A Case for Civil Disobediences: Embracing the Power of Nonviolent Revolutions
Author: Andres Jimenez
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 06/12/2013
Pamela Yates’ excellent 2011 documentary ‘Granito, How to Nail a Dictator’ features an interview a former FMLN[i] guerrilla commander from the Guatemalan civil war who reflects that, “It was obvious for me at that time that the system had to change, but those powerful actors that controlled it were not willing to allow for the slightest change to come about or permit at least some degree of democratic space… That is when I understood quite well that I had to become involved in the revolutionary movement and the armed struggle was inevitably the only path available.” [ii] The account of this former rebel commander might very well summarize the dilemma so many people have had to face whenever they have been pushed to the breaking point by a government that has repeatedly failed them.
Conflict can be found everywhere we look, in every interaction we have, in every idea we stumble upon, in every though we come across; and yet how best to approach and manage it remains an area of continuous debate and ever present transformation. However, whenever we study and analyze conflicts we quickly come to the realization that our preconceived views of it quite often evoke one of our most primordial reactions, violence. My intention with this essay is to clearly illustrate that violent conflict is an incredibly destructive and undesirable endeavor, as well as to highlight the powerful and vital role that peaceful nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience movements can play in any type of social struggle.
The Cost of War
Much has been written about the social, economic, political, cultural, and human cost faced by a society that has been plunged into a ruthless and violent conflict. However, despite our common condemnation of the use of violence as means of social and political struggle, very often we fail to realize the actual deep and prolonged cost that a violent conflict inflicts in a society. Syria is perhaps the most vivid example at this moment of the horrors produced by violent conflicts and the capacity that war has to tear the social fabric of a society apart. It is appalling to see how one of the most ancient and culturally rich societies of the Middle East has been engulfed in a ruthless cycle of death and destruction.
This gradual destruction of a society as a result of a violent conflict stems from the powerful forces that are unleashed and reproduced during these sorts of struggles. For instance, violent conflicts quickly lead to the gradual creation of legal and control vacuums as a result the destruction of the rule of law and government or communal authority. This situation quickly enables the formation of criminal entrepreneurs who thrive under these conditions, and who profit from the continuous exploitation of the civilian populations. In addition, the sort of tactics employed during armed struggles allow for the widespread destruction of the local economy and infrastructure, which in turn deprives the civilian populations of access to their sources of income and vital services. It is hardly surprising that deep humanitarian crises are always present during a violent conflict.
Just like the overwhelming majority of humanitarian crises, the causes and effects of an armed conflict rarely remain confined within delimited borders. Rather, violent conflicts tend to expand and involve the broader region as a whole. The civil war in Libya represents a clear example of such a situation, since it has not only contributed to the destabilization of a whole region due the influx of heavy weapons, but also the effects that the sudden displacement of the Tuareg populations from Libya had on the recent conflict in Mali.[iii] In addition, the long years of war lead to the formation of a deeply polarized society with entrenched hatreds and prejudices amongst the different sectors of society. Again Syria would serve as a vivid example of this situation.
Much like soldiers who have experienced war, or victims of abuse that must learn to cope with the effects of the deep trauma they had to endure, the general consciousness of a society must also cope with the deep social traumas that took place during the violent conflict. The widespread use of violent methods like extreme human rights abuses, indiscriminate killings, mass rapes and abductions, the indoctrination of child soldiers, the widespread use of imprisonment and torture tactics, and the general destruction of infrastructure and access to vital services are all practices that tend to be commonly present and widely used in the overwhelming majority of violent conflicts. Faraway from conference rooms, press offices, and international meetings where the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) are repeatedly discussed and lauded, in the terrain where a ruthless struggle for life and death is being waged, a very different set of values are upheld and encouraged.
It is often said that the way that the revolution is won is generally the way that it will be maintained after it has succeeded. As described by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, “Violent campaigns tend to operate under a set of values that tend to reinforce themselves in the newly established regime, leaving little room for dissent or the establishment of consensual institutions that are necessary to manage conflicts and power relationships nonviolently… Violence used by many insurgent groups requires and legitimizes fundamentally antidemocratic means of political contestation.”[iv]
This often prompts the governing elites to react according to the same sets of values formed and encouraged during the time of the armed revolution. Repression, torture, arbitrary detentions, the curtailment of freedom of speech, and the suspension of civil liberties quickly follow. All of the sudden the revolution has spun full circle; a reincarnation of the old regime has been born.
