Tag Archives: Nonviolence

FSI09: Civil Resistance in Democracies

The fourteenth presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on movements and elections. The talk was given by none other than Professor Doug McAdam from Stanford University. I’m a big fan McAdam’s research and have cited his work in my dissertation research.

What is absolutely stunning in the social movement literature is the almost complete lack of reference to the role of elections. Likewise, the literature on elections virtually ignores the role of social movements. These academic silos reminded of my dissertation proposal in which I note that the nonviolent civil resistance virtually ignores the role of communication technology.

There are five dynamic links between social movements and elections:

  • Elections as a social movement tactic
  • Proactive electoral mobilization
  • Reactive electoral mobilization
  • Elections shaping the longer-term waxing and waning of movement fortunes
  • Party polarization via social movement pressures

The standard explanation for social movement mobilization, known as political process theory (PPT), emphasizes the role of political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes, along with protest cycles and contentious repertoires. Movements can use an electoral strategy to manage political transitions. Social movements can also become part of important coalitions in the election process.

One of the most brilliant campaign strategies, according to McAdam, is Freedom Summer in 1964.

“This was a campaign in Mississippi launched to register as many African American voters as possible, which up to that time had almost totally excluded black voters. The project was organized by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), a coalition of four established civil rights organizations: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), with SNCC playing the lead role.”

One participant noted that at times social movements (e.g., indigenous movements in Mexico and Guatemala) explicitly boycotts elections or at the very least deliberately do not place any importance in the electoral process. I don’t think this necessarily contradicts McAdam’s point, those indigenous movements did have a strategy—one of non-engagement.

The way I see it, elections are critical processes in any case. As McAdam explains, “elections do create a moment when mobilization is more or less legitimate, they provide a cover.” More fundamentally, I would crystallize the importance of elections around the notion of predictability. In other words, elections are scheduled events and provide an anchor around which resistance movements can plan and prepare for.

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: Repressive Strategies, Democratic Assistance & Civil Resistance

The thirteenth presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on international efforts to assist, defend and advance democratic development. The talk also focused on the strategies implemented by repressive regimes to prevent uprisings.

There are a number of issues that arise in democratic assistance:

  • Is supporting democratic parties in advance of elections assistance or intervention?
  • Fine line between democracy promotion and “picking sides”
  • Difficult to identify who the democrats are
  • Risk of futility: lost causes
  • Risk of misuse of aid by corrupt and sincere actors; need to monitor.
  • Risk of supporting Western-oriented NGOs to the exclusion of more authentic groups.
  • Where does the initiative come from, the donor or the recipient?

The Color Revolutions

There are several well known successes in civil resistance movements. But to really understand what makes movements successful requires that we clearly understand why some movements failed, such as Burma 1990, Belarus 2006, Zimbabwe 2008. Iran is as yet undetermined.

There are some external conditions facilitating color revolutions:

  • Democratic leverage: susceptibility to Western/democratic pressure as a result of economic or security ties.
  • Relative lack of reciprocal leverage on West.
  • Linkages: economic, geopolitical, social, communication and transnational civil societies.

Linkages make repression more costly by:

  • Heightening Western attention and stakes.
  • Increasing the prospect that Western governments will impose costs.
  • Creating democratic constituencies with a stake in democratic reform.
  • Strengthening demo actors in relation to autocrats.

The authoritarian backlash: Authoritarian learning. These regimes do the following:

  • Preempt the favorable conditions for mass mobilization to bring about democratic change.
  • Study and learn from other successful color revolutions. They have thus developed a number of counter-strategies.
  • Restrict alternative political space more aggresively.
  • Foment divisions among the political opposition.
  • Forbid/criminalize the receipt of international grants by independent media and NGOs. This has placed a devastating role.
  • Sever international democratic ties.
  • Forbid international observation of elections.
  • Forbid or harass domestic election monitoring.
  • Shut down mobile networks, SMS, post-election, as crisis builds.
  • Preemptively seize control of public spaces, block access for mass ralies; utilize force early and brutally.
  • Redeploy security forces to ensure loyalty.
  • Import and deploy powerful Internet monitoring and filtration systems.
  • Borrowing and cooperation among authoritarian regimes.

Iran Conditions

There are favorable conditions and still some space for political pluralism. There are high levels of information and education. There is some unification of opposition. There are regime splits, unpopular incumbent. Extensive capacity is using new technologies.

There are however unfavorable conditions. Lack of a parallel vote tabulation to “prove” election fraud. Regime control of security forces so far. The regime is has the technical skill and capacity to monitor and block information. There is little Western leverage.

Tipping factors in Iran include:

  • Courage, commitment, strategy of opposition leadership
  • Opposition ability to craft and sustain campaign of non-violent civil resistance, vs “returning to normal”
  • Further regime splits: where will the clerifcal establishment (Qom) and various security branches come down?
  • Battle of information technology between regime and opposition: repression or evasion? Liberation technology: increasing use of Internet, cell phones, SMS and new social media?

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: Media and Nonviolent Conflict

The twelfth presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on the role of the media in civil resistance. The media can be a powerful force in supporting the principles of a nonviolent struggle. At the same time, the media can also frame issues in a very unhelpful way.

