As global leaders debate ways to reduce the world’s violence at this year’s United Nations General Assembly session, many peacebuilding experts and civil society activists argue that more of this work needs to be done at the grass roots, often through nonviolent movements for change.

Artists from the peace group Ana Taban painted a wall mural in the capital, Juba, called “Cutting Our Roots,” to suggest the self-destructive nature of the country’s communal civil war. (Ana Taban photo)
Artists from the peace group Ana Taban painted a wall mural in the South Sudan capital, Juba, called “Cutting Our Roots,” to suggest the self-destructive nature of the country’s communal civil war. (Ana Taban photo)

Governments and international institutions typically focus on ending wars or other upheaval “from the top down,” through negotiations among elites. But Maria Stephan and other specialists find that progress is more reliable when achieved “from the bottom up,” through broad, civil society movements. Several organizations, including USIP, plan to make that point during a public forum they are co-hosting in New York, coinciding with the General Assembly session. 

The 172-point agenda for this year’s General Assembly session doesn’t include any specific discussion of grassroots movements for change or ways for the international community to support them. Stephan and Jacob Bul Bior Bul, a South Sudanese peace movement organizer who currently is a fellow at USIP, will speak during the Sept. 20 public forum on nonviolent action, co-hosted by USIP, to discuss the need to shift resources to helping grassroots movements worldwide.

You are advocates for what you say is the unrecognized power and usefulness of grassroots movements and community-based activists to build more stable, peaceful countries. What’s the evidence?

Stephan: We know that historically, nonviolent grassroots campaigns and movements have been powerful drivers of social, political and economic development. From Guatemala to Liberia to Tunisia, popular movements have helped people obtain rights, defend freedoms, make governments more accountable and end civil wars.

In our study of nearly 330 major violent and nonviolent campaigns over the past century, Erica Chenoweth and I found that nonviolent campaigns have been twice as effective as armed struggles in advancing their goals. They are also significantly more likely to usher in democratic, peaceful societies. Supporting locally-driven movements that engage broad and diverse constituencies and commit to creative, nonviolent means to redress grievances is a key investment in peace.    

Bul: In South Sudan, people are tired of war and have begun organizing for peace. That’s why we created Ana Taban. It provides us with a creative outlet to become positive influencers in our country.

Our first campaign was on reconciliation. Our young members went out onto the streets of Juba during the International Day of Peace to interact with regular citizens to try to reconcile with one another. We went into a hospital with elderly patients and gave them white handkerchiefs. We told people we were sorry for what we had done to one another, because youth are seen as perpetrators to the conflict. We told the patients that the handkerchiefs were to wipe away our tears. Some patients cried. However, they also affirmed that this country belongs to us—and we have to take responsibility for it.

This year’s U.N. General Assembly debate is formally titled “Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet.” Are you saying that this official discussion is missing a significant point about how to reduce global violence?

Stephan: Major efforts are underway at the U.N., through the Sustaining Peace Resolution and the Sustainable Development Goals, to address the drivers of violent conflict. Yet, there is comparatively little focus on the role of grassroots activists and citizen groups in challenging the injustices and inequalities that fuel violence.

To reduce global violence you have to invest in alternatives that give voice to the marginalized, that challenge corruption and abuses of power, and that build sustained pressure for peace.  As Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, often you need protest and nonviolent, direct action to enable dialogue and peacebuilding.  

Bul: Sustaining peace isn’t an absence of conflict. It’s about accepting that we might have differences—and different ways of handling those differences—but still understand that we have to find a path forward together. Sustaining peace is about how we go about resolving conflicts, it’s not the absence of them.

It is also about engaging local people so that they take ownership of their role in the process. For Ana Taban and youth in South Sudan, this would mean being actively involved in building the country’s future. It would mean youth no longer sitting back and thinking that they can do nothing to change the decisions being made at the top, but being a part of the solution.

What specifically do you hope to inject into the public debates in and around the U.N. General Assembly, then?

Bul: I hope that the international community will think more strategically about involving people from the communities they work with at every phase of their activities. Recognition and support of grassroots activists on the ground can help movements thrive. If you involve local communities in the process, they will feel more empowered and take an active role in helping sustain the peace.

Stephan: I hope to make the case that people power is an effective alternative to violence, and grassroots activists and peacebuilders are key to building just and enduring peace. In particular, I hope to amplify the voices of courageous activists and peacebuilders from Uganda, South Sudan, Pakistan, and Syria who are building broad-based movements in highly difficult contexts. They are making peace possible and deserve the support of the U.N. and wider global community.

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