Israel’s War on Gaza: 11 Zunes’ articles published Oct. 7-Dec. 31, 2023

Political Costs of Biden’s Support for Israel’s War Mount [Source]
U.S. Attacks on the ICJ are a Declaration of Empire [Source]
Biden’s Gaza Failure Could Cost Democrats 2024 Election [Source]
Applying International Law to Israel’s War and Hamas’ Attack [Video & Transcript]
Scholars Weigh in on Gaza-Israel Conflict Counterpunch interview of Professors Zunes and international legal scholar Richard Falk [Princeton] on Israel, Gaza, and U.S. policy, 10/13/2023 [Source]
How U.S. Policy Failures Have Helped Hamas [Source]
Hamas, Israel and the U.S. Have Learned Nothing [Source]
Biden’s Backing Israel War Crimes Carries on Sordid U.S. Tradition [Source]
O Globo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, on Israel’s war on Gaza (English translation and original Portuguese transcript) [Source]
Dr. Zunes is quoted in this Al-Jazeera article: Why are US Republicans pushing for aid to Israel but not Ukraine? [Source]

More Articles and interviews on the Gaza Crisis

Nonviolent Activists Laid the Groundwork to Oppose a Coup. They May Have Saved the Republic

Yes!Activists prepared for months, expecting Trump to steal the election. They were right, and he failed. [FULL LINK]
Since Joe Biden’s decisive win in November, efforts by President Trump and his supporters to steal the election… have been unsuccessful. In the months leading up to the Nov. 3 election, many of us were warning that, even in the face of a clear Biden victory, Trump and the Republicans might attempt a de facto coup. .. Trump might declare victory election night before all the votes are counted… make false charges of vote fraud, and refuse to concede… wage a legal battle to challenge the legitimate results, try to convince Republican election officials not to certify the results, encourage state legislatures to appoint Republican electors regardless of the vote count in the state, and convince the Republican-dominated federal judiciary to uphold these illegal measures.

Why These Missile Strikes Won’t Make Things Better for the Syrian People

YES! Magazine, Common Dreams & Huffington Post April 7, 2017
   The U.S. bombing of Syria’s Al Shayrat air base has brought more death and destruction to that country and is unlikely to deter additional war crimes by the Syrian regime. It will not ease the suffering of the Syrian people. But then it wasn’t actually meant to.
   The missile strikes had nothing to do with any concern for the civilian victims of the regime’s apparent April 4 sarin attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun. The unilateral military action was ordered by the same president whose proposed budget would make major cuts to the very programs that have provided at least some relief to Syrian refugees fleeing the violence of the regime and various armed rebel factions and who has desperately tried to ban any of the refugees from even entering the United States.
   With no direct threat to the national security of the United States and with no congressional authorization, such use of force was illegal.

Can U.S. Citizens End Israel’s Legal Impunity?

The great wish of the early Zionist leader Theodor Herzl was that Israel would be treated like “any other state.” Were that the case, there might be more rational and productive discourse regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is particularly critical in light of Israel launching yet another devastating attack against civilian-populated areas of nearby Arab lands.

There are certainly those who do unfairly single out Israel, the world’s only predominantly Jewish state, for criticism. There is a tendency by some to minimize Israel’s legitimate security concerns and place inordinate attention on the Israeli government’s transgressions, relative to other governments that abuse human rights. There are also those who, in light of the five-year siege of the Gaza Strip and the enormous suffering of the Palestinian people, try to rationalize terrorism and other crimes by Hamas, the reactionary Islamist group currently in control there.

What we are witnessing from the Obama administration, however—as Hamas rains rockets into Israel and Israel rains bombs, missiles, and mortars into the crowded and besieged Gaza Strip—is the similarly unfair phenomenon of exempting Israel from criticism. While most of the international community has criticized both Hamas and Israel for their attacks on areas populated by civilians, the Obama administration has restricted its condemnation to the Palestinian side.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice—widely considered to be the president’s first choice to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State—correctly noted that there is “no justification for the violence that Hamas and other terrorist organizations are employing against the people of Israel.” However, she had absolutely no criticism of Israel’s far more devastating attacks against the people of the Gaza Strip, simply saying that “Israel, like any nation, has the right to defend itself against such vicious attacks.”

