declined to provide much support to his democratic opponents inside Serbia when they were using nonviolent action to oppose him. When Milosevic later began ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO bombed Serbia until he stopped, but he remained in power. Finally, in 1999, US and European institutions gave modest but well-targeted support to nonviolent pro-democracy groups in Serbia, which brought Milosevic down in a year.

What does the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict do?

Acting as a catalyst to stimulate interest in nonviolent conflict, the Center collaborates with likeminded educational institutions and nongovernmental organizations to:

Educate the Global Public
The Center uses television broadcast networks, the Internet, and off-air and offline media to disseminate video programming and books, as well as learning materials for schools and universities. All these resources help promote the history and ideas of nonviolent conflict in open or closed societies where rights or self-determination are at issue. African American college students in Nashville, Tennessee sit in at a downtown lunch counter to defy racial segregation, February, 1960.

Influence Policies and Media Coverage
The Center conducts meetings and briefings, co-sponsors conferences, and makes available articles and features, to encourage international institutions and decision makers to support civilian-based, nonviolent movements. These same tools are used to assist senior media producers and reporters to expand and improve coverage of nonviolent struggles.

Educate Activists
In response to requests, the Center provides support for workshops in nonviolent conflict attended by activists and citizens who are considering civilian-based, nonviolent action as a way to seek democracy or human rights. Such workshops impart conceptual knowledge and help develop skills in applying nonviolent strategies devised by such activists.