I should say that the tactics and strategies below are core to the field of digital activism. DigiActive provides training on how to use new media to frame your message and how to connect with mainstream media. One needs to set an “agenda of resistance” in all media interventions.


News framing is like a picture frame; new influences what people think and feel about but also influences what people do not think about. Words activate particular frames of seeing. The challenge for activists is to “mediatize” your own conflict.This means framing the conflict at home and abroad. Getting your values and vision across can substantially change the strategic balance of your struggle

In order to interact with the media, nonviolent movements have to understand what journalists need:

  • Clear, molded messages: What are you trying to say?
  • For clearly targeted audiences: Whom are you trying to reach? Your first audience is us in the press.
  • With a local angle or news-peg: Why does it matter to me?
  • Promotion is key: Storytelling is story selling double meaning.

Journalists in essence perform two functions: verification and justification. The challenge for the activists’ organization is to be able to feed both these appetites:

  • Capacity to deliver the event/development journalists can themselves witness;
  • Capacity to provide the “justifiable” sources and commentators.

Being able to provide both enables the nonviolent activist to trade in the media market at some competitive advantage.

What makes a good story?

  • Information: what do people need to know? Why does a story matter to me?
  • Human appeal: News is people, who they are, what they want, and how they get it. Issues need a human face.
  • Buzz factor: what are people talking about? News is deviation from norm. Mode of delivery matches message. Nonviolence is often a deviation from the norm.

One participant asked whether the story of Neda in Iran helps or hurts the civil resistance? On the one hand, Neda has come to frame the current struggle. On the other hand, it does demonstrate that the regime is cracking down and may help spread fear. CNN turned the story of Neda into a story on “how CNN covers the Neda story” as opposed to the story behind Neda.

Don’t fight the media, figure them out:

  • Understand who covers what
  • Target your media audience: TV? Radio? Print? Internet?
  • Make relationships, maintain them (not just when news breaks)
  • Understand news cycles
  • Pitch the right reporter at the right time
  • Mold the message say it simply
  • Personify your story: we cover people, not issues
  • Keep deadlines in mind
  • Know how journalists see their competition

Get your story out on the Internet: Why? How?

  • Reach a new audience
  • Free distribution
  • Increase your numbers
  • Get feedback
  • Meet allies
  • Signal adversaries
  • Raise money
  • Pitch to journalists
  • Great blogs have new posts several times a day

In conclusion, understand what makes a story; remember who you’re trying to reach and how; treat the press like an ally, not an enemy; technology is your friend (but use it safely/securely); develop flexibility in your ability to get your message to people.

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: Law, Justice and Nonviolent Conflict

The eleventh presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on Rule of Law and Justice in nonviolent action. This was an interesting talk on the commonalities between the strategies in nonviolent conflict and post-conflict constitution making, e.g., participatory and inclusive approaches increase legitimacy.

The presentation on Rule of Law was somewhat technical and formalistic, which was actually very helpful for those of us not well versed in this area. The process of constitution making is not one I’m familiar with but the discussion reminded me of a colleague’s interesting in setting up a platform to “crowdsource” a constitution.

The topic of Truth Commissions was also presented. These are often referred to Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. The reconciliation process is often not possible so seeking to establish co-existence is frequently preferable.

There are three primary intersections between nonviolent movements and the legal/justice process in post-conflict scenarios:

  1. Movement’s goals/vision of tomorrow;
  2. Indivisibility of means and ends;
  3. Relationship with security forces.

Some important questions thus follow

  • In what specific ways can a nonviolent campaign smooth the way for transnational justice while simultaneously contributing to the likelihood of success for the movement?
  • What kinds of goals would specifically be included in a manifesto/vision of tomorrow?

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: Role of Diplomats & Diasporas in Civil Resistance

The tenth presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on how diplomats can assist democratic movements and what role the diaspora plays in the democracy movement.

The Diplomats Handbook is designed to give diplomats options regarding what they can do vis-a-vis diplomatic intervention. The golden rules for diplomats include listening, respecting, understanding and sharing. Guidelines are provided on how to demarche governments (like Iran’s currently) and how to inform the media (like in Burma); providing a space for meeting; attending rallies (like Ukraine) to act as a witness; ultimately to protect (like Italian embassy in Tehran).

The diaspora plays 4 important roles in the democratic process:

  1. Act as the voice of conscience to the world.
  2. Lobby diplomats for internationa support and cooperation.
  3. Mobilize activists for grassrooots involvement both inside and outside the country.
  4. Provide psychological and financial support to the movement.

In building a partnership with the international community, diasporas call for the:

  1. Protecting human rights.
  2. Spreading democracy.
  3. Building of civil society.

Actions are also needed from foreign diplomats. These include:

  1. Promoting the cause within one’s own government.
  2. Sending a unifying message regarding human rights and democracy.
  3. Exert pressure against human rights violations.
  4. Engage democratic groups.
  5. Support grassroots independent organizations.