The real issue, however, is not Israel’s right to self-defense but its attacks on crowded residential neighborhoods, which as of Tuesday had killed more than 70 civilians (as compared with three Israeli civilians killed by Hamas rockets). The Obama administration’s position is ironic given that, while both sides share the blame for the tragedy, it appears that it is Israel which has been primarily responsible for breaking the recent fragile ceasefires, through acts such as its assassination of a leading Hamas official and attacks that killed a number of boys playing soccer.

In the face of growing calls from throughout the world for both sides to de-escalate the violence, the White House said on Saturday that it would leave it to Israel to decide whether it is appropriate to launch a ground invasion. Similarly, in response to the outcry at the growing number of civilian casualties from the Israeli bombardment of civilian areas of the Gaza Strip, Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes insisted, “The Israelis are going to make decisions about their own military tactics and operations.”

Late last week, both the U.S. Senate and House passed, by unanimous voice votes, resolutions defending Israel’s ongoing war on the Gaza Strip. Unlike some of the statements from the Obama administration supporting the Israel’s attacks, these resolutions failed to call on both sides to exercise restraint or to express any regret at the resulting casualties.

History repeats
This position is not a new one among U.S. elected officials. Back in February 2009, following the devastating three-week war between Israeli and Hamas forces—named “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israelis—in which three Israeli civilians and more than 800 Palestinian civilians were killed, Amnesty International called for an international arms embargo on both Israel and Hamas to prevent the kind of tragic attacks on civilians in which both sides are currently engaging. President Barack Obama, who had just taken office, categorically rejected Amnesty’s proposal, and instead increased U.S. military aid to Israel to record levels.

Israel was no doubt emboldened in launching its current offensive as a result of the strong support it received from the United States during that time. For example, the U.S. House of Representatives—in a direct challenge to the credibility of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross, and other reputable humanitarian organizations—passed a resolution in January of 2009 declaring that the Israeli armed forces bore no responsibility for the large numbers of civilian casualties from their assault on the Gaza Strip.

The resolution put forward a disturbing interpretation of international humanitarian law: that, by allegedly breaking the cease-fire, Hamas was responsible for all subsequent deaths, and that the presence of Hamas officials or militia members in mosques, hospitals, or residential areas made those locations legitimate targets.

Human rights reports condemned
Unusual interpretations of international law have long played a role in the special treatment Israel receives from the United States. In the fall of 2009, when a blue-ribbon panel of prominent international jurists—veterans of human rights investigations in Sudan, Rwanda, and the former Yugoslavia—led a meticulously detailed U.N.-sponsored investigation that confirmed previous human rights reports by documenting possible war crimes on both sides, Congress passed another lopsided bipartisan resolution condemning the investigation for failing to absolve Israel of any responsibility. The Obama administration succeeded in blocking the United Nations from acting on the report’s recommendations that both sides be investigated for possible war crimes.

The human rights investigations from 2009 and earlier examined Israeli claims that Hamas’ alleged use of “human shields” was responsible for the large number of civilian casualties. While these probes criticized Hamas for at times having men and materiel too close to civilian-populated areas, they were unable to find even one incident of Hamas deliberately holding civilians against their will in an effort to deter Israeli attacks.

The Obama administration and Congressional leaders, however, insisted that they knew more about what happened inside the Gaza Strip than these on-the-ground investigations by expert human rights monitors and respected international jurists. As a renewed round of attacks is unleashed upon this small and heavily populated Palestinian enclave, they are now making similar claims to justify the ongoing Israeli attacks on civilian population centers.

As Amnesty and other human rights groups have observed, however, even if Hamas were using human shields, it would still not justify Israel killing Palestinian civilians.

The United States has not been hesitant to criticize Russia in its attacks on Chechnya and Georgia, or Syria in its more recent attacks against its own people. Yet both Congress and the administration seem willing to bend over backwards to rationalize for Israel when it attacks civilians.

The administration’s criticism of Hamas rocket attacks would also have more credibility if they didn’t also oppose nonviolent means of challenging the siege of Gaza and the occupation and colonization of West Bank lands, such as boycotts and divestment against companies supporting the occupation, UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, humanitarian aid flotillas to Gaza, and targeted sanctions against Israeli violations of international humanitarian law

Fair application of universal principles

While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly has unique aspects, it is critical for those supportive of peace and human rights to underscore universal principles, such as those enshrined in international humanitarian law.

