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Readings in Nonviolence

‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence and related areas, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)

This text is based on the talk given by Javier Gárate of War Resisters International on behalf of INNATE at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Belfast, in October 2011 where he looks – with both excellent depth and breadth - at the current state of nonviolence and nonviolent action around the world -

Effective nonviolence in the 21st century

By Javier Gárate

“Effective nonviolence in the 21st century”, a timely title after all we have seen happening in the world during 2011. At the same time the title is quite broad and could be approached from many angles. I will focus more from my own experience of working at War Resisters' International.
WRI is an international network with more than 80 members in more than 40 countries. WRI is a network based on mutual support and international solidarity, we have a very small office, so we relied on the work and commitment of volunteers and of our members. Everyone who wants to join WRI has to agree to a declaration of principles:

The declaration states:
War is a crime against humanity. I am therefore determined not to support any kind of war, and to strive for the removal of all causes of war.

War Resisters' International exists to promote nonviolent action against the causes of war, and to support and connect people around the world who refuse to take part in war or the preparation of war. On this basis, WRI works for a world without war.

These two aspects of the declaration reflect the bases of what WRI is. Our stand against all wars, no matter where and fought by whom, and our commitment towards nonviolent action against the causes of war. These are strong principles which at particular times are not easy to hold. We do strongly believe in them, but know that not everyone we work with has these same principles. In WRI history there has been several occasions when our principles have been challenged, the interventions in Libya being the latest example.

Some of the historical challenges have included the Spanish Civil War (where a former Chair of WRI resigned from WRI because he said if he was Spanish he would be fighting against fascism), and World War 2 (where Albert Einstein one of our most famous supporters said that he supported the French military resistance).

In response to this challenges WRI in the 90s came up with a statement on nonviolence and armed struggles:

In our view, liberation movements are authentic to the extent that they strengthen popular self-reliance and self-organisation and reflect the aspirations of the excluded. They may contain many different social groups and political tendencies, but they depend on the participation of the powerless.

The liberation they seek cannot entail the oppression of others but should respect the rights of all: we are only too aware of the danger that today's liberators could become tomorrow's oppressors. In countries where people have been driven to resistance, WRI and its partners concentrate on strengthening the nonviolent elements in human relations.

This means we have to be open to work with people who don't share these same principles. But at the same time our strong principles open up many opportunities and is also part of the richness of the network, as the WRI in one way or another becomes your political community, where you find like-minded people with whom to cooperate and for whom these principles are core aspects of their lives.

Two main sides of WRI: Refuse war and nonviolence
Our work against war and in support of war resisters has been the core of WRI's historical work. This work is expressed in our programme called the Right to Refuse to Kill. This programme supports conscientious objectors to military service, and whoever refuses to join any form of military. For many still today WRI is mostly associated with work on conscientious objection. Today we have seen a big change in Europe with most countries abolishing military service and moving to a professional army. In Western Europe we only have Finland, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and Austria which still have military service. Not having a military service doesn't make our work any easier, as soldiers are still going to war. That is why we started a campaign promoting counter military recruitment in Europe, where we work with students, teachers, parents, etc against the militarisation of youth, where you have the military going to promote themselves at schools and universities. Also work is done at job fairs and other events where the military is promoting itself. As the recruitment process is a lot more selective than when there was military service, the campaigning has to be better targeted. We are learning from the experience of the US anti-war movement who has vast experience in counter recruitment campaigns.

Military service does still exist in many countries outside Europe. Our main focus for the last years have been Colombia, Israel, South Korea, Turkey and now Egypt - I will come back to the Egyptian case later - conscientious objection many times is the entry point to people to then become antimilitarist and nonviolent activists. They come pressed by their personal situation of being confronted by having to do their military service. If this personal situation is channelled socially in a group many times it can lead to this group slowly starting to engage in other areas involving antimilitarism and nonviolence. This is how many groups have joined WRI - first with a pure interest in CO and more from a human rights perspective, but from the sharing with WRI and other groups they start seeing that their refusal to military service is part of a much bigger struggle against militarism and the need to resist nonviolently and also construct alternatives to this system. That is how many times groups slowly start working more on issues of nonviolence.

