1. What is nonviolent conflict?
In a nonviolent conflict, civilian-based resistance is used to challenge the legitimacy of an oppressor, raise the cost of repression, and to undermine the opponent’s sources of power, including the military and police.
There are over 198 tactics (or methods) of nonviolent action. Various forms of protest—such as petitions, parades, displaying symbols or mass demonstrations—can weaken an opponent’s legitimacy, and also help to recruit, mobilize, and enlarge people’s participation in a nonviolent movement. Certain acts of noncooperation—including resignations, refusal to obey orders, and civil disobedience—jeopardize the status quo. Other forms of noncooperation—such as strikes, boycotts, and refusal to pay fees and taxes—cut off an opponent’s material resources. Direct intervention in the form of sit-ins, targeted acts of economic sabotage, and blockades can directly disrupt an oppressor’s system of control.
Tactics vary widely in the amount of time and energy they require to implement (e.g. occupying a building vs. displaying a symbol), the amount of risk involved (e.g. a public strike and picket line vs. a consumer boycott or a stay-at-home strike), the degree to which people are concentrated or dispersed (e.g. a protest in front of a city hall vs. a population’s refusal to pay taxes), and the amount of people required to carry the tactic out (e.g. a hunger strike vs. mass civil disobedience). Tactics also vary widely in their function; for example some tactics—such as distributing literature to recruit or fund raise, or training members of a movement—help to build the strength of a movement while other tactics—such as a mass demonstration or a strike—may directly confront the movement’s opponent.
2. How does nonviolent conflict work?
Nonviolent conflict works by reducing an opponent’s power to control events and exploit his position in the society or nation. This can typically happen when the reliability and loyalty of key groups (such as the police, military, media, bureaucracy, businesses, laborers, students, religious institutions, or other groups), on which an oppressor depends, maintain its position, deteriorate or collapse. These groups either move towards neutrality in a conflict or actively join with the nonviolent movement to challenge the oppressor’s unjust rule.
When a society’s opposition groups are able to unite among themselves, form a nonviolent movement, develop a strategy and goals based on accurate analysis of their situation, and organize actions that effectively target and shift the loyalties and behavior of their opponent’s supporters, the oppression can no longer rule and power is shifted to the people.
WATCH – Dr. Peter Ackerman talks about key elements of civil resistance below
3. How is nonviolent conflict different from “nonviolence” or passive resistance?
“Nonviolence” is usually a moral choice. Nonviolent conflict is usually a pragmatic choice. Nonviolent conflict is about power—organizing and applying it to fight for and win rights or other political, economic, or social goals. Many people that have used nonviolent action in the past wanted to advance their rights or interests but chose nonviolent methods either because they saw that violence had been ineffective in the past or because they had no violent weapons at their disposal.
When a nonviolent movement follows a strategy aimed at unifying people, mobilizing them to act, concentrating on achievable objectives, and undermining the loyalties and cooperation of an opponent’s key supporters—especially the loyalties of the police and the military—it has the potential to wield decisive power. There is nothing passive about using that kind of power. Gandhi called nonviolent action “the greatest and most active force in the world.”
WATCH – Hardy Merriman talks about nonviolence and nonviolent conflict
VIDEO – Rev. James Lawson talks about Gandhian nonviolence
4. Can nonviolent conflict work against brutal opponents and in highly oppressed societies?
Some of the 20th century’s harshest oppressors were removed through nonviolent conflicts.
In Chile, General Augusto Pinochet tortured and killed thousands of dissidents, but a nonviolent movement developed a way to topple him.
The apartheid regime in South Africa made public assemblies in black townships illegal and threatened or even assassinated nonviolent organizers, but the indigenous nonviolent resistance was still able to shatter the regime’s internal and international support.
In the Philippines, over 70 opposition workers were killed before the 1986 election, but people still successfully organized and nonviolently dislodged dictator Ferdinand Marcos from power soon afterwards.
And the Solidarity movement in Poland opened up oppositional space where little had previously existed, both before and after the communist regime imposed martial law.
One of the key reasons why these and other nonviolent movements were effective against their brutal adversaries is because they undermined the reliable support that many of the key groups in society—including the state’s security forces—had provided to the oppressive regime. Once a nonviolent movement is able to do this, a society can become ungovernable for the existing regime, and a transition to new rulers or a new system can begin.Those who do not understand that nonviolent conflict works in this way tend to dismiss its achievements, but millions—who no longer live under dictatorships, or under other oppressive systems dissolved by nonviolent strategies—would not agree.
5. Where are the significant nonviolent conflicts happening in the world today?
Currently, groups are using civil resistance to obtain rights in nations such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burma, Colombia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Honduras, Iran, The Gambia, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and other places. In places such as Tibet, West Papua, Western Sahara and the Palestinian Territories, groups are fighting nonviolently for self-determination.
