Is Civil Resistance a Panacea to Modern Conflicts?

Science for Peace and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict came together for a two-day seminar on February 27-28, 2016.
Alexander Belyakov reflects on how the civil resistance model could work in a conflict such as the current one in eastern Ukraine.

By Alexander Belyakov | 2016-04-01 12:00:00

The Science for Peace’s Nonviolence Working Group hosted the two-day seminar “Civil Resistance: The Study of Nonviolent Power and Organized People” in February in Toronto.1

It was taught by scholars from the US-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), which sees its role as a catalyst to promote interest in nonviolent conflict, helping to collaborate with like-minded educational institutions and nongovernmental organizations. In response to requests, the Center provides support for seminars and workshops in nonviolent conflict attended by activists and citizens who are considering civilian-based, nonviolent action as a way to seek democracy, justice, or human rights.

The ICNC instructors Hardy Merriman, Tom Hastings, Maciej Bartkowski, and Shaazka Beyerle have provided deep insights into the complex issues. Civil resistance is defined as sustained and noninstitutionalized acts of nonviolent disruption and construction led by ordinary people against perceived repression. The instructors also examined the nature and attributes of civil resistance, its historical records, and effectiveness when compared to that of violent insurgency.

Participants learned factors that determine successes, as well as failures of civil resistance, common misconceptions and framing of civil resistance with a specific emphasis on skills, strategic planning, and tactics vis-a-vis structural externalities, long-term effects of civil resistance on democratic transformation and sustainability and new, emerging areas of civil resistance studies. The content of the program was tailored to fit the interests of the broad public. The range of registered attendees of this seminar was quite diverse: graduate and undergraduate students, activists, journalists and professors from the University of Toronto, Royal Military College in Kingston, Wilfrid Laurier University, and others. Metta Spencer, Science for Peace president, reflects on this event: “Not only were the lectures stimulating, but allowed peace scholars to finally escape from their ‘silos’ and get to meet each other briefly.”

It is hard to describe such intensive two-day seminar, full of engagement and networking, in just a few paragraphs. Hardy Merriman, President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, focused on tactics using Sharp’s classification: nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation (social, economic, political), and nonviolent Intervention. His various cases and examples provoked interesting questions. Tom Hastings, Ed.D., a co-coordinator of the undergraduate program in Conflict Resolution at Portland State University, impressed an audience with his stories about indigenous people and their tactics and strategies.

Shaazka Beyerle, a senior adviser with the ICNC, and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University, focused on corruption. The misuse of entrusted power for private gain is a common cause of conflicts. The presenter analyzed limitations of traditional, top-down approaches to curbing corruption, as well as attributes of effective nonviolent movements and campaigns. Participants learned about major takeaways from various cases. Citizens—organized in grassroots movements, campaigns, and community initiatives—often achieve real outcomes.

Among successful stories are cases of empowered ordinary people who learned to file petitions and refuse bribe demands (India); protection of an anti-corruption commission and securing the release of jailed deputy commissioners (Indonesia); and preventing corruption and rectifying reconstruction, development, and anti-poverty projects in Afghanistan and Kenya. Almost everyone was impressed that people refused to pay extortion money to the Mafia (Italy) and conducted judicial investigations, trials, and verdicts (Turkey). Other success stories are the resignation of a corrupt prime minister halfway through his term (Bosnia-Herzegovina); Ficha Limpa (Clean Record/Clean Slate) legislation (Brazil); curbing police corruption (Uganda) and that 69% of blacklisted candidates were defeated in the election (South Korea). When the grass-roots fight corruption, it becomes real rather than an abstract concept. It is linked to widely-shared grievances and injustices that harm people in their everyday lives or to blatant powerholder impunity that displays contempt and disregard for citizens.

The Donbass and Civil Resistance

One of the hotspots used for discussion was the ongoing armed conflict in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Dr. Maciej Bartkowski, ICNC Senior Director, Education and Research, has taught in Odessa and has strong family ties to Ukraine. He presented results of the national survey conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) that assessed Ukrainians’ preferences for nonviolent resistance.

The highest number of Ukrainians chose nonviolent resistance as their primary strategy when answering a question, how they would respond to a foreign armed intervention or occupation of places where they live. More than one-third of Ukrainians also think that nonviolent civil resistance could be an effective means to defend their communities against more severe militarily foreign adversaries. Ukrainians feel the government will best meet their needs and expectations, but they disagree on the means how to reach it: twice as many Ukrainians believe that negotiation should be the primary means rather than arms. Most Ukrainians think that the “anti-terror” operation in Ukraine to win back the separatist-controlled regions in Donbass and the Crimea (40% and 44% respectively) will succeed when Ukraine moves forward in political reforms. Moreover, it must reestablish economic growth to raise the standard of living in government-controlled areas.

Sociologists discovered that Ukrainians remain skeptical about using violent actions to defend their country despite their heightened patriotism, the government’s call to arms, and various waves of military drafts. Less than one-fifth of Ukrainians are ready to participate in armed resistance, while 65% of Ukrainians refuse to join any armed action. In contrast, the human capital for nonviolent resistance—in the form of strikes, boycotts, marches, slowdowns, stay-aways, and refusal to work for and pay taxes to occupation authorities—is three times higher than for the armed struggle.

The results of the KIIS survey encouraged scientists to suggest that Western allies harness the untapped, nonviolent force of the Ukrainian population. This will necessitate an investment in training Ukrainians how to conduct mass-based, organized civil resistance—an action that many Ukrainians consider effective and the one which they are ready to employ.

Experts believe that the Ukrainian government is not entirely ignorant of the possibilities for nonviolent resistance. President Poroshenko called on the people of the Donbass region to engage in “civil disobedience against the so-called people’s republics.” This call, however, was not backed up by any specific guidelines or plan on how to organize for, and execute, this type of resistance. The results of the KIIS survey indicate the impressive potential of the Ukrainian population for nonviolent resistance and the unique opportunity to engage government and civil society actors around new national defense mechanisms based on civilian mobilization. This case and other examples were helpful to evaluate the role of civil resistance in modern societies.

Alexander Belyakov was a professor of journalism at the University of Kiev before emigrating to Canada, where he is keenly involved in the politics of nuclear energy.


1 The Science for Peace working group on nonviolence is planning future meetings for academics and journalists in the Greater Toronto area who are addressing some aspect of nonviolent civil resistance and who have expressed interest in getting together occasionally to chat and compare ideas. See for more information.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2016

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2016, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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