The work of refusing to kill and nonviolence are closely connected. WRI describes its understanding of nonviolence as:

That for some, nonviolence is a way of life. For all of us (meaning WRI), it is a form of action that affirms life, speaks out against oppression, and acknowledges the value of each person.

Nonviolence can combine active resistance, including civil disobedience, with dialogue; it can combine non-cooperation - withdrawal of support from a system of oppression - with constructive work to build alternatives.

As a way of engaging in conflict, sometimes nonviolence attempts to bring reconciliation with it: strengthening the social fabric, empowering those at the bottom of society, and including people from different sides in seeking a solution.

The history of humanity is full of episodes of nonviolence, but since the 1970s there has been a social science field dedicated to explain from where such people power comes, called “nonviolent action studies”

Often nonviolence is divided into two main approaches: principled nonviolence and practical nonviolence.

Gene Sharp and pragmatic nonviolence
According to WRI Council member and scholar of nonviolence, Stellan Vinthagen: “Gene Sharp's classic book The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which came out in 1973, changed the studies of nonviolent action. It created a wave of studies and firmly brought an infant field inspired by the work of Gandhi, into a proper social science. Today Sharp's emphasis on effective political strategy (the practical or technique approach) is the paradigm view in western nonviolence. Sharp took many of Gandhi's ideas of power of consent”. In Sharp's study of Gandhi in his book “Gandhi as a Political Strategist”, he has several references regarding Gandhi to the behaviour of the practical politician being indistinguishable from those who profess their belief in the universal moral principle. Sharp has not advocated a combination, something we might call principled pragmatism, but instead maintained a practical approach uninterested in the unity of ethics and technique.

Today this approach (practical nonviolence) is the dominant scholarly approach to nonviolence in the western world. Some scholars have even come up with a set of steps and conditions you need to follow which more or less should guarantee your success in your nonviolent struggle. One of the main advocates of this is Peter Ackerman (himself a student of Sharp) who is the founding Chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), a US based organisation dedicated to promote nonviolent methods of resistance. In Ackerman's ideas almost everything is reduced to strategies and planning where the three most important components for a successful nonviolent resistance are Unity, Planning and Nonviolent discipline. It is almost like playing a chess game, where even beforehand you can know who will win.

Today scholars spend a lot of their research arguing that nonviolence is more effective than violence, which for WRI is important, being effective, but it is not everything. By effective or successful I should say that it is mostly referred to as success is ousting an oppressive regime. In a book that came out this year titled: Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Maria J. Stephan and Antonia Chenoweth, studied more than 100 uprisings from the last century and they came with the statistical result that campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts in achieving their stated goals. Again this is very much focused on the goal of changing a regime and doesn't look much into what follows from this “success” and what are the principles and social ideas of such movements.

Many of these scholars use the example of the Otpor movement, the Serbian youth movement, which used Sharp's model and were successful in toppling Milosevic. They were very pragmatic in their approach to nonviolence, and at the same very effective. Nowadays people from this movement formed a nonviolence training organisation called CANVAS, if you look at their material, it is all like it was a battle field, on how you can be successful. Both CANVAS and Peter Ackerman’s approach focusing mostly in the need to plan and be discipline for being effective - everything has to be planned! I am for planning but the more you plan, the more things come out a different way so you should give space for that and even encourage being spontaneous.

This approach also gives almost no space for the nonviolent values, meaning what is the society we want to build, beyond getting rid of an oppressive regime and being pro democracy, what do we mean by democracy?

Last year I attended a course of advanced studies in nonviolence organised by ICNC (The Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict), it was a week long course looking at countless power points on the different aspects that nonviolent resistance has to have, so how we can be effective. During the whole week there wasn't a single reference to the issue of structure violence of how to deal with an oppressive system which manifests itself all over the world.

