Stephen Zunes : Nonviolent Action
You probably didn’t notice, but February 20 was Nonviolent Resistance Day. One might think this would be cause for celebration by an administration committed to expanding freedom and democracy. But there weren’t any special ceremonies at the White House or resolutions in Congress. For despite all the rhetoric lauding freedom and democracy, the U.S. government has rarely supported, and has often opposed, nonviolent movements working for democratic change.
The tragic events of recent months have only strengthened the stereotype here in the United States of the Islamic world as an area of violent conflict. However, the region also has an impressive and growing tradition of nonviolent resistance and other unarmed challenges to authoritarianism.
The people of Yugoslavia did what NATO bombs could not. As in 1989, it was not the military prowess of the western alliance bringing freedom to an Eastern European country, but the power of nonviolent action by the subjugated peoples themselves.
East Timor is largely in ruins as a result of the Indonesian-led destruction and massacres of September 1999. Yet the East Timorese are finally free. That such carnage was allowed to take place is yet another indictment of U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia, yet the ultimate victory of the population of East Timor is a triumphant reflection of the power of ordinary people—in both East Timor and around the world—to triumph against enormous odds….
Nonviolent action campaigns have been a part of political life for millennia. History records many instances of groups rising to challenge abuses by authorities, demand social reforms, and protest militarism and discrimination. In recent years, however, the number of such movements has increased, as has their success in advancing the cause of human rights and toppling or dramatically reforming repressive regimes. In the twentieth century, nonviolence became more of a deliberate tool for social change, moving from being largely an ad hoc strategy growing naturally out of religious or ethical principles to a reflective and, in many ways, institutionalized method of struggle.
Against enormous odds, non-violent action proved to be a major factor in the downfall of apartheid in South Africa, and the establishment of a democratic black majority government, despite predictions that the transition could come only through a violent revolutionary cataclysm. This was largely the result of conditions working against a successful armed overthrow of the system, combined with the ability of the anti-apartheid opposition to take advantage of the system’s economic dependence on a cooperative black labour force. This article traces the history of nonviolent resistance to apartheid, its initial failures, and the return in the 1980s to a largely non-violent strategy which, together with international sanctions, forced the government to negotiate a peaceful transfer to majority rule.