Is Non Violent Resistance Effective?

image Is non violent resistance effective? That was the broad theme of a recent talk delivered by Javier Garate of War Resisters International (WRI) at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast.

The talk, titled ‘Effective Non Violence in the 21st Century,’ was co-hosted by the Irish School of Ecumenics and INNATE (Irish Network for Nonviolent Action Training & Education). You can listen to the talk here.

Given the non violent example of Jesus in the Gospels, non violence is a theme which I could fruitfully reflect on more often on this blog.

As regular readers will know, the theme of my blog is ‘building a church without walls’ – and that’s something that can’t be accomplished either through physical or psychological force.

Garate’s concerns weren’t specifically Christian or even religious, although he was keen to stress that WRI’s approach is a matter of principle, not simply of tactics.

WRI doesn’t choose non violence just because they think it works, they choose non violence because they think it’s the right thing to do.

Garate said the group’s two main guiding principles are:

  • Refusing all wars
  • Maintaining a strong commitment to non-violent resistance

The first principle of course means that WRI would not make room for Christian interpretations of ‘just war’ theory. The second means that apathy in the face of the violence and oppression of others should not be an option.

Like most of you, I don’t often get asked my opinion if a conflict is ‘just’ before the protagonists wade in, guns, bombs and drone missiles blazing. But I often choose the apathy option (out of apathy more than anything else!) when it comes to questioning, challenging or resisting the current array of wars, conflicts, etc in the world around me.

While of course welcoming pragmatic reasons for choosing non violence rather than violence, Garate said that it was his experience that many authors and activists who focus solely on tactics, at the expense of principle, tend to overlook ‘structural violence.’

Structural violence is a term associated with Johan Galtung, a giant in the field of Peace Studies. Structural violence is produced through social processes in which social, cultural and political structures (including inter-state, state and civil society institutions and laws, etc) keep some people mired in positions of poverty and disadvantage. I would add that the churches can sometimes contribute to the maintenance of structural violence.

So victims of structural violence may or may not face direct, physical violence – but they are exploited and marginalised – and this can often breed direct violence in the form of class conflict, riots, and so on.For Garate, then, structural as well as direct violence should be a target for non violent resistance.

I think that this resonates with liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor – as well as Jesus’ preference for the poor as portrayed in the Gospels.

Garate also provided descriptions of a few examples of WRI’s work, including support for the Right to Refuse to Kill programme for conscientious objectors, a Campaign of Military Counter Recruitment in Europe, work on War Profiteering, and recent research on the impact of drone missiles.

He claimed that the keys to effective non violent campaigns are unity, planning and non-violent discipline – as well as a spark of creativity.

Being creative can mean catching your adversary off guard through mass demonstrations, humour, or targeted networking campaigns. As an example of creativity he cited the ‘War Starts Here’ campaign, in which activists camped out and used pink paint to try and cover a major NATO military base in Sweden.

Garate added that in the past year three significant movements have employed non violent tactics to effective ends, although it remains to be seen how much these movements will accomplish.

The movements are: a student’s movement in Chile which self-organised a nation-wide referendum on free education; a movement for direct democracy in Spain; and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Garate also provided a useful list of sources for people interested in learning more, ranging from the work of Gene Sharp (whose From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation was famously used by activists in the ‘Arab Spring’ movements) to recent academic scholarship by authors such as Maria Stephan and Diana Francis.

(Image: Protesters from the War Starts Here campaign, after using pink paint to decorate part of the NEAT military base in Sweden. Photo by Natverket Ofog, sourced on flickr)


International Centre on Non Violent Conflict

Documentary and video game: A Force More Powerful

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2011) Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan

From Pacification to Peacebuilding: A Call to Global Transformation (2010) Diana Francis

Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East (2010) Maria Stephan

Handbook for Non Violent Campaigns (2009), War Resisters International

People power and protest since 1945: a bibliography of nonviolent action (2006) compiled by April Carter, Howard Clark and Michael Randle.

From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (1993, 2012) Gene Sharp

Gandhi as a Political Strategist (1979) Gene Sharp

The Politics of Non Violent Action (1973) Gene Sharp

3 thoughts on “Is Non Violent Resistance Effective?”

  1. Interesting post and I definitely need to listen to the talk!
    Just one question: it seems that overt, outright violence is usually the factor that spurs people to non-violent resistance. Structural violence, perhaps, also does this, but as far as I can oversee, not on such a massive scale.

    To what extent would non-violence then actually be partially dependent on overt violence
    as an initiating factor?

    Just a thought – I don’t know if my assumptions are correct here!

  2. Good question, Atje … My hunch is that the line between structural and direct violence can be somewhat blurred. So, for example, you might say that the civil rights protesters in the US and N. Ireland in the 1960s were initially protesting against structural violence (most obviously in the form of inequality), but that these non violent protests were quickly met with violent responses. And, of course, there would have been a higher degree of violence used by police in those societies before the civil rights protests began.

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