Principles and pragmatism
Only a few months later I found myself in a small village in India called Gora, attending a weekend long retreat of members of the Bhoodan (Land Gift) movement in India, a movement started by Vinoba Bhave, one of the main followers of Gandhi's movement in India. Bhoodan was a movement where Vinoba and his followers walked thousands of miles visiting land owners asking them to gift a seventh of their land, with the message, consider us like your seventh child. With this message Bhoodan managed to give land to small farmers to extend their holdings by more than 4000 km2.

The retreat was to look at the spiritual side of the Bhoodan movement, this was done by listening to people who lived most of their lives with Vinoba, this together with sessions of meditation and singing. I felt like at the other extreme of the nonviolence word, and in neither of them (extreme pragmatism or highly spiritual) I have to say I felt completely represented.

In one way in WRI we bridge both worlds together, as we have deep rooted principles but we also can be quite pragmatic when it comes to our work. In the WRI Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns you will find some theory and tips on what can help you in your campaigning, plus a number of case studies of your not typical historical examples. These are meant to give some inspiration and ideas of what other people have done, but in no way is it a recipe for what you are supposed to do. These cases included quite a few of where WRI has played an important role, some are more historical, including the piece about the Sebastian Acevedo movement in Chile, which used nonviolent forms of resistance against the oppression of the Pinochet regime.

One of the case studies in the handbook is the Bombspotting campaign. I want to highlight this one as it is a campaign of European antimilitarist groups using nonviolent direct action against military interventions. The Bombspotting campaign was a Belgian campaign against nuclear weapons, where through the nonviolent direct action of entering a military base where nuclear bombs are stored in Belgium they exposed and denounced the presence of nuclear weapons in the country. Through the years the campaigns has now shifted focus to NATO as the alliance through which most western military interventions are fought. This also gave the opportunity to link with groups from other European countries to carry out joint actions. This is how the European Antimilitarist Network was formed, now we are working under the slogan “War Starts Here!”, showing how wars sometimes far away actually start much closer than you think.

Coming back to India, which is, I guess, one of the places more associated with nonviolence. I visited India because last year (2010), in WRI we organised an international conference, on nonviolent resistance and global militarism. The conference was held in Ahmedabad at the Gujarat Vidyapith university, which is a university founded by Gandhi himself. It was from Ahmedabad that Gandhi began his famous Salt March.

The conference was opened by the famous writer and activist Arundhati Roy, and in her opening speech she said she was for a Biodiversity of Resistance, this was a reaction to what was happening in Chattisgar, where there is a Maoist uprising, mostly formed of adivasis (indigenous people). According Arundhati Roy nonviolent tactics don't work when you live in the jungle as these people do, because for a nonviolent struggle you need an audience, here there is no audience. They cannot boycott anything as they don't buy anything, they cannot fast because they don't exist. So what to do in these situations? She understands their option of taking arms but also knows that in other contexts it doesn't make any sense, that is why she advocates for a biodiversity of resistances.

One of the hosts of the conference was Narayan Desai, who is a former chair of WRI. Narayan is the son of the man who was Gandhi's personal secretary - Mahadev Desai – so is one of those still living with the closest connection to Gandhi himself. Narayan gave the closing speech and replied to Arundhati on the importance of our principles and that firstly it has to be a personal transformation and of our souls of the society we want to construct, and this has to be based first of all in love.

The main Indian organisers of the conference were, as they call themselves, the Mozda Collective, this collective works resisting “development projects” in the state of Gujarat, which impact on the livelihood of the local communities. They see themselves as followers of the Bhoodan movement, though without the strong spiritual side and with a more pragmatic approach to nonviolent resistance, still for them nonviolent values are extremely important, but also you need to be flexible and adapt to the new times. Old members of the Bhoodan movement are still struggling protecting cows because this is what Vinoba once said was the key issue they should campaign on, to protects India's agriculture and the Indian communities. This is all part of the Sarvodaya movement which has a strong critique of civilisation and development, mostly following Gandhi's book Hind Sawar, where he talks of the importance of community life and the dangers of civilisation, he has a special critique of the need, for example, of bridges, hospitals, and lawyers. The movement today very much believes in these ideas, more as principles than actually calling for the closure of hospitals.

