frequently asked questions

Frequently Asked Questions about Nonviolent Conflict

Q. What is "nonviolent conflict?"

A. In a nonviolent conflict, disruptive actions such as strikes and boycotts are used -- typically by a popular movement struggling for rights or justice -- to constrain and punish its opponents. Protests such as petitions, parades, walkouts and demonstrations mobilize and intensify civilian participation. Acts of noncooperation such as resignations and civil disobedience help subvert the operations of government. And direct intervention such as sit-ins, targeted acts of economic disruption and blockades can frustrate a regime's capacity to subjugate people. These are the hallmarks of nonviolent conflict.

Q. How is nonviolent conflict different from "nonviolence" or passive resistance?

A. Most of those who have used nonviolent action have not primarily been motivated by a desire to be nonviolent or to make peace. They have wanted to fight for their rights or interests, but by means other than guns or bombs - either because they have seen that violence had been ineffectual or because they had no violent force at their disposal. Gandhi called nonviolent action "the greatest and the activist force in the world." He knew that when a nonviolent movement follows a strategy aimed at mobilizing the people and undermining its opponents' pillars of support, it has the potential to wield decisive power and achieve victory. There is nothing passive about marshalling that kind of power.

Q: How often has nonviolent conflict happened in history?

A. More frequently than is commonly realized. The British gave up their occupation of India after a decades-long nonviolent struggle led by Gandhi. The Nazis were resisted effectively by Danes and other occupied peoples of Europe in World War II. African Americans opted for nonviolent action to defeat segregation in the United States in the 1960s. The Polish Solidarity movement used strikes to win the right to organize freely, a historic first in communist Poland. Filipinos and Chileans resorted to nonviolent action to bring down dictators in the 1980's. The nonviolent civic movement in South Africa employed boycotts and other sanctions to weaken the apartheid regime to the point of forcing negotiations on the country's political future. East Europeans and Mongolians organized mass nonviolent campaigns to topple their communist governments. And Serbs ousted Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 after a nonviolent student movement helped co-opt the police and military and undermine his base of support.

Q. Must the leaders of nonviolent movements be charismatic, such as Gandhi or the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

A: Not necessarily. Gandhi's success with the Indian people did not rely on personal charm or booming oratory, but on his persistent campaigns that enlisted Indians at all levels of society in taking control of their own lives and then separating the British from control of the country. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an inspiring speaker, but that talent would have made little difference had he and his lieutenants not identified shrewd ways for African Americans to put pressure on the system of segregation and undercut its economic and political support. And the leaders of the Danish underground resistance to the Nazis were entirely anonymous. Leadership is crucial, but it depends on clear strategic thinking and wise decisions in the course of a conflict. The Chinese students who led the protests in Tiananmen Square had sensational personalities, but their movement collapsed when it failed to organize broadly and bargain intelligently with its opponents.

Q: Does nonviolent power work only against humane opponents or only in a society that has some degree of political space for organizing?

A: Not at all. Some of the last century's harshest oppressors were undermined and removed through nonviolent conflicts. There was little that was humane about General Pinochet's practice of torturing and killing dissidents, but a nonviolent strategy ousted him. The apartheid regime in South Africa forbade public assemblies in black townships and tried to silence or assassinate nonviolent organizers, but they subverted its base of support. And the Solidarity trade union opened up political space in Poland where none existed before, through strikes and mass mobilization. Those who do not understand nonviolent conflict tend to dismiss its achievements, but many who no longer live under communism in Europe or under military dictators in Latin America would not agree.

Q: Why has the successful use of nonviolent power not been more widely appreciated?

A: Because the news and entertainment media, as well as most publishers, editors and opinion leaders, focus first on violent incidents in what they broadcast, write and talk about. That fosters the mistaken impression that history-making political changes are usually accompanied by violence. And that in turns reinforces the belief that violence is the ultimate and even exclusive form of power, in conflicts between dictators, invaders or oppressors and those whom they try to victimize. Yet the truth is that violent rulers and even military forces have been neutralized and overcome through the use of strategic nonviolent action.

Q. Have the foreign policies and diplomacy of the United States and other major powers taken seriously the potential of nonviolent conflict to promote democracy and human rights by overturning repressive regimes?

A: Not until very recently. A good example was how the West dealt with Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990's. The U.S. used diplomacy to end his aggression in Bosnia but declined to provide much support to his democratic opponents inside Serbia when they were trying to get rid of him. When Milosevic later began ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, NATO bombed Serbia until he stopped, but he remained in power. Finally in 2000, U.S. agencies channeled help to nonviolent anti-Milosevic forces inside Serbia, who brought him down. What negotiating and bombing had failed to do - end Milosevic's terrorism once and for all -- nonviolent conflict accomplished. Fortunately, policymakers in a number of national capitals are beginning to realize that nonviolent campaigns usually produce democratic results, which in turn contribute to lasting peace. This is likely to change the nature of peacemaking itself.

Q: Is the anti-globalization movement that took to the streets of Seattle, Goteborg and Genoa likely to achieve its goals?

A: Not unless it unites behind a few, clear goals that are related to the everyday concerns of people whose support it needs, and not until it mobilizes a broader cross-section of the societies whose governments underwrite the global organizations it opposes. But to do those things, it first has to dissociate itself unambiguously from the violent fringe that its street demonstrations attract. Nothing weakens a nonviolent movement more than the sporadic use of violence by people on its side of the barriers, because that discourages ordinary civilians from joining the ranks, and distracts the media and the public from the injustice or other grievances that the movement wants corrected.

Q: Where are significant nonviolent conflicts happening around the world today?

A. There are several major nonviolent conflicts that have been underway for some time, where the eventual outcome is not clear. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is leading a nonviolent movement against the brutal military dictatorship in Burma. Nonviolent democratic opponents of the authoritarian president of Zimbabwe are organizing and putting pressure on his regime. A nonviolent movement against Chinese occupation of Tibet has undertaken hunger strikes, boycotts and other protests inside that country, and the religious group Falun Gong continues to organize and act nonviolently against the government in Beijing. Democratic opposition groups in Belarus, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics are organizing and using nonviolent action against authoritarian rulers in those countries. In none of these nations is it certain that the regime will be able indefinitely to repress the nonviolent movement that is seeking greater freedom.