The fact that Israel is perceived as an important strategic ally of the United States does not mean we should ignore its violations of well-established legal norms any more than those committed by a perceived adversary like Hamas. Those of us in the peace movement should challenge elected officials who currently support unconditional U.S. military aid to the Israeli government and rationalize its attacks on civilians just as vigorously as we did those who in earlier years supported unconditional U.S. military aid to El Salvador, Indonesia, and other repressive Cold War allies of the United States.

And while it is important to recognize the special sensitivity some people have regarding the subject of Israel, this should not deter those who care about human rights from speaking out. Indeed, even putting aside the important moral and legal critiques of Israel’s current offensive against the Gaza Strip and the ongoing siege of the crowded enclave, such policies ultimately harm Israel by encouraging extremism among Palestinians struggling for the right of national self-determination.

It is also important to recognize that, while both sides have committed great wrongs against the other’s people, there exists a gross asymmetry in power. Israel—the occupying power, which possesses by far the strongest military in the region, one of the world’s higher standards of living, and the backing of the world’s one remaining superpower—has a huge advantage over the impoverished Gaza Strip, with its weak and isolated Hamas government struggling under a five-year air, land, and sea blockade, and without an air force, navy, or standing army.

Fortunately, thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in protest of their government’s attacks on the Gaza Strip. Israeli peace and human rights activists have called on the Obama administration to end its support for Netanyahu’s militarism. As citizens of the country that has provided Israel with the military, financial, and diplomatic support that has made the renewed killing possible, those of us in the United States have a special obligation to challenge the administration and Congress to end its unconscionable support for the ongoing destruction.

As we would such policies toward any other state.

Lessons and Signs of Hope Amidst the Carnage in Libya

The civil insurrection in Libya has been far more violent, and forces loyal to the dictator far more violent still, than the recent successful unarmed revolutions against the dictatorships in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Still, there are signs of hope and important lessons to be learned in the ongoing struggle against the 42-year regime of Muammar Gaddafi, whose days appear to be numbered.

Gaddafi’s leadership style has always been repressive, impulsive, and unpredictable. Yet his nationalism, anti-imperialism, and professed socialism led many educated Libyans who formed the backbone of the government to stay loyal despite their misgivings, in large part in reaction to what was seen as punitive and hypocritical sanctions imposed by Western nations and the constant threat of renewed U.S. air and missile strikes against the country, as took place back in the 1980s. It was only when the sanctions and the threats of war subsided back in 2004 that there began to be a dramatic increase in resignations and defections by prominent Libyans who had been members and supporters of the government. In short, the U.S.-led efforts to isolate, punish, and threaten the regime likely contributed to Gaddafi’s longevity as dictator. Once relations were normalized and the isolation and threats subsided, Gaddafi was seen less as a strong leader defending his nation against Western imperialism and more as the mercurial and brutal tyrant that he is.

As of this writing, virtually all of the cities in the eastern half of the country and a number of cities elsewhere have been liberated by pro-democracy forces, which launched their rebellion just a few weeks ago and are now clashing with security forces in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. In these liberated cities, popular democratic committees have been set up to serve as interim local governments. For example, Benghazi—a city of over a million people—is now being run by a improvised organizing committee of judges, lawyers, and other professionals who have been largely successful at restoring order to the country’s second largest city, dispatching young people to coordinate traffic at intersections and assist in other basic services.

There have been resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Gaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals, and top military officers, many of whom have actively joined the opposition. Pilots have deliberately crashed their planes, flown into exile, or otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers have defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution. This has forced Gaddafi to rely on African mercenaries, which has only further angered the population against a dictator willing to bring in foreigners to murder his own citizens.

These serious challenges to Gaddafi’s power comes despite the fact that, compared with the recent successful civil insurrections against dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, the challenges faced by the pro-democracy forces in Libya have been far greater. Under the recently-overthrown dictators, the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes routinely rigged elections and marginalized opposition parties, but at least there were elections and opposition parties. Not in Libya, however. Similarly, Egypt and Tunisia had trade unions, popular organizations, and active civil society groups whose activities were severely restricted and at times brutally suppressed, but at least they existed. Again, not in Libya.