I was in India in February 2011, and many afternoons we went for long walks with my friend Anand of the Mozda collective, we walked by the Narmada river bank, which is the river which saw years and years of nonviolent resistance to the construction of the famous Narmada dam, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, dam in India. In these walks we always took a small radio where we could listen to the BBC World Service, which was reporting on the events in Egypt. So every day for one hour we walked getting updates of what was happening in Tahrir square. So I was in India with strong representatives of the Gandhian movement of Gujarat, learning from their ways of organising, which is very much that resistance and your day to day life has to go hand in hand, how your life has to be reflected in your resistance and the other way around. It was all in some way magical doing these walks listening to what was happening in Tahrir Square.

Arab spring
The Arab world is full of experiences of nonviolent struggles. What happened in Tunisia and Egypt was something that was in the making for a long time, mostly with grassroots groups. A number of these groups had been organising themselves for long, training themselves and I think most importantly building alliances between different social movements.

Of course most of the time you need something to spark an uprising. But Mohamed Bouazizi, age 26, who committed suicide on December 17th 2010, and sparked the Tunisian uprising, was actually not the first Tunisian to commit suicide by fire. There were two cases in March and one in November of 2010. A report by Le Monde Diplomatique informed that as early as 1998 a study of the burns unit of a major Tunisian hospital estimated that 15.1 percent of its admissions were “suicide by fire”. So yes, you need something to spark the movement, but it cannot be at any time, the time has to be ripe - which in many ways was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, where social movements had been doing the leg work for long time.

And yes, when one starts, many others feel inspired who might have been doing most of their work in the shadows and now feel the confidence to take on the streets. All these expressions were truly nonviolent expressions of struggle.

A lot has been said of the influence of Sharp's ideas in the Egyptian movement, I am sure that some of the leader organisers read for example the small booklet “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A conceptual frame work for liberation”. And even some of them received training in nonviolence. This might have helped a lot in what earlier I referred as nonviolent discipline and planning, but surely the most important drive was the urge to get rid of Mubarak and build a different society with the capacity to work together between different sectors of society.

We all followed very closely the situation in Egypt, but as you know there were many other events, like in Bahrain and Yemen. The Yemen case is particularly interesting as Yemen has one of the highest rates of gun possession among their population, and still they had a mostly very nonviolent movement. We shouldn't just forget this case just because they are no longer on the news.

The Libyan case is quite complex. As Stephen Zunes says in an article: “It is undeniable that NATO played a critical role in disrupting the military capability of the repressive Libyan regime” and gave huge assistance to the rebels to enter Tripoli. But “There has been little attention paid to the fact that the reason the anti-Qaddafi rebels were able to unexpectedly march into Tripoli last weekend with so little resistance appears to have been a result of a massive and largely unarmed, civil insurrection which had erupted in neighbourhoods throughout the city. Indeed, much of the city had already been liberated by the time the rebel columns entered and began mopping up the remaining pockets of pro-regime forces”.

As you know the initial uprising against Gaddafi in February 2011 was primarily nonviolent. Again as noted by Stephen Zunes: “In less than a week this unarmed insurrection had taken most of the cities in the eastern part of the country, some key cities in the west and even some areas in Tripoli. It was also during this period when most of the resignations of cabinet members happened. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds. It was only when the rebellion took a more violent turn that the uprising progress was dramatically reversed, and gave the opportunity for Gaddafi to give his infamous February 22 speech threatening massacres in rebel strongholds, which in turn, led to the United States and its NATO allies to enter the war”. We will never know what would have been the outcome if the uprising had remained nonviolent. Surely it would have not been easy, but I think it is very likely that there would have been less people dead, and now we wouldn't have the amount of weapons within the population. Of course it is not correct to make comparisons, but still just to say that the number of people killed in the Egypt uprising was between 800 and 900 and the estimates for Libya go from 13,000 to 30,000.