One participant noted that the diaspora can also play a negative role by acting as spoilers in a particular process. Cuba doesn’t really qualify but I’m struck at how different the perspectives of Cubans in Miami are from those of Cubans on the island. Once the Castros are gone, how will the relationship between the diaspora and Cubans on the island be managed?

In the case of Vietnam, the nonviolent opposition groups in the diaspora make a point to go back to Vietnam on a regular place to work side by side with counterparts in country.

Another conversation that ensued was on the role of the US State Department, and specifically how nonviolent movements can manage that relationship. In one case, a participant mentioned that the State Department has been one of the most frustrating impediments. Another participant volunteered guidance: with the State Department, you need to apply a lot of pressure and make friends with the right people in State.

One final observation emphasized the need for the diaspora to be the voice of conscience both outside the country and also within the country.

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: Rechanneling Militancy in Nonviolent Struggle

The ninth presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on the issue of terrorism. In particular, the talk discussed how terrorism works and why it fails. Is terrorism an effective means at achieving a stated objective?

Terrorism is almost entirely psychological; it is about changing people’s minds and perception. So terrorism always requires an audience.

How terrorism works

  • “Propaganda of the Deed” – directed at supporters and potential supporters; action speak louder than words; this is the moment, join the revolution.
  • “Provoking repression” – directed at governments, people will turn on their governments when the latter over-react.
  • “Asset to liability shift” – directed at populations and governments; increase the perceived “price” (in financial but also political terms) of a policy.

There are two examples of terrorism being successful particularly because the conditions were “right” so to speak. The first is the anti-colonial movement in Algeria. The second is the creation of Israel, i.e., the terrorist activities against the British.

Why terrorism fails

  • People are more resilient than terrorist assume. The longer a terrorism campaign goes on, the more people get used to it and become more resilient.
  • People rarely blame the government. People do not turn on the government for not preventing the terrorism.
  • All governments are not paper tigers. Government do not step down and readily give in to terrorist demands. Governments are not easily dislodged as terrorists sometimes assume.

Terrorists often face dilemmas, they can:

  • Carry on but risk losing momentum, such as ETA.
  • Escalate and risk turning the people against them, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq.

While this was an interesting presentation, I was hoping to learn more about concrete tactics/actions nonviolent movements can use to dissuade potential new recruits from joining terrorist groups. In any case, here are good reads I recommend on this general topic:

Patrick Philippe Meier

FSI09: Backfire, Legitimacy & Dividing Loyalties in Civil Resistance

The eight presentation at the Fletcher Summer Institute (FSI) for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict focused on the issue of security forces. One of the guiding questions for this presentation was: In what circumstances can nonviolent movements reduce the legitimacy of security forces in the eyes of the population?

Giving water and food to security forces is a tactic that often works to at least lower tensions and aggression. But one must be very careful about the assumptions made with regards to how security forces might react to various tactics.

Getting repeatedly arrested may provide some advantages, as was noted by colleagues in the Otpor movement. They would start getting know the police officers and wardens, and the building this interpersonal relationships that proved important as the resistance scaled up.

Backfire occurs when an attack creates more support for or attention to what/who is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator. This concept relates to Gene Sharp‘s “political jiu-jitsu“:

Political jiu-jitsu is one of the special processes by which nonviolent action deals with violent repression. By combining nonviolent discipline with solidarity and persistence in struggle, the nonviolent actionists cause the violence of the opponent’s repression to be exposed in the worst possible light. This, in turn, may lead to shifts in opinion and then to shifts in power relationships favorable to the nonviolent group. These shifts result from withdrawal of support for the opponent and the grant of support to the nonviolent actionists.

What are the real preferences of the security forces? These will never be monolithic and fully in line with the regime, i.e., preferences will be differential.  What are the risks in expressing those preferences if you’re part of the security? Security forces don’t always obey:

  • Philippines, 1986
  • Serbia, 2000
  • Ukraine, 2004

When and how do security forces choose to disobey? Developing relationships (usually covert) with leadership and officers was a tactic used in Serbia. In Egypt, activists told police they understood that they had orders to follow and simply asked that they simply not hit them as hard. Developing relationships with ordinary soldiers/police during action is an area that requires further exploration.

Dividing the oppressor is another tactic. So is campaigning for the end of conscription. In apartheid South Africa, the South Africa Defense Force (SADF) was the last line in the defense of apartheid and the 1983 End the Conscription Campaign (ECC) struck at the heart of this powerful force.

“Conscripts were not our enemy… we should serve their interests, ‘pull’ them away from the SADF rather than antagonize or ‘push’ them.”

The ECC also used branding, logos, posters, T-shirts, music concerts, kite flying, etc. But was the ECC successful? There were no high-level defections and the campaign was banned in 1988. However, it continued in different form and the number of conscripts who refused to serve. They were being flown to fight in Angola and were increasingly resistant to do so.

One participant noted that the gulf between members of a nonviolent movement and security officers are often culture, linguistic, etc. The case of Tibet is an example. When there are similarities, emphasizing those is an appropriate tactic. But when there are only differences, can accentuating those differences help the nonviolent movement?

Patrick Philippe Meier