Despite all this, pro-democracy forces are on the offensive, demonstrating that if enough people are willing to risk everything for their freedom, the regime has few options left but brute force—exactly what Gaddafi has been turning to. However, the use of such extraordinary violence usually ends up backfiring in favor of the opposition, which is exactly what appears to be happening in Libya.

Gaddafi joined the Libyan armed forces as a young man, not because of an interest in a military career per se, but because he wanted to become the country’s ruler. In the Middle East in those days, if you weren’t part of a royal family, the key to political power was through the military. What Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated, however—along with other successful nonviolent civil insurrections from the Philippines to Poland and from Chile to Serbia—is that political power ultimately comes from the acquiescence of the people. And if a people no longer recognize the leader’s authority and refuse to obey the leader’s orders, he will no longer be the leader. This is the kind of power the United States and other Western nations must recognize: for democracy to come to the Middle East, it must come from the people themselves.

Egypt: Lessons in Democracy

Together, the unarmed insurrection that overthrew the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the ongoing uprising in Egypt have dramatically altered the way many in the West view prospects for democratization in the Middle East. The dramatic events of recent weeks have illustrated that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves.

While many observers have acknowledged how unarmed pro-democracy insurrections helped bring democracy to Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of Asia and Africa, they had discounted the chances of such movements in the region, despite Tunisia being far from the first.

There has actually been a long history of nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in North Africa and the Middle East. Egypt wrested its independence from Great Britain as a result of a massive nonviolent resistance campaign launched in 1919. In Sudan, military dictators were ousted in nonviolent insurrections in 1964 and 1985, though the democratic experiments that followed were cut short by military coups a few years later. In 1991, in a nonviolent struggle succeeded in ousting the Traore dictatorship in Mali, despite the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters by the armed forces. Though it is one of the poorest countries in the world, Mali has been one of the most stable and democratic countries in the region ever since. The recently published book Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East documents numerous other popular pro-democracy movements throughout the Arab world.

The current struggle in Egypt—the center of Arab media, scholarship, and culture—has enormous ramifications for the region as a whole. The predominantly young secular activists who initiated the struggle reject not only the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak but also conservative Islamist leaders; they have put together a broad coalition of young and old, Muslim and Christian, poor and middle class to challenge a brutal corrupt regime which has held power for nearly thirty years. Like-minded civil society activists are organizing elsewhere. Indeed, 2011 could be to the Arab world what 1989 was to Eastern Europe.

In the early days of the uprisings, top U.S. officials defended the United States’ close ties with the authoritarian leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and, making lukewarm statements about the need for “reform” and urging “both sides” to refrain from violence (despite the far greater violence from state authorities). They refused to back the pro-democracy movements, call for democratic change, or threaten the suspension of U.S. military aid. However, the very day Tunisian dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, President Obama came out with a strong statement lauding the pro-democracy movement and criticizing the dictator’s oppression. Similarly, in the early days of the Egyptian protests, Obama administration officials made similar calls for “restraint” on “both sides,” speaking only in terms of reform from within Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. By the fifth day of the demonstrations, however, apparently not wanting to be on the wrong side of history, the Obama administration started speaking in terms of a transition to democratic rule and making it clear that large-scale repression of nonviolent protesters—which would presumably be implemented with U.S.-supplied weaponry—would be unacceptable.

These shifts illustrate that, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington will ultimately impact what happens on the “Arab street,” the Arab street has proven itself capable of impacting what happens in Washington.

This change is long overdue. The Obama administration, in rejecting the dangerous neoconservative ideology of its predecessor, had fallen back onto the realpolitik of previous administrations by continuing to support repressive regimes through unconditional arms transfers and other security assistance. Indeed, Obama’s understandable skepticism of the neoconservative doctrine of externally mandated, top-down approaches to democratization through “regime change” turned into an excuse for further arming these regimes—which then use these instruments of repression to subjugate popular, indigenous, bottom-up struggles for democratization.

At the same time, there was a subtle, but important, shift in the U.S. government’s discourse on human rights when Obama came to office two years ago. The Bush administration pushed a rather superficial structuralist view. It focused, for instance, on elections—which can, in many cases, be easily rigged and manipulated—in order to change certain governments for purposes of expanding U.S. power and influence. Obama has taken more of an agency view of human rights, emphasizing such rights as freedom of expression and the right to protest, recognizing that human rights reform can only come from below and not imposed from above.

