How can nonviolent action and peacebuilding work together? And how can they be brought together to promote positive long-term political change? Although mass nonviolent action movements are taking place at an increasingly rapid rate, they are succeeding in achieving their goals less frequently, and where initially peaceful demonstrations have been met by state violence from Myanmar to Colombia, better understanding these questions is crucial. Nonviolent action has an impressive track record in ending oppression, promoting peace and forging new democracies. Yet questions remain about how to combine the power of nonviolent action to peacefully wage conflict with the power of peacebuilding to resolve it.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Yangon, Myanmar on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, demonstrating against the recent military coup. (The New York Times)
Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in Yangon, Myanmar on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, demonstrating against the recent military coup. (The New York Times)

For over a year, USIP has been conducting and supporting research from academics and activists that seeks to better understand these intersections through our “People Power, Peace Processes and Democratization” (P4D) initiative. The Institute’s recently concluded four-part event series presented some of the preliminary findings from this research. Here are four key takeaways.

1. Traditional tools of mediation can help nonviolent movements and governments prevent an escalation to violence.

Thompson: Traditionally, we tend to think about mediation in violent conflicts. Yet, as the number of nonviolent uprisings continue to rise globally, mediation can be an important tool for helping address grievances and preventing an escalation to violence. While mediation to resolve armed conflict is well-researched, much less is known about the role of third-party mediation in nonviolent conflicts. What we do know is that mediators are less likely to get involved in mediating between governments and protest movements unless there is a high risk of violent escalation, including state repression.

Initial findings from research conducted by Isak Svensson and Daan van de Rijzen as part of the P4D initiative show that, as the number of nonviolent movements have risen around the world, so too have instances of their mediation. However, mediation is still more common for armed conflict than in cases with nonviolent uprisings. This may be because mediators — in particular, international mediators — face significant challenges as they consider how to engage in these cases. These challenges can include understanding who to engage as legitimate and credible representatives of often leaderless movements, determining when to engage (especially on issues commonly seen as “domestic matters”) and convincing movement representatives to negotiate and make concessions when the time is right.

While more research is needed to better understand what makes mediation effective for conflicts involving nonviolent movements, Katia Papagianni of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and USIP’s Juan Diaz-Prinz have outlined several tools and approaches international mediators can employ to proactively engage activists and governments to address grievances and resolve a conflict before it becomes violent. Following the leadership and advice of insider or domestic mediators, especially for cases in which international mediators are hesitant to engage or lack deep contextual understanding and relationships, is critical. Often domestic mediators — as was the case with the business community in Sudan during the 2019 revolution, noted El-Tigani Elhaj — are well positioned to build trust and relationships among key constituencies to prepare for more formal mediation.

Other mediation tools should be sequenced based on timing and context. Backchannel and discreet communications and confidence-building measures are useful as mass mobilization builds. Mediators can use public consultations and social media analysis to understand key issues and grievances the movement is organizing around during the negotiation process. And finally, national dialogues may help pave a path forward later on in the peace agreement and implementation process.

2. Nonviolent action can help resolve civil wars — but it depends on the tactics and timing.

Gallagher: Nonviolent action campaigns are often heralded for their role in initiating regime change, like in Tunisia in 2011, or in advancing democracy, like the U.S. civil rights movement. But what, if any, role can they play amid violent civil wars? New USIP-commissioned research — conducted by researchers Luke Abbs and Marina Petrova — demonstrates that nonviolent movements can play an important role in promoting the peaceful resolution of conflict amid civil war. But the tactics and timing matter.

Nonviolent movements can utilize an array of tactics to push for their demands, including protests, political engagement, noncooperation (e.g., boycotts or strikes) or interventions like sit-ins. So, which of these tactics is most effective in the context of a civil war? And at what phase of a peace process can they be most strategically deployed?

When negotiations haven’t even begun in a meaningful way, protest and political engagement can push warring parties to come to the negotiating table. On the other hand, more radical tactics like sit-ins can have the opposite effect and subvert momentum to begin peace talks. However, these more radical tactics can be useful in advancing peace agreements if negotiations have already started.