Armed interventions and hijacked revolutions
From Che Guevara to the Mujahideen fighters, armed revolutionaries have often come to be romanticized and idolized throughout history. It is hard to question the unshakable commitment to a cause or the importance of the struggle pursued by so many armed revolutionary leaders and movements around the world. However, very few indeed have actually led to the formation of effectively representative and democratic governments soon after they succeeded in overthrowing the old power system. Far from being a heroic path to freedom and democracy, one of the most common consequences of the ruthless struggle undertaken by violent revolutionary movements has been the removal of and old rigid elite and the quick imposition of a new one in its place, with the armed revolution being remembered as a sacrosanct event that legitimacies the position of the new governing elite in power.
Many armed movements throughout history have emerged from a deep desire among one or several sectors in a society to fundamentally change the way they are represented and governed. Nevertheless, few of these movements can be seen as fully representative or inclusive. This is due in part to the high barriers of entry that come with participation in such a struggle. These often include high physical demands like agility and endurance, the ability to manipulate weapons, the willingness to live in often arduous conditions, and accepting that becoming involved in an armed insurgency is an activity that carries a very slim margin for error and severe consequence for failure. Not to mention the need to overcome the incredibly high moral obstacles of not only having to risk one’s own life for a cause, but to also be prepared to kill another human being in the process.[v] These characteristics help us understand why armed movements tend to remain quite small in comparison to the populations they often claim to represent.
Thus, armed movements are overwhelmingly composed by relatively small groups of mostly young men, and are traditionally organized in highly hierarchical and rigid structures where dissent is discouraged, and individual initiatives are strongly repressed. In addition, they often tend to organize themselves by limited social characteristics like ethnicity, religion, or cultural affinity.[vi]
It is hard to envision any type of democratic principles and values flourishing from such movements once they have taken power; and even though some rare examples exists, in most cases they never do. What actually tends to happen is that the armed revolutionary movements feed from the underlying causes of the revolt in order to gain strength and popular acceptance, but soon after, they slowly begin to narrowly define the goals to be achieved by the revolution and the chosen tactics used to achieve them.
Another troubling characteristic of violent campaigns is the fact that the mechanisms by which they operate traditionally make them dependent on international support in terms of funds and arms, as well as international recognition and legitimacy. With an increased presence of influential international actors in the conflict, each with its own interests and motivations, the goals of the revolutionary movement may very well continue to diverge from those of the broader sectors of society. This situation is further complicated by the multiplicity of groups or brigades that often operate in a violent revolution and who generally receive support and international backing as long as they follow the views and ideologies of their powerful foreign backers; an element that further contributes to the alienation of the goals of the revolution from the society at large.
Oxford economist Paul Collier has done some interesting work on the funding of several armed revolutionary movements around the world. His work can give us a good idea of the amount of funds that such groups often require in order to sustain their operations. Some of Collier’s work focused on analyzing the estimated annual revenue of one of the most renowned rebel groups in the world, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers. The LTTE fought a ruthless armed insurgency against the Sri Lankan government between 1983 and 2009, and at the height of their power it was estimated that they could comprise up to 15,000 active fighters.[vii] Collier estimates that their annual revenue for the year 2005 could have reached $350 million. By comparison, one of the two traditionally better established political parties in the United Kingdom, the British Conservative Party, had an annual revenue for the same year of just $50 million, one seventh that of the Tamil Tigers, or accounting for the difference in GDP of the area that both groups operate in, one ten-thousandth that of the Tamil Tigers.[viii] Apart from those groups that are able to profit from the control over easily accessible natural resources, most notably oil or minerals, the overwhelming amount of this funding and support must generally come from international backers.