Until now, this had largely been rhetorical. Even now, as of this writing, the United States still needs to take a firmer stance toward Mubarak and the Egyptian military. And, regarding U.S. policy in the region as a whole, the United States needs to stop propping up other Arab dictators and supporting the Israeli occupation through ongoing military assistance.

However, the Obama administration has been reminded of where power actually comes from: Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its authority. Through general strikes, filling the streets, mass refusal to obey official orders, and other forms of nonviolent resistance, even the most autocratic regime cannot survive.

One cannot help but admire the Egyptians, who—like the Tunisians, Serbians, Filipinos, Poles, and many others before—have faced down the teargas, water cannons, truncheons, and bullets for their freedom. However, as long as the United States remains the world’s No.1 supplier of security assistance to repressive governments in the Middle East and elsewhere, the need for massive nonviolent action in support for freedom and democracy may be no greater than here.

The Power of Nonviolent Action in Honduras

The decision by Honduran coup leader Roberto Micheletti to renege on his October 30 agreement to allow democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya to return to power was a severe blow to pro-democracy forces who have been struggling against the illegitimate regime since it seized power four months ago. The disappointment has been compounded by the Obama administration’s apparent willingness—in a break with Latin American leaders and much of the rest of the international community—to recognize the forthcoming presidential elections being held under the de facto government’s repressive rule.

Still, there are reasons to hope that democracy can be restored to this Central American nation.

The primary reason the de facto government was willing to negotiate at all was the ongoing nonviolent resistance campaign by Honduran pro-democracy forces. The role of popular nonviolent action has not been as massive, dramatic, or strategically sophisticated as the movements that have overthrown some other autocratic regimes in recent decades. There were no scenes of hundreds of thousands of people filling the streets and completely shutting down state functions, as there were in the people power movements that brought down Marcos in the Philippines or Milosevic in Serbia.

Nevertheless, the nonviolent struggle has been of critical importance.

The sustained nonviolent resistance movement has prevented the provisional government, which was formed after the June 28 coup, from establishing a sense of normalcy. What the movement has lacked in well-organized, strategic focus, has been made up for with feisty and determined acts of resistance that have forced the provisional government into clumsy but ultimately futile efforts at repression—exposing the pretense of the junta’s supposed good intentions.

Sometimes a resistance movement just has to stay alive to make its point. Day after day, thousands of Hondurans from all walks of life have gathered in the streets of Tegucigalpa and elsewhere, demanding the restoration of their democratically-elected government. Every day they have been met by tear gas and truncheons. Over a dozen pro-democracy activists were murdered, but rather than let these assassinations frighten people into submission, the opposition turned the martyrs’ funerals into political rallies. Their persistence gradually has torn away the outlaw regime’s claims of legitimacy. Rather than establishing themselves as a legitimate government, de facto president Micheletti and his allied military officers have been made to look like little more than a gang of thugs who took over an Old West town and threw out the sheriff.

Since the return of the exiled President Zelaya to Tegucigalpa (he successfully sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy), the pro-democracy movement has surged. Micheletti and his henchman initially panicked—suspending basic civil liberties, shutting down opposition radio and television stations, and declaring a 24-hour curfew. This disruption caused the business community’s support for the de facto government to wane; the Obama State Department, which had been somewhat timid in pressing the junta up to that point, began to push harder for a deal.

It has been a great credit to the pro-democracy forces that, save for occasional small-scale rioting, the movement has largely maintained its nonviolent discipline. It would have been easy to launch a guerrilla war. Much of Honduras consists of farming and ranching country where many people own guns. The neighboring countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have experienced bloody revolutionary struggles in recent decades. Yet, despite serious provocations by police and soldiers loyal to the provisional government, the movement has recognized that armed resistance would have been utterly futile and counter-productive. Indeed, they recognize that their greatest strength is in maintaining their commitment to nonviolence.

Those who have engaged in these courageous acts of resistance will feel betrayed, however, if the Obama administration is indeed ready to defy the international community by allowing Micheletti to stay in office and to recognize the results of an election held under such repressive conditions. The United States does have the power to force the illegitimate regime out and to facilitate the return of the country’s democratically-elected president to power if the Obama administration chose to use it. Indeed, there are few countries in the world as dependent on trade with the United States as Honduras.

