How movements can succeed in the face of government repression

Rather than seeing and treating soldiers and police as the “enemy,” nonviolent movements should find creative ways to engage them and to draw many of them to the side of the movement.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

A greater number of resistance movements are choosing to adopt nonviolent forms of struggle as the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance becomes more widely known. At the same time, however, the success rate of these nonviolent movements is decreasing. What accounts for this lower rate of success, just as the effectiveness of nonviolent strategies is catching on? In “Trends in nonviolent resistance and state response,” in Global Responsibility to Protect, Erica Chenoweth suggests that part of the answer lies in target governments becoming increasingly savvy in their responses to nonviolent movements, now that such movements are recognized to pose a real threat to their power. In light of this possibility, how can nonviolent resistance persist and succeed in repressive contexts?

Chenoweth begins by reviewing data on major episodes of nonviolent and violent contention over the 20th and early 21st centuries to discuss changes in the adoption and effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. She finds that, over the last several decades, there has been a substantial rise in the adoption of nonviolent resistance and a corresponding drop in violent resistance in cases of anti-regime or self-determination struggles. This shift, she argues, is likely due to three factors: knowledge of the increasing effectiveness of nonviolent resistance, the development of global norms regarding human rights and a related willingness to challenge tyrants, and technological advances that facilitate communication.

Turning to the question of effectiveness, Chenoweth notes that nonviolent resistance has been remarkably successful, achieving an average success rate of over 50 percent between 1940 and 2010 (compared to a much lower success rate for violent resistance). From 2010 to 2016, however, there has been a marked decrease in the success rate of nonviolent movements. She argues that this is not due to an increase in brutality against these movements; in fact, nonviolent resistance movements are actually much less frequently subjected to mass killings than violent resistance movements are (23 percent of nonviolent campaigns and 68 percent of violent campaigns, from 1955 to 2013), and this frequency has even declined over the last several years. However, more limited lethal violence is still very much a common response to resistance movements, including nonviolent ones, and its use has actually recently increased: 92 percent of nonviolent campaigns since 2007 experienced some form of lethal violence against them compared to 80 percent of nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006.

Lethal repression is just one of several tools that regimes have developed to counter nonviolent resistance movements, and Chenoweth suggests that it is the development of “more politically savvy” responses that may account for the recent lower success rate. She sorts these refined responses into three categories: “reinforcing the loyalty of elites,” “infiltrating and dividing opposition movements,” and “reinforcing public claims to legitimacy.” Other possible reasons she suggests for the recent lower success rate include inadequate skills in nonviolent resistance strategy among the greater number of groups now adopting these methods; the higher percentage of predominantly nonviolent movements since 2010 nonetheless containing elements that “destroy property, engage in street fighting, or use lethal violence” (which diminish the distinct power of a nonviolent movement); and the greater skill with which governments have recently been able to keep security forces from defecting.

If “smart” repression does not work for the regime and escalates to mass killings, how can nonviolent movements persist or even succeed in highly repressive contexts? Although violent repression can sometimes have its intended effect of dampening a movement, Chenoweth reminds us that violence against nonviolent movements can also backfire against the regime using it – galvanizing public support and participation and creating rifts within the regime itself. In addition, she catalogues the various ways in which nonviolent movements/methods can overcome, resist, prevent or protect people from violence in the midst of war or violent repression by pressuring the adversary to address grievances and resolve the conflict; rescuing or hiding those being targeted through a refusal to cooperate with the repressive regime (as happened during the Nazi Holocaust); accompanying or providing proactive presence for threatened activists or communities in war zones; or resisting local armed activity by carving out zones of peace.

Chenoweth also discusses how activists (and their allies) can improve the ability of nonviolence to respond to and persist amid violence. One important way they can do this, according to Brian Martin whom she cites, is to be strategic in the way they represent and publicize the actions of the movement in contrast to the actions of the regime to highlight the regime’s repressive methods. Second, she suggests that communities and movements build their organizational capacity – and strengthen civil society institutions more broadly – as those that have greater capacity are more likely to be resilient. Finally, because security force compliance is so instrumental to a regime’s ability to carry out violent repression, including mass killings, she urges foreign governments to help facilitate security force defections by making escape from the country less risky for those wishing to defect.

Contemporary relevance

In the first few months of 2011, during the so-called Arab Spring, it began to feel like anything was possible: first, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali stepped down, then after over two weeks of protest and repression Egypt’s President Mubarak stepped down, with throngs celebrating in Tahrir Square; there was even a brief glimpse of hope in Bahrain, Syria and Libya, among other countries. But of these cases, Tunisia stands out as the lone country that has secured democratic gains from its nonviolent resistance movement.

The other cases were less successful: for instance, one year after a democratically elected president took office, military rule returned to Egypt; Bahrain’s movement was unable to sustain itself in the face of severe repression; after persisting for quite some time in the midst of violent repression, Syria’s nonviolent movement was steadily over-run by an armed movement composed of defected Syrian soldiers, leading to the civil war that has brought massive destruction to that country over the past six years; and threats of mass killing in Libya in response to its uprising resulted in NATO military intervention, the death of Qaddafi, and subsequent widespread instability and violence, providing a haven for the extremist group ISIS.

These cases all have a bearing on the recent finding that nonviolent resistance – though still more effective than violent resistance in achieving its goals – is becoming less reliably effective. The fact that leaders may be learning about nonviolent resistance, noting its effectiveness, and adapting their responses when targeted by such movements means that nonviolent activists must stay on their toes and maintain versatility in their own adaptive responses. It also provides an unsettling illustration of the way in which academic research and its objects of study are deeply intertwined, with the researcher potentially influencing the phenomenon being studied in unintended ways – such as when research on the operation and effectiveness of nonviolent resistance may better inform the strategies of governments who wish to counter such movements.

Practical implications

If targeted regimes are adapting their responses to be more effective against usually highly effective nonviolent resistance movements, nonviolent activists (and scholars of nonviolent action) will have to devote even greater attention to studying these more politically savvy techniques and how they might be confronted more successfully.

This study already suggests three possible approaches for at least persisting amid such violence, or even trying to prevent further violence: strategically publicizing the contrast between the activists’ own actions and those of their opponent to highlight the repressive nature of the opponent, building organizational/civil society capacity for greater resilience, and taking measures to facilitate security force defection.

These suggestions are consistent with other recommendations of scholars such as Robert Burrowes, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Sharon Erickson Nepstad, and Kurt Schock for how to make a nonviolent movement succeed: consider those actions – including the creation of a mass, broad-based movement – that will strengthen the will and capacity of the nonviolent movement to persist (even in the face of repression), while weakening the will and capacity of the opponent to do so (including by creating cracks in the opponent group, especially among security forces).

What this means in terms of relations with security forces might be counterintuitive: rather than seeing and treating soldiers and police as the “enemy,” nonviolent movements should find creative ways to engage them and to draw many of them to the side of the movement – an approach facilitated by the movement’s maintenance of nonviolent discipline.


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Molly Wallace is Contributing Editor at the Peace Science Digest and Visiting Scholar in Portland State University’s Conflict Resolution Program. Her new book, Security without Weapons: Rethinking Violence, Nonviolent Action, and Civilian Protection, explores nonviolent alternatives for civilian protection in war zones—and particularly the unarmed civilian peacekeeping work of Nonviolent Peaceforce in Sri Lanka. She earned her Ph.D. in Political Science at Brown University and previously taught in the International Affairs and Political Science Programs at the University of New Hampshire and Brown University.