The case of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace is instructive here. After 14 years of nearly uninterrupted civil war in the country, the movement was able to lobby then-President Charles Taylor to meet with them. In that meeting they convinced Taylor to engage in peace talks in Accra, Ghana with opposing warring factions. After six weeks of floundering talks and continued violence, a delegation of Liberian women staged a sit-in outside the room where talks took place, blocking doors and windows and refusing to leave until a peace agreement was signed.

A critical question for future research is how nonviolent movements can make achieved peace agreements more durable. A good place for that research to start would be with Liberian women. After the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed, Liberian women helped build public trust in the political process and aided efforts to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate former belligerents.

3. Dialogue and negotiation can move countries from nonviolent action to democracy, but only when they are deeply and meaningfully inclusive.

Pinckney: Political transitions initiated through nonviolent action are nearly three times as likely to lead to democracy as transitions initiated through any other means. Yet still democracy fails to take hold after many successful nonviolent action campaigns. Why does this happen? How does one move from a successful nonviolent breakthrough against an authoritarian regime to a new democracy? And how does nonviolent action affect the trust and legitimacy of new democracies that will help sustain them for the long-term?

One critical factor is the dialogue and negotiation processes that take place during the transition after a nonviolent action campaign has achieved its initial breakthrough. Dialogue and negotiation, from roundtable talks between small groups of elites to comprehensive national dialogues, take place in almost every political transition. But they vary tremendously in the degree to which they include the voices of grassroots activists or other marginalized groups. Even when dialogue ostensibly includes those outside the political elite, this is often a “tick the box” exercise, in which outsiders may have a seat at the table, but have little ability to actually have their voices heard and taken seriously.

Yet research shows that inclusion is a key factor both in promoting democracy and in fostering trust in democracy among ordinary citizens. This inclusion needs to be meaningful, though, including mechanisms like equitable selection processes not dominated by the government and decision-making limited to small groups of elite leaders. Nonviolent action during transitions can foster this kind of inclusion, helping grassroots groups to continue to have their voices heard.

The participation of women is one particularly important aspect of inclusion in transition dialogue and negotiation processes. It is the aspect of inclusion most powerfully associated with future democracy. Just like in peace processes after civil war, including women’s voices appears to be one critical aspect of ensuring a successful transition from nonviolent action to democracy.

4. Nonviolent movements have helped usher in liberal forms of democracy but rarely have such transitions led to greater inclusion for marginalized groups.

Rivers: While research has shown nonviolent movements to be vehicles for democratic change, most studies have based their measures of democracy on liberal democracy, focusing on aspects such as competitive elections and rule of law. These institutions are important democratic pillars, but gaps remain in understanding how improvements in these measures of democracy can lead to deep and meaningful changes for historically excluded social and ethnic groups.

As nonviolent movements successfully bring about the end of authoritarian rule and the start of a democratic transition, how will a society’s most marginalized be served by newly established political institutions? New research by Ches Thurber, Subindra Bogati, and Titik Firawati sheds light on this question, finding that it is relatively rare for democratic transitions to bring about greater political and economic inclusion for minority groups.

In Nepal, a nonviolent movement succeeded in overthrowing a monarchy and paving the way for a democratic transition in 2006 after the country experienced a decade-long civil war. A peace agreement was signed and new political institutions were established, yet the country remains a highly unequal society for different ethnic, caste and religious groups. Nepal, of course, is not alone. For minority groups around the world facing longstanding social, economic and political discrimination, such inequity does not simply go away as a result of new national leadership. These groups continue to resist and challenge the people and systems that exclude and oppress them.

Greater access to political and economic power for marginalized groups can be supported by an inclusion agenda during times of transition brought about through negotiation and dialogue. It is critical to address the power relations that underlie exclusion and inequality. States must also be responsive to diverse views and ideas represented across a society, rather than simply relying on imported models of democracy to shape state institutions. Perhaps through these approaches, democratic transitions in the aftermath of mass movements can lead to more just and equal societies. 

To watch the full discussion from each event, see below:

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