As for those of us in the United States, it is not enough to cheer from the sidelines at courageous acts of nonviolent action by the people of Honduras. We must be willing to challenge our own government—through engaging in nonviolent direct action ourselves, if necessary—to support democracy in Honduras.

However, even if the Obama administration refuses to take a more responsible position and the coup is allowed to stand, the struggle will not have been for naught.

The Honduran opposition movement consists of a hodgepodge of trade unionists, campensinos from the countryside, Afro-Hondurans, teachers, feminists, students, and others who, along with insisting on the right of their elected president to return to office, are determined to build a more just society. Prior to the coup this summer, there had never been a national mobilization in Honduras lasting for more than a week, much less four months. The protracted struggle against Micheletti may have served as a vaccination: Popular forces may now have developed the antibodies to engage in a sustained struggle for social justice, deepening the capacity for radical change in a society that has a rather weak tradition of social movements relative to much of the rest of Latin America.

Regardless of who occupies the Honduran presidential palace, there is a critical need to replace the old constitution, imposed by the outgoing military junta in 1981, which minimizes the participation of ordinary citizens in political decisions and effectively suppresses popular social movements. It must be replaced by one in which members of the country’s poor majority will have more of a say in determining their future. It was the movement for a popular, non-binding referendum to gauge support for a Constitutional convention that prompted the coup last June.

This struggle may be only the first chapter of an important and prolonged struggle for justice in one of Latin America’s poorest and most inequitable countries. It is important that the people of North America become engaged as active allies.

Weapons of Mass Democracy

On the outskirts of a desert town in the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara, about a dozen young activists are gathered. They are involved in their country’s long struggle for freedom. A group of foreigners—veterans of protracted resistance movements—is conducting a training session in the optimal use of a “weapons system” that is increasingly deployed in struggles for freedom around the world. The workshop leaders pass out Arabic translations of writings on the theory and dynamics of revolutionary struggle and lead the participants in a series of exercises designed to enhance their strategic and tactical thinking.

These trainers are not veterans of guerrilla warfare, however, but of unarmed insurrections against repressive regimes. The materials they hand out are not the words of Che Guevara, but of Gene Sharp, the former Harvard scholar who has pioneered the study of strategic nonviolent action. And the weapons they advocate employing are not guns and bombs, but strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, tax refusal, alternative media, and refusal to obey official orders.

Serbs, South Africans, Filipinos, Georgians, and other veterans of successful nonviolent struggles are sharing their knowledge and experience with those still fighting dictators and occupation armies.

The young Western Saharans know how an armed struggle by an older generation of their countrymen failed to dislodge the Moroccans, who first invaded their country back in 1975. They have seen how Morocco’s allies on the U.N. Security Council—led by France and the United States—blocked enforcement of U.N. resolutions supporting their right to self-determination. With the failure of both armed struggle and diplomacy to bring them freedom, they have decided to instead employ a force more powerful.

The Rise of Nonviolence

The long-standing assumption that dictatorial regimes can only be overthrown through armed struggle or foreign military intervention is coming under increasing challenge. Though nonviolent action has a long and impressive history going back centuries, events in recent decades have demonstrated more than ever that nonviolent action is not just a form of principled witness utilized by religious pacifists. It is the most powerful political tool available to challenge oppression.

It was not the leftist guerrillas of the New People’s Army who brought down the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It was nuns praying the rosary in front of the regime’s tanks, and the millions of others who brought greater Manila to a standstill.

It was not the 11 weeks of bombing that brought down Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the infamous “butcher of the Balkans.” It was a nonviolent resistance movement led by young students, whose generation had been sacrificed in a series of bloody military campaigns against neighboring Yugoslav republics, and who were able to mobilize a large cross-section of the population to rise up against a stolen election.

It was not the armed wing of the African National Congress that brought majority rule to South Africa. It was workers, students, and township dwellers who—through the use of strikes, boycotts, the creation of alternative institutions, and other acts of defiance—made it impossible for the apartheid system to continue.

It was not NATO that brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe or freed the Baltic republics from Soviet control. It was Polish dockworkers, East German church people, Estonian folk singers, Czech intellectuals, and millions of ordinary citizens.

Similarly, such tyrants as Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, Moussa Traoré in Mali, King Gyanendra in Nepal, General Suharto in Indonesia, and, most recently, Maumoon Gayoom in the Maldives were forced to cede power when it became clear that they were powerless in the face of massive nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.