To find out more about active nonviolent conflicts in the world, visit our “Movements and Campaigns” page.
6. How often has nonviolent conflict happened in history?
Nonviolent conflict has 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 Danes and people’s in Europe used civil resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II, raising the costs to Germany of its occupation of these nations, helping to strengthen the spirit and cohesion of their people, and saving the lives of thousands of Jews in Berlin, Denmark, Bulgaria and elsewhere.
African Americans used nonviolent action in their struggle to dissolve segregation in the United States in the 1960s.
Polish workers used strikes in 1980 to win the right to organize a free trade union, a major victory in a communist country at a time when a million Soviet soldiers were stationed there.
Marcos in the Philippines and Pinochet in Chile were brought down by nonviolent campaigns in the 1980s.
The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa employed boycotts and other sanctions to weaken the white-dominated government, forcing it to negotiate a different political future for the country.
At the end of the 1980s, Eastern Europeans and Mongolians effectively used civilian-based protest to put massive pressure on communist governments, removing their hold on power.
In 2000, Serbs ousted Slobodan Milosevic, after a nonviolent movement helped co-opt the police and military, thereby dividing his base of support.
In 2002, citizens in Madagascar organized nonviolently to enforce their presidential election results.
In 2003, Georgians used nonviolent action to expose fraud and enforce election results in their country and in 2004, Ukrainians did the same.
In 2005, Lebanese used nonviolent action to end Syrian military control.
In 2006, Nepalis used nonviolent methods to restore democratic rule to their country.
7. Have governments taken into account the potential of nonviolent conflicts in their policies?
Governments do not often or consistently take into account the potential of nonviolent conflicts in their policies.
In the early- and mid-1990s, for example, the United States 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, U.S. and European agencies gave modest but well-targeted support to nonviolent pro-democracy groups in Serbia, and they brought Milosevic down.
What negotiating and bombing had both failed to do—end Milosevic’s regional terrorism once and for all—nonviolent resistance accomplished. The U.S. and European support for the Serbian pro-democracy movement was not the primary reason for the movement’s success, but it did help. Fortunately some policymakers in a number of national capitals are seeing this and awakening to the realization that nonviolent campaigns usually produce democratic results, which in turn contribute to lasting peace. This is likely to change the nature of peacemaking itself.
8. What can governments and non-governmental organizations do to support nonviolent movements?
Governments that value and support human rights and international organizations should develop a comprehensive, transparent approach to assist (but not control or interfere with) civilian-based nonviolent movements. A key part of this approach should be to promote:
The transfer of generic knowledge to oppressed people about how civil resistance works and how it can be strategically planned. This could be done by funding independent efforts to provide tools, equipment and training about nonviolent struggle to groups in conflict.
International pressure on oppressive rulers should be enhanced and intelligent media coverage should be increased. This would help to promote and protect the rights of those who are engaged in nonviolent resistance and who face persecution.
VIDEO – Jack DuVall talks about civil resistance and the international community
9. Why has the successful use of nonviolent strategies to take power not been more widely appreciated?
Most people are taught that power comes from the decisions of leaders of governments, corporations, or organizations or that it comes from the threat or use of violence. Therefore, many people fail to see that when the civilians of a city, region, or country organize themselves, that they are capable of producing power and propelling change.
Some scholars, organizations, and certainly members of the news and entertainment media reinforce the view that power comes only from the decisions of leaders or by violence, because that is what they frequently talk and write about. This creates the mistaken impression that action by elites, revolutionaries, or terrorists is the strongest form of waging a conflict against oppression. Yet the truth is that over the last hundred years, bloody tyrants and even military forces have been neutralized and overcome through the use of strategic nonviolent conflict.
10. Do nonviolent movements require charismatic leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Nonviolent movements do not necessarily require charismatic leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.
While charismatic leadership can be important, it is the ability of a movement or its leaders to use clear strategic thinking and to make wise decisions in the course of a conflict that is far more important in determining the movement’s success or failure. For example, the Chinese students who led the protest in Tiananmen Square had sensational personalities, but their movement collapsed when it had not strategy about what to do when the Chinese government refused to meet their demands.
In some situations, having charismatic or identifiable leadership can even be detrimental to a movement’s success—because the leader may be arrested, corrupted, intimidated, or make poor decisions. Movements that have had to hide or decentralize their leadership have still fared well. For example, the leaders of the Danish underground resistance to the Germans in World War II were entirely anonymous. The Serbian movement to oust Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 was largely decentralized and lacked a single identifiable leader.
Gandhi’s success with the Indian people did not rely on his charisma but rather his persistent campaigns that enlisted Indians at all levels of society to take control of their own lives and then gradually reduce the value to the British of having colonized India.Martin Luther King, Jr. was an inspiring speaker, but that talent would have made little difference if he and others had not identified shrewd ways for African Americans and their allies to put pressure on the system of segregation and undercut its economic and political support.