A Force More Powerful than War: Nonviolent Resistance - OZY | A Modern Media Company

A Force More Powerful than War: Nonviolent Resistance

A Force More Powerful than War: Nonviolent Resistance

By Stephen Zunes

More than 1500 people, most Sahrawis have spoken on the streets of Madrid demanding the independence of Western Sahara
SourceGuillermo Martinez/Demotix/Corbis


Because nuns, folk singers and dockworkers have the better track record for helping countries achieve democracy. Nearly 70 countries have shown us how.

By Stephen Zunes

Dictatorial regimes: Can they only be overthrown through armed struggle or foreign military intervention? The long-standing assumption has been “yes.” But what would the world look like if that assumption were turned on its head?

From across the cultural, geographic and ideological spectrum, democratic and progressive forces have recognized the power of nonviolent action to free them from oppression. And it’s not just under a narrow set of circumstances: From the poorest nations of Africa to the relatively affluent countries of Eastern Europe; from communist regimes to right-wing military dictatorships, this tactical change has taken hold not from a moral or spiritual commitment to nonviolence, but simply because it works.

Since 1900, nonviolent campaigns in support of self-determination saw a 53 percent success rate. 

Of the nearly 70 countries that have made the transition from dictatorship to varying levels of democracy in the previous 40 years, only a small minority did so through armed struggle from below or reform instigated from above. Hardly any new democracies resulted from foreign invasion. In nearly three-quarters of the transitions, change was rooted in democratic civil-society organizations that employed nonviolent methods.

A different study used an expanded database and analyzed 323 major insurrections in support of self-determination and democratic rule since 1900. It found that violent resistance was successful only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent campaigns had a 53 percent success rate.

Indeed, it was not the leftist guerrillas of the New People’s Army who brought down the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It was nuns praying the rosary in front of the regime’s tanks, and the millions of others who brought greater Manila to a standstill.

BW image of nuns in front of soldiers

People Power Revolution, Philippines, 1986

Source Juda Ngwenya

It was not the 11 weeks of bombing that brought down Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the infamous “butcher of the Balkans.” It was a nonviolent resistance movement led by young students, whose generation had been sacrificed in a series of bloody military campaigns against neighboring Yugoslav republics, and who were able to mobilize a large cross-section of the population to rise up against a stolen election.

It was not the armed wing of the African National Congress that brought majority rule to South Africa. It was workers, students, and township dwellers who—through the use of strikes, boycotts, the creation of alternative institutions and other acts of defiance—made it impossible for the apartheid system to continue.

It was not NATO that brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe or freed the Baltic republics from Soviet control. It was Polish dockworkers, East German church people, Estonian folk singers, Czech intellectuals and millions of ordinary citizens.

Most repressive governments  tend to be less prepared to counter massive non-cooperation by old, middle-aged, and young. 

Similarly, such tyrants as Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, Moussa Traoré in Mali, King Gyanendra in Nepal, General Suharto in Indonesia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia were forced to cede power when it became clear that they were powerless in the face of massive nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.

Armed resistance, even for a just cause, can terrify people not yet committed to the struggle, making it easier for a government to justify violent repression and use of military force in the name of protecting the population. Even rioting and vandalism can turn public opinion against a movement, which is why some governments have employed agents provocateurs to encourage such violence. The use of force against unarmed resistance movements, on the other hand, usually creates greater sympathy for the government’s opponents. As with the martial art of aikido, nonviolent opposition movements can engage the force of the state’s repression to effectively disarm the regime.

Massive crowd walking towards camera outdoors during the day

Thousands of South African public servants staged some of the biggest protests since the end of apartheid on September 2, 2004.

In addition, unarmed campaigns involve a range of participants far beyond the young, able-bodied men normally found in the ranks of armed guerrillas. As the movement grows in strength, it can include a large cross-section of the population. Though most repressive governments are well-prepared to deal with a violent insurgency, they tend to be less prepared to counter massive non-cooperation by old, middle-aged, and young. When millions of people defy official orders by engaging in illegal demonstrations, going out on strike, violating curfews, refusing to pay taxes, and otherwise refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the state, the state no longer has power.

Unarmed movements also increase the likelihood of defections and non-cooperation by police and military personnel, who will generally fight in self-defense against armed guerrillas but are hesitant to shoot into unarmed crowds.

Also significant is the fact that the vast majority of successful armed struggles against dictatorships resulted in new dictatorships and/or civil wars between competing factions, whereas most dictatorships ousted through primarily nonviolent means resulted in stable democratic societies within a few years.

Nonviolent action is a form of conflict that can build, rather than destroy.

Today, from Western Sahara to West Papua to the West Bank, people are engaged in nonviolent resistance against foreign occupation. Similarly, from Bahrain to Iran to Zimbabwe, people are fighting nonviolently for freedom from dictatorial rule.

In some highly-polarized societies—like Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand opposition factions may use some of the tools of nonviolent resistance to try to oust democratically-elected governments. Even in cases where there are legitimate grievances against the incumbent regime, such uprisings tend to be less likely to succeed, more likely to include undemocratic and violent elements, and more dependent on the support of foreign powers or domestic elites. Still, however one may view such uprisings, it is certainly a better path than civil war.

For recent history has shown that power ultimately resides in the people, not in the state; that nonviolent strategies can be more powerful than guns; and that nonviolent action is a form of conflict that can build, rather than destroy.

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