The power of nonviolent action has been acknowledged even by such groups as Freedom House, a Washington-based organization with close ties to the foreign policy establishment. Its 2005 study observed that, of the nearly 70 countries that have made the transition from dictatorship to varying degrees of democracy in the past 30 years, only a small minority did so through armed struggle from below or reform instigated from above. Hardly any new democracies resulted from foreign invasion. In nearly three-quarters of the transitions, change was rooted in democratic civil-society organizations that employed nonviolent methods. In addition, the study noted that countries where nonviolent civil resistance movements played a major role tend to have freer and more stable democratic systems.

A different study, published last year in the journal International Security, used an expanded database and analyzed 323 major insurrections in support of self-determination and democratic rule since 1900. It found that violent resistance was successful only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent campaigns had a 53 percent success rate.

From the poorest nations of Africa to the relatively affluent countries of Eastern Europe; from communist regimes to right-wing military dictatorships; from across the cultural, geographic and ideological spectrum, democratic and progressive forces have recognized the power of nonviolent action to free them from oppression. This has not come, in most cases, from a moral or spiritual commitment to nonviolence, but simply because it works.

Why Nonviolent Action Works

Armed resistance, even for a just cause, can terrify people not yet committed to the struggle, making it easier for a government to justify violent repression and use of military force in the name of protecting the population. Even rioting and vandalism can turn public opinion against a movement, which is why some governments have employed agents provocateurs to encourage such violence. The use of force against unarmed resistance movements, on the other hand, usually creates greater sympathy for the government’s opponents. As with the martial art of aikido, nonviolent opposition movements can engage the force of the state’s repression and use it to effectively disarm the force directed against them.

In addition, unarmed campaigns involve a range of participants far beyond the young able-bodied men normally found in the ranks of armed guerrillas. As the movement grows in strength, it can include a large cross-section of the population. Though most repressive governments are well-prepared to deal with a violent insurgency, they tend to be less prepared to counter massive non-cooperation by old, middle-aged, and young. When millions of people defy official orders by engaging in illegal demonstrations, going out on strike, violating curfews, refusing to pay taxes, and otherwise refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the state, the state no longer has power. During the “people power” uprising against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, for example, Marcos lost power not through the defeat of his troops and the storming of the Malacañang Palace but when—due to massive defiance of his orders—the palace became the only part of the country he still effectively controlled.

Furthermore, pro-government elements tend to be more willing to compromise with nonviolent insurgents, who are less likely to physically harm their opponents when they take power. When massive demonstrations challenged the military junta in Chile in the late 1980s, military leaders convinced the dictator Augusto Pinochet to agree to the nonviolent protesters’ demands for a referendum on his continued rule and to accept the results when the vote went against him.

Unarmed movements also increase the likelihood of defections and non-cooperation by police and military personnel, who will generally fight in self-defense against armed guerrillas but are hesitant to shoot into unarmed crowds. Such defiance was key to the downfall of dictatorships in East Germany, Mali, Serbia, the Philippines, Ukraine, and elsewhere. The moral power of nonviolence is crucial to the ability of an opposition movement to reframe the perceptions of the public, political elites, and the military.

A Democratizing Force

In many cases, armed revolutionaries—trained in martial values, the power of the gun, and a leadership model based upon a secret, elite vanguard—have themselves become authoritarian rulers once in power. In addition, because civil war often leads to serious economic, environmental, and social problems, the new leadership is tempted to embrace emergency powers they are later reluctant to surrender. Algeria and Guinea-Bissau experienced military coups soon after their successful armed independence struggles, while victorious communist guerrillas in a number of countries simply established new dictatorships.

By contrast, successful nonviolent movements build broad coalitions based on compromise and consensus. The new order that emerges from that foundation tends to be pluralistic and democratic.

Liberal democracy carries no guarantee of social justice, but many of those involved in pro-democracy struggles have later played a key role in leading the effort to establish more equitable social and economic orders. For example, the largely nonviolent indigenous peasant and worker movements that ended a series of military dictatorships in Bolivia in the 1980s formed the basis of the movement that brought Evo Morales and his allies to power, resulting in a series of exciting reforms benefiting the country’s poor, indigenous majority.