There is a big question mark of what will happen in both the cases of Egypt and Libya. As I mentioned earlier we do work in Egypt with a conscientious objector, his name is Maikel Nabil, he was sentenced to 3 years imprisonment for insulting the military, this was because of an article he wrote in his blog, titled “We got rid of the dictator but not of the dictatorship”. As you know Egypt is being run by a military junta, who controls most powers in Egypt, and to which the US government has given 1.5 billion dollars of security assistance in 2011. There are elections soon, but there has not been the appropriate amount of time for new political parties to be formed who represent the uprising movement. WRI is particularly worried about the situation of the CO Maikel Nabil as he has been carrying out a hunger strike.

Before I end I want to say some words on Syria. The movement there from what people researching the situation have told me is very much of a nonviolent nature. The number of people killed in the 6 months uprising is between 2,700 and 2,900. The movement is formed by a larger section of the working class than for example in Egypt. It is a tougher struggle as the ruling Ba’ath party has a larger social base than did Mubarak. But not that many people now support Assad but it is not easy because of the brutality of the repression. Some small armed rebels have appeared but they are a lot fewer than the nonviolent ones. It is also clearly different in terms of international presence there and how much information we can actually get. If there will be more people taking arms, hopefully they are far from the nonviolent protesters, and if not it could be a blood bath.

Finally some brief words about other movements.
I am from Chile and cannot avoid the opportunity to mention the Chilean student movement. This movement has also been mostly nonviolent. Of course there are always some violent confrontations between the police and some protesters, this mostly started by police provocation, but most of the expressions have been nonviolent Even when there have been demonstrations where there is violence, student leaders had gone to try and stop the violent protesters, as we know how much the media likes to show some violence and that way they can ignore the real demands of the movement. The movement has been going on since May 2011 and it continues very strong. They are extremely creative in the tactics they use and have a huge support by the Chilean population with more than 70% supporting their cause.

I also want to mention the 15M movement in the state of Spain or also called the movement of the indignad@s, which is also a nonviolent movement. In one of their texts they said that the issue of nonviolence was not even necessary to discuss in the meeting as it was so clear that the movement had to be nonviolent that it was not even a discussion. This movement started by occupying squares in the main cities of Spain demanding a complete change of the economic model, something which is also said by the Chilean students. They said they are doing direct democracy as you can no longer trust the political system. Now there are not that many squares occupied but the movement is still very strong and working more decentralised.

Finally I want to refer to the occupation of Wall Street which began in September (2011) with their slogan “we are the 99%”. This is again very much in the same spirit of the Chilean students and the 15M, of saying enough is enough of this system that only benefits the very few who become extremely rich. It is time for us to take action and not wait for the political system to do something as we know they will never will.

In a recent speech by Naomi Klein to the people camping in NYC, she mentioned how this movement in one way was following the movement of Seattle 1999 which started what was called the movement of movements and which tackled big summits where the people in power took the decisions for the rest of the world. She said that following summits means everything has an end as the summit ends. Now is different as they are there to stay, there is a fixed target which is Wall Street and there is no ending time to it. She said: “This is wise, only when you stay put can you grow roots. This is crucial. It is a fact that of the information age that too many movements spring up like beautiful flowers but quickly die off. It is because they don't have roots. And they don't have long term plans for how they are going to sustain themselves. So when the storms come, they get washed away. “

She ended by saying: “Let's treat this beautiful movement as if it is the most important thing in the world. Because it is. It really is.!!”

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Javier Gárate’s talk is also available in audio on the Irish School of Ecumenics website at

Copyright INNATE 2016