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Give Peace a Chance

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Talk of citizen agency and citizen power is all over the place these days - the media, the international community, academia and everybody else who cares about change and how it happens is looking in awe at current events. Civil protests have changed the political face of an important part of this world, and so far they have done so mostly peacefully. The persistence of protesters to not use violence is one of the most outstanding features of what we're seeing unfold in some Northern African countries. The rejection of violence may be one of the most important factors that contribute to the success of these uprisings.

Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth published a study in International Security in 2008 analyzing the effectiveness of violent and nonviolent political struggle in which they conclude that "nonviolent resistance is a forceful alternative to political violence that can pose effective challenges to democratic and nondemocratic opponents, and at times can do so more effectively than violent resistance." The authors argue that nonviolent opposition is more likely to be successful than violence because, first, nonviolence enhances domestic and international legitimacy of the movement and thereby attracts more participants, which in turn increases pressure on the target. Second, if a regime uses violence to quell a nonviolent protest, domestic and international public opinion can turn against them and weaken the regime's legitimacy further.

Stephan and Chenoweth analyzed more than 300 violent and nonviolent resistance movements from 1900 to 2006. In particular in repressive regimes, nonviolent campaigns were considerably more likely to be successful: "in the face of regime crackdown, nonviolent campaigns are more than six times likelier to achieve full success than violent campaigns ... Repressive regimes are also about twelve times likelier to grant limited concessions ti nonviolent campaigns than to violent campaigns." Loyalty shifts among security forces and civilian bureaucrats are among the most important factors contributing to campaign success, and defections are, so the authors argue, because nonviolent movements don't threaten members of the existing powers. International support for or sanctions against the regime did not have a significant effect on the success of nonviolent protests - but did significantly increase the chances of violent opposition.

In Stephan and Chenoweth's analysis, regime violence against the campaign does not affect the success of either violent or nonviolent campaigns. I wonder, however, if regime violence has an effect on nonviolent campaigns turning to violence as a means to an end. Can and must peaceful protests remain nonviolent if they meet with overbearing military violence from the regime? If nonviolent protests turn violent, do they have fewer chances of succeeding? According to this study, yes, because public opinion will turn against the protestors, inside and outside the country. Internally, loyalty shifts and defections become less likely, externally strong international support may turn into a slow-going diplomatic shuffle. Does this change the legitimacy of the original objectives of the movement? Does it increase the legitimacy of the regime's violent response? Does it decrease the legitimacy of the movement's success, if it indeed is successful? Here, we're entering a vicious circle. 

We know of great nonviolent movements that have changed history: from Ghandi to the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe to the Arab Spring citizens have stood up for their rights peacefully, and gained them. But obviously, there have been numerous campaigns that did not succeed, with or without violence. The international community, as little statistical influence it seems to have, may at least lay the groundwork for nonviolent opposition to flourish and to succeed - by standing up for human rights and for the citizens that demand them.

Picture: Flickr user aldrin_muya

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