Another reason nonviolent movements tend to create sustainable democracy is that, in the course of the movement, alternative institutions are created that empower ordinary people. For example, autonomous workers’ councils eroded the authority of party apparatchiks in Polish industry even as the Communist Party still nominally ruled the country. In South Africa, popularly elected local governments and people’s courts in the black townships completely usurped the authority of administrators and judges appointed by the apartheid regime long before majority rule came to the country as a whole.

Recent successes of nonviolent tactics have raised concerns about their use by those with undemocratic aims. However, it is virtually impossible for an undemocratic result to emerge from a movement based upon broad popular support. Local elites, often with the support of foreign powers, have historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d’états, and other kinds of violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent “people power” movements, by contrast, make peaceful regime change possible by empowering pro-democratic majorities.

Indeed, every successful nonviolent insurrection has been a homegrown movement rooted in the realization by the masses that their rulers were illegitimate and that the political system would not redress injustice. By contrast, a nonviolent insurrection is unlikely to succeed when the movement’s leadership and agenda do not have the backing of the majority of the population. This is why the 2002–2003 “strike” by some privileged sectors of Venezuela’s oil industry failed to bring down the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez, while the widely supported strikes in the Iranian oil fields against the Shah in 1978–1979 were key in bringing down his autocratic regime.

Homegrown Movements

Unlike most successful unarmed insurrections, Iran slid back under autocratic rule after the overthrow of the Shah. Now, hard-line clerics and their allies have themselves been challenged by a nonviolent pro-democracy movement. Like most governments facing popular challenges, rather than acknowledging their own failures, the Iranian regime has sought to blame outsiders for fomenting the resistance. Given the sordid history of U.S. interventionism in that country—including the overthrow of Iran’s last democratic government in 1953 in a CIA-backed military coup—some are taking those claims seriously. However, Iranians have engaged in nonviolent action for generations, not just in opposition to the Shah, but going back to the 1890–1892 boycotts against concessions to the British and the 1905–1908 Constitutional Revolution. There is little Americans can teach Iranians about such civil resistance.

Citing funding from Western governments and foundations, similar charges of powerful Western interests being responsible for nonviolent insurrections have also been made in regard to recent successful pro-democracy movements in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine.

However, while outside funding can be useful in enabling opposition groups to buy computers, print literature, and promote their work, it cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place any more than Soviet financial and material support for leftist movements in previous decades could cause an armed socialist revolution to take place.

Successful revolutions, whatever their ideological orientation, are the result of certain social conditions. Indeed, no amount of money could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their jobs, homes, schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks and put their bodies on the line. They must be motivated by a desire for change so strong they are willing to make the sacrifices and take the personal risks to bring it about.

In any case, there is no standardized formula for success that a foreign government could put together, since the history, culture, and political alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government can recruit or mobilize the large numbers of ordinary civilians necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging the established political leadership, much less of toppling a government.

Even workshops like the one for the Western Saharan activists, usually funded through nonprofit, nongovernmental foundations, generally focus on providing generic information on the theory, dynamics, and history of nonviolent action. There is broad consensus among workshop leaders that only those involved in the struggles themselves are in a position to make tactical and strategic decisions, so they tend not to give specific advice. However, such capacity-building efforts—like comparable NGO projects for sustainable development, human rights, equality for women and minorities, economic justice, and the environment—can be an effective means of fostering inter national solidarity.

Back in Western Sahara, anti-occupation activists, building on their own experiences against the Moroccan occupation and on what they learned from the workshop, press on in the struggle for their country’s freedom. In the face of severe repression from U.S.-backed Moroccan forces, the movement continues with demonstrations, leafleting, graffiti writing, flag waving, boycotts, and other actions. One prominent leader of the movement, Aminatou Haidar, won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award last November, and she has been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Those in the Western Sahara resistance are among the growing numbers of people around the world struggling against repression who have recognized that armed resistance is more likely to magnify their suffering than relieve it.

From Western Sahara to West Papua to the West Bank, people are engaged in nonviolent resistance against foreign occupation. Similarly, from Egypt to Iran to Burma, people are fighting nonviolently for freedom from dictatorial rule.

Recent history has shown that power ultimately resides in the people, not in the state; that nonviolent strategies can be more powerful than guns; and that nonviolent action is a form of conflict that can build, rather than destroy.