International support for violent revolutionary movements generally responds first and foremost to international geopolitical interests, rather than those of the local population where these revolutions take place. Journalist Dan Kovalik eloquently pointed out this fact in his reporting of post-Gaddafi Libya when he described how France, the United Kingdom, and later the United States argued quite strongly for the need of a rapid military intervention in Libya in order to save innocent civilians from a ‘certain slaughter’ at the hands of the pro-Gadhafi forces[ix]; and yet reports of gross violations of human rights perpetrated by anti-Gaddafi forces after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime have failed to generate hardly any interest or indignation by the same powers who so eagerly rose to the ‘defense’ of the Libyan people some months earlier.[x]
Amnesty International has reported that hundreds of residents from Bani Walid, the last stronghold of pro-Gaddafi forces to fall to the rebels, were arrested by armed militias, tortured and held in secret detention facilities in the months following the fall or the Gaddafi regime. Amnesty’s report also describes how thousands of individuals suspected of having fought for or remained loyal to the Gaddafi government continue to be detained in detention centers across Libya often without ever having been charged or tried. In addition, the report highlights how the situation in post-Gaddafi Libya is characterized by continuous human rights abuses carried out by armed militias who repeatedly engage in arbitrary arrest, torture, extrajudicial executions, and forced displacements.[xi]
Reports like this one have fallen on deaf ears in the centers of power who supported the armed struggle in Libya. Consider former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments after the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi: “How can this happen in a country we help liberate, in a city [Benghazi] we helped save from destruction.”[xii] It seems strikingly obvious that it is highly unlikely that Mrs. Clinton could imagine most Libyans as seeing themselves as anything other than the grateful recipients of freedom and liberation. Could it ever occur to her that NATO’s intervention could have damaged and destabilized Libya and left its people with little hope for a better future? Perhaps, as Kovalik remarks, “This lack of interest in post-Gaddafi Libya is due to the fact that the NATO’s intervention in Libya was never about the preservation of human rights in the first place.”[xiii]
Some international political elites exploited the conflict in Libya to reposition themselves as influential economic and political actors in North Africa. The fact that the decision to tilt the balance of the civil war in Libya and the devastating effects that this prolonged conflict had on the Libyan people, and North Africa and the Sahel, is of little importance. Libya, it is now argued, is open for business and on its way to joining the international community as a responsible and democratic country that is greatly indebted to the international community for their altruistic commitment to help ‘free’ its people from tyranny and oppression.[xiv]
Unfortunately, Libya is but one from a long list of revolutions that have taken the tragic step of pursuing a violent struggle that turned out to be not only undemocratic, but easily hijacked. Sadly, these exceptions or inconsistencies are generally considered as mere ‘anomalies’ within the mainstream mechanistic paradigm that holds foreign military interventions and nation building among its preferred tools of action.
Powerlessness as a state of mind
French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that the idea of ‘empowering’ somebody is misguided since power is already held within every one of us. It is the lack of recognition of this power that keeps us from making effective use of it. We rather choose to surrender this power every time that we comply with the norms that sustain the established system.[xv] This idea presented by Foucault has the potential of altering our perception of power, and it challenges us to look at authority in a radically different way.
The dominant ‘State Paradigm’ sees power and the capacity to exercise it as exclusively deriving from the State and those placed in positions of command. We can clearly see an example of this State Paradigm in the repeated calls for armed intervention by many Western analysts and politicians in the Middle East and North Africa at the start of the so-called Arab Spring. The military intervention by the French government and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Mali in early January, 2013; is but the latest case of this State Paradigm in action.
Following several months of deliberation, the French government eventually decided to move forward with the deployment of a rapid reaction force composed of close to 2,000 heavily armed military personnel to Mali in order to prevent its capital from being taken over by a combination of Tuareg and so called ‘Islamist rebel fighters’ with alleged links to the infamous al-Qaeda terrorist network. Despite the fact that other armed groups with similar alleged links to al-Qaeda like al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria operate widely in several African countries, the Malian conflict was too close to home [Europe] and the fear of seeing the formation of an alleged Taliban-like government in Northern Mali could not be allowed to materialize.
Few people questioned whether the developments in Mali might not be related to the disastrous French and United States past activities in North Africa. British anthropologist and professor Jeremy Keenan has written extensively about Algeria’s powerful role and influence in North Africa and its long involvement in the creation of illusory terrorist groups in order to attract US and French support in the form of financial and military aid. Keenan argues that the Algerian Intelligence Service (GRS) has had a strong influence in the formation and direction of several armed ‘terrorist’ groups which began operating in North Africa since the early 2000s, and eventually moved to the Sahel region linking Algeria to Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Morocco. By creating the phantom threat of al-Qaeda linked groups supposed to be operation in the North Africa and Sahel region, the Algerian government has successfully managed to attract a considerable amount of financial and military support from the United States and France throughout the years.[xvi] It is not unlikely that many of the members of these Algerian sponsored groups later came fill the ranks of the two main rebel groups that led last year’s military offensive against the Malian government, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the more radical Ansar Dine.
