Despite a brief lull due to COVID-19 restrictions, the past few years have witnessed one of the largest waves of global nonviolent resistance in recent history, with 2019 widely being dubbed “the year of the protest.” These movements — from Myanmar to Colombia to India — are largely focused on pushing back against authoritarianism or redressing social injustices. Less heralded and discussed is the role of nonviolent action amid civil wars and peace processes. Strategic nonviolence can foster peace in these contexts as well — but the timing and tactics are key to success.

The Women in Peacebuilding Network calls for a peaceful election, in Monrovia, Liberia, Oct. 9, 2017. In 2003, women similarly clad in white organized widescale demonstrations pushing for an end to a 14-year civil war. (Jane Hahn/The New York Times)
The Women in Peacebuilding Network calls for a peaceful election, in Monrovia, Liberia, Oct. 9, 2017. In 2003, women similarly clad in white organized widescale demonstrations pushing for an end to a 14-year civil war. (Jane Hahn/The New York Times)

A Look at Liberia

At the start of 2003, Liberia was associated with child soldiers, a vicious civil war that had cost over 200,000 lives and a country with little prospect for peace. Yet just a few months later, women dressed in white had pressured the country’s warring parties to come to the negotiating table and saw the subsequent peace process through to its conclusion.

Refusing to take sides in a society divided along ethnic and religious lines, the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) brought together 5,000 women from all ethnic, religious and political backgrounds, united under a simple slogan: “NO to violence and YES to peace!” They organized large-scale marches, sit-ins and protests in Monrovia pressing for initial peace talks and engaged with religious leaders who held influence over the warring parties.

Once negotiations started, WIPNET intensified its campaign, organizing sit-ins outside government buildings and sent a delegation to peace talks in Ghana, who proceeded to block doors and windows to prevent the delegations from departing without a peaceful resolution. Their tactics worked and Liberia’s civil war was resolved peacefully.

Is Liberia exceptional? Can unarmed civilians living through a civil war in other countries use protests, strikes and other nonviolent action tactics to move their country toward peace? And if so, how can they do it most effectively?

For the last year, we have been examining this question through a USIP research project, exploring a wide range of types of nonviolent action carried out by a diverse set of nonviolent civil society organizations (CSOs). Exploring data on several peace processes across Africa, our research shows that the use of nonviolent action does positively influence peace, but that distinct types of tactics impact the stages of peace processes differently. What works to bring warring parties to the negotiating table is very different from what works to help lead to a negotiated agreement.

Civilians are often assumed to be victims or passive agents in civil wars given their vulnerability to violence. Yet while research has yet to entirely counter this misconception, it is well documented that a vast array of nonviolent tactics have been used by ordinary citizens to foster peace, including  persuasion tactics (protests and demonstrations), political engagement (such as advocacy, monitoring and bridging activities), non-cooperation (like strikes and boycotts) and intervention tactics (such as sit-ins and the creation of alternative institution that bypass often unjust state institutions).

These activities emerge in unlikely contexts. Liberia’s Mass Action for Peace campaign succeeded despite horrific violence toward women, a war-torn infrastructure and a state of emergency that had suppressed any kind of nonviolent opposition.

What Works and When

In any context, nonviolent action tends to be more successful when its activists use a variety of innovative tactics strategically sequenced for maximum effect. Protests are often effective early in a campaign, when the primary need is to raise awareness. More confrontational tactics may be more beneficial at the peak of campaign activity, to heighten the costs for an opponent. So how do these insights apply in the context of civil wars, where movements use nonviolent action to push for peace?

To answer this question, we used existing data on recorded nonviolent tactics used by civilians during 16 civil wars in Africa between 1990 and 2009. The conflicts included were major civil wars, with at least 1,000 deaths on the battlefield, making them some of the most challenging environments for nonviolent action. Combining these events with data on battle deaths, negotiations and peace agreements, we explored three components of a peace process: conflict intensity (the number of deaths occurring in a year), initial peace talks and subsequent peace agreements.

We found striking differences across these stages. When it came to reducing conflict intensity, tactics of non-cooperation such as strikes and boycotts appear to have the biggest impact, significantly reducing conflict-related deaths. This is in line with findings in Colombia, where CSOs “nudged” armed groups into abiding by protection norms, mitigating the impact of armed conflict on civilians in so-called “zones of peace.”

From exploring descriptions in the data, we find that similar efforts are observed in Africa. For instance, stay-at-home strikes in Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in northern Mali were both effective in countering rebel violence.

Protests and political engagement pressure and support the initiation of peace talks. Yet, these tactics are not linked to the likelihood of subsequent peace deals. Often CSOs lose influence, given the challenge of sustaining activities over long periods of time, and unfortunately are frequently excluded from formal peace settlements.

Intervention tactics, such as sit-ins and occupations, appear to obstruct rather than facilitate initial negotiations. Such tactics may exacerbate instability or perhaps are too radical prior to a peace process and CSOs may struggle to win the sympathy from would-be supporters.

Yet later in the peace process this relationship reverses. Intervention tactics, like the staged sit-ins and nonviolent occupations of Liberia’s WIPNET, do appear to make a peace agreement significantly more likely once negotiations have started.

Some CSOs also create alternative institutions. These interventions play a critical role in undermining and delegitimizing unjust state institutions. For example, the “committees” that were set up to govern townships in South Africa, both undermined the apartheid system and increased support for the democratic movement.

Through nonviolent action, ordinary people have the power to change the course of an armed conflict and a peace process through peaceful means. Of course, the caveat is not all forms of nonviolent action appear likely to work at all stages of a peace process.

In light of this, activists should learn from other cases and appreciate that nonviolent action should be strategic and adapted to the specifics of the situation. Nonviolent action is only effective as part of a clear strategy of sequencing tactics for maximum impact.

Careful analysis of the conflict situation, informed by the kinds of tools included in USIP’s “Synergizing Nonviolent Action and Peacebuilding” curriculum, can be one good way into this analysis. Yet strategic analysis of the situation should also be informed by a general understanding of how tactical choices tend to impact the different dynamics of a conflict.

Our research shows that to reduce violence, systematic non-cooperation appears to be most effective. To pressure parties to begin negotiations, activists have tended to succeed more by focusing their efforts on protest and political engagement. And when negotiations have begun, more confrontational tactics of intervention appear to be a particularly impactful way of ensuring that the negotiation comes to a successful conclusion.

Luke Abbs is a research fellow at the Centre of Religion, Reconciliation and Peace at the University of Winchester. Marina G. Petrova is research fellow at Bocconi University.

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