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Nonviolent Tactics Most Effective

UN

A report looks at 323 movements to see which were most successful.

Assessing the effectiveness of civil resistance is a complex undertaking. The causes of change are often linked to a number of factors, and many what-if scenarios can be conjured up to imagine alternate endings; how adequate would nonviolent or violent resistance have been during WWII is a common hypothetical. But a new report that analyzed 323 campaigns which unfolded between 1900 and 2006 attempts to sort the ins and outs of success and failure in countries where people were striving for self-determination, unseating a leader, or driving out a military occupation. Tactics for the groups studied included anything from sit-ins to noncooperation to armed rebellion, and the results are telling:

  • Nonviolent movements were found to attract more people and be more powerful than violent ones—11 times bigger and twice as effective against authoritarian rulers. Co-author Erica Chenoweth remarks, "People power is really the main story here."
  • Including people from different backgrounds (gender, socio-economic, and religious) also led to a higher likelihood of accomplishing an end goal.
  • Utilizing a diversity of nonviolent tactics was found to be more compelling because it stretched thin the resources for quelling a movement. Scholar Gene Sharp cataloged 198 tactics which have since been added to with tools such as social media.
  • It was also helpful for those involved to have a longer outlook; the average length of time the movements lasted was almost three years.
  • In cases where the campaign fails, the study found that nonviolent movements were still more likely (four times as compared to violent campaigns) to eventually democratize, which was attributed to experiences in mobilization and coalition building.

The developments from the Arab Spring (which are still being felt) can be held up for comparison. Tunisia encompassed many of the successful indicators, such as a diverse group of people who used different tactics, and the road to democracy there looks plausible. While both Egypt (nonviolent) and Libya (violent) succeeded in ousting their leaders, their futures are less secure. These examples illustrate the fact that implementing change, even after the fall of reviled regimes, is no easy task. But chances are, had Egypt turned violent, its road would be even more precarious and vice versa with Libya. And although such hypotheticals are impossible to verify, the study’s conclusions point in such directions. As for Syria, which attempted nonviolence but gave way to armed groups, the future does not look bright. Turning to violence pushed many people away and rebel forces began to rely on outside forces for aid and arms which is risky (support is "usually conditional and fickle.")

In terms of external involvement, the report calls on outside governments to support nonviolent resistance early on in order to prevent escalation of violence (from within or from forces such as NATO strikes). Had the nonviolent groups in Syria been given support from the onset, who knows what may or may not have transpired. Assisting independent media outlets, monitoring the criminal justice system, and pressuring leaders not to react with violence are also advantageous actions.

Photo by sari dennise, licensed under Creative Commons.