In addition, numerous reports have documented how the armed conflict in Libyan has managed to flood the region with guns and heavy weaponry which has made its way to numerous armed groups around the region.[xvii] Journalist Peter Gwin, who has extensively covered the Tuareg in North Africa, reported as early as 2011 that “Gaddafi’s long time support for the Tuareg community has led to the disenfranchisement of one of the most legendary and fierce nomad groups in the Maghreb once he was overthrown.” According to Gwin, “Once their benefactor was ousted, the Tuareg, who had been living for decades in Libya, could possibly be motivated to return to some of their home countries like Mali, Niger and even southern Algeria, in order to pursue past claims that could possibly contribute to further instability in the wider Sahel region.”[xviii] How ominous would these words prove to be.
Perhaps the most troubling legacy of the latest French intervention in Mali is the impression that this has left on the minds of many Malians and the inhabitants of former colonies in general. This military intervention has continued to perpetuate the idea that whenever the situation in a former colony deteriorates, its inhabitants remain helpless and entirely dependent on the assistance of international powers; in Mali’s case this ‘responsibility’ fell on the shoulders of its former colonial master, France.
Violent movements or armed interventions follow very similar same principles. Effective change can only come from those brave enough to risk it all to gain power and control or to restore it to its ‘rightful’ owners. This paradigm conveys the idea that if you do not have the power to become a relevant player, your proper role is then to act as little more than a passive spectator to whom liberation will eventually be given when the enlightened bearers of power succeed in their heroic struggle.
Mali was saved at the last minute by a benevolent and unhesitant François Hollande, who has even managed to win the Félix Houphou’t-Boigny Peace Prize from UNESCO in the process.[xix] The French have strengthened their commitment to save and protect the wellbeing of the Malian people, as well as Niger and Mali’s generous uranium mineral reserves.[xx] If only the Central African Republic was located in North Africa and the SELEKA Rebels were battle hardened al-Qaeda linked Islamists, perhaps François Bozizé’s repeated calls for international assistance to save Bangui from being taken over by rebels would have arisen slightly more concern within these same centers of power.[xxi]
A case for nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience
Much has been written about the power of nonviolent movements to achieve their goals and to demonstrate their unchallenged strategic potential. Let’s now highlight some of their most powerful characteristics.
Low barriers to entry. The actions and tactics employed in nonviolent campaigns are extremely broad and the degree of participation can be extremely wide. In order for a revolution to be successful in transforming the hierarchical power structures that have traditionally characterized the society, widely inclusive activities that allow for the views and voices of women, the elderly, youth, and minority groups must be employed.
Defections of security forces. Civil wars tend to be highly polarizing contests for power with incredibly high stakes. In these cases, it is unlikely that members of the State’s security forces, whose orders are to guaranty the security of the government often through ruthless means, will be able to empathize with a violent, revolutionary cause.
Nonviolent struggles on the other hand, focus on appealing to the numerous commonalities that security force members and protesters share. After all, the general majority of those that fill the security forces’ ranks tend to come from the poorest and most disenfranchised sectors of society. By recognizing and focusing on their shared experiences as acting members of the same society, security force members are able to see the humanness of the protestors, who in many cases are generally composed of their own family members, friends, or acquaintances. Successful nonviolent campaigns have challenged the State’s repressive power by achieving non-action and a refusal to follow orders among the security forces, or their widespread defections.
Domination of the moral high ground. Whenever an authoritarian regime faces any type of sustained opposition, its first reaction is to quickly delegitimize its members by labeling them as criminals, thugs, or ‘terrorists’. Evidently, those that choose to revolt against an entrenched regime through the use of violent tactics will find it much more difficult to persuade other sectors of society to join their cause, particularly those sectors close to the regime because of religious, ethnic, or historical links.
Those actors that engage in nonviolent struggles on the other hand, are able to quickly take the moral high ground, especially when confronted with a government that engages in a regular use of violence and oppressive actions. Even the most skilled spokesperson would struggle to portray demonstrators that commit to strict nonviolent actions of protests and civil disobediences as an imminent danger to the security of the State which merits a violent and aggressive response from its security forces. In addition, nonviolent campaigns do not pretend to compete with the State where it is most powerful, that it is to say, in the use of coercive force. Successful nonviolent campaigns on the other hand, focus their attention on the basic pillars that sustain the regime in place. They feed off from the regime’s indiscriminate use of power, namely the violent repression of protesters, and channel this power back against the State. This can best be exemplified by the cases when violent regime crackdowns against nonviolent demonstrators quickly backfire by generating greater public outrage and broader social support for the revolution.
Collective memory. The success of a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign becomes part of the ‘collective memory’ shared by most members of the society. This powerful mental construction will contribute to the perception that the destiny the country lies not in the hands of a violent and ruthless few willing to kill and torture in the name of liberation, in the willingness of a powerful international backer, or in the shoulders of an enlightened messianic leader, but rather on the power and the will that each and every single member of a society has to shape his or her own reality.
Egypt remains a vivid example of a country whose citizens have managed to remain politically engaged after the fall of the Mubarak regime and committed for the most part to a nonviolent struggle. Whenever the memory of the power of social cohesion and nonviolence remains alive and engrained in the minds of the people, I find it truly hard to envision widespread support for violent movements ever tacking a hold within the society.
Chaotic power. Perhaps the most powerful characteristic of nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns is the capacity of its members to tap into the power of chaotic self-organization and unpredictability. As has been discussed previously, armed groups tend to be highly structured and deeply hierarchical organizations, with commands and objectives devised by a small elite that defines the goals to attain and the tactics to follow. It is true that many armed rebel groups share some of the characteristics of self-organized systems since they often operate under a very loose command and in relatively small groups. However, their military approach always limits them to act according to a relatively rigid framework. Regardless of their cultural particularities, violent movements always place a high value on a set of values that includes discipline, subordination, uniformity, and compliance.
The members of successful civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance campaigns on the other hand, have traditionally organized themselves in nonhierarchical, leaderless movements, characterize by a high degree of adaptability, and a constant willingness to innovate new tactics and approaches. This type of organization has allowed them to embrace one of the most powerful forces in nature, chaos.[xxii] Thus, successful nonviolent campaigns are characterized by their lack of reliance or dependence on the leaderships of a charismatic leader or a small elite who could be detained by the State security forces or corrupted in order to serve a specific set of interests. Nonviolent movements also enjoy little need for the support of international actors since their self-organizing and self-emergent properties means that these sorts of movements are mostly influenced and shaped by the resources and inputs available within their immediate environment. Whenever international support for these movements has materialized, it has almost exclusively taken the form of calls for support of the nonviolent campaign, international recognition of the dissident groups, and support for international sanctions against the regime.
The oppressive and control mechanisms of the State are conditioned to operate under a hierarchical, heavily structured, and rigid system unable to effectively respond and adjust to the innovative and unpredictable tactics used by the nonviolent movement. This leaves that State in a position where it is constantly one step behind the actions of protestors and where it is unable to adapt its response quickly enough. The authoritarian government remains trapped within the State Paradigm and so its responses to the nonviolent revolution can only come from this very same perspective. This explains why the State’s security apparatus traditionally reacts to nonviolent revolutions by hunting for “leaders” where there are none, trying to guess the next move of the protestors when they are actually fairly unpredictable, and use conventional suppression tactics that actually strengthen an unconventional opponent.
Nonviolent civil resistance campaigns have already proven their effectiveness in a significant number of different cultural settings and against some of the most ruthless regimes on earth. From the Philippines in 1986, Chile and Poland in 1988, and East Germany and Czechoslovakia in 1989, to South Africa in 1994, Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003, and Ukraine 2004[xxiii]; nonviolent resistance campaigns have consistently demonstrated their capacity to successfully overthrow authoritarian regimes around the world and lead to the formation of democratic institutions and practices. Those cases where nonviolent campaigns have failed to reach their goals (Iran 1977-79 and Burma 1988-90) have generally been characterized by a lack of a strict commitment to nonviolent actions, as well as the lack of flexibility and adaptability of the tactics employed. The use of violent tactics or the consolidation of a movement under the leadership of a single leader or a small elite are the Achilles’ heel of any nonviolent movement.
Ultimately, the individual, as well as collective struggle for freedom and liberation should always be carried out through a method in which the individual is able to recognize his or her own intrinsic power to change the status quo and to transform his or her own reality. A method that directly responds to his or her interests and that recognizes the chaotic power of self-organization and open nonhierarchical flow. Any other approach would only perpetuate a continuous cycle of oppression, rigidity, and delusion.
Bio: Andres Jimenez works as a training coordinator at Fundación Rasur, Costa Rica. He holds an MA from the University for Peace.