Why is Nonviolent Resistance on the Rise?

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Written by Erica Chenoweth

Nonviolent or “civil” resistance is a technique of struggle where unarmed civilians use a coordinated variety of methods—like demonstrations, strikes, and other forms of noncooperation—to confront their opponents. This form of struggle eschews physically harming opponents, although it can be highly disruptive. Nonviolent resistance has occurred worldwide, from Guinea-Bissau to Guatemala, from East Germany to Ecuador, from Tunisia to Tonga. With several different co-authors, I’ve been collecting systematic data on this phenomenon for ten years, focusing specifically on popular campaigns aiming to remove incumbent national leaders from power, expel foreign military occupations, or secede. This data collection has resulted in several important findings.

First, nonviolent resistance is surprisingly effective compared to its violent counterparts. From 1900-2015, about 50% of the campaigns of nonviolent struggle succeeded, compared to about 25% of violent insurgencies. This is true even when ones takes into account other reasons why regimes might collapse, such as state weakness, levels of democracy or autocracy, and the regime’s unwillingness to use violence against its own people. This is because nonviolent resistance is more attractive and feasible method of contention for a wider proportion of the population. As a result, the average nonviolent uprising enjoys about 11 times more observed participants than the average violent uprising. As a result, nonviolent campaigns have a wide variety of potentially disruptive tactics at their disposal. For example, general strikes—one of the most effective methods of nonviolent action—are effective only when participation is widespread.

The result of such people power is that the opponent’s pillars of support—the security forces, economic elites, civilian bureaucrats, state media, and the like—begin to question whether they should remain loyal to the regime. After all, general strikes and stay-at-homes affect economic elites in their wallets. From El Salvador to South Africa, economic noncooperation has brought about systemic changes because economic elites withdrew their loyalty to the incumbent regime. Demonstrations that feature a large and diverse proportion of the population can have similar effects on conscripted military or police; from Serbia to Tunisia, state security forces defected to the opposition when they recognized their own family members, neighbors, or business associates in the crowds. Hence, nonviolent resistance is less about melting hearts than expanding the political power of a movement from the bottom up.

Second, nonviolent resistance often succeeds in circumstances where people would think it quite unlikely—that is, in countries where the opponent regime is brutal toward its populace, where the society is deeply fragmented, or where the population is uneducated. Nonviolent resistance has emerged in every major culture, religion, and political system, suggesting that it is not limited to a particular values system or world region.

Third, nonviolent resistance campaigns tend to possess other short- and long-term benefits. As one might imagine, the death tolls for violent campaigns are much higher, both through direct killings during the conflict and through indirect deaths caused by displacement and interference with day-to-day needs, like clean water, food, shelter, and access to basic health care. Countries in which civilians have waged nonviolent resistance are about 10 times more likely to undergo a democratic transition than those waging armed struggle. They are also significantly less likely to experience a descent into civil war within a decade, in contrast to the notorious conflict trap that plagues many conflict-affected countries.

Finally, nonviolent resistance is becoming more common. While many scholars have focused on the stunning decline in violence over the past few decades (or centuries), less commonly understood is the rise of nonviolent resistance.


Figure1 Figure1

Figure 1 shows a patchy increase in the number of new nonviolent campaigns since Gandhi’s struggle against British colonialism in India, which set on in 1919. But onsets of nonviolent uprisings began to accelerate in the late 1960s, during a wave of anti-colonial struggles that dominated the times. In the late 1980s, we see the dramatic rise of nonviolent uprisings as a function of the iconic Eastern European revolutions, as well as a number of movements against US-backed right-wing military regimes in Latin America. The number of nonviolent uprisings has steadily increased since then, featuring a sustained period of “color revolutions” against post-communist regimes between 2000 and 2010, followed by geographically diverse set of cases since then. Since 2010 alone, we have seen well over 50 new major nonviolent uprisings around the world, including the Arab Uprisings of 2011. Recent cases of new campaigns include places as diverse as Guatemala, Burkina Faso, and Hong Kong. As nonviolent resistance goes, we live in the most contentious decade witnessed in the past 100 years.

There may be several reasons for this trend. First is the potential for growing global recognition about the power of nonviolent resistance. In fact, Andrew Mack has argued that nonviolent uprisings have become the functional substitute for armed struggle, and that this trend is likely to continue over time. This optimistic interpretation is appealing because it explains the upward trajectory of nonviolent resistance over time, as well as its geographic diffusion beyond regional “waves.” And although there are some reported cases of learning across campaigns, systematic data are not yet available to indicate which uprisings are directly inspired by contemporaneous or historical movements.

Second, normative changes in the international system may be contributing to this trend. Some suggest that the “rights revolution” has brought with it a growing global awareness of basic human rights. As such knowledge becomes more widespread, populations may be more willing to directly challenge the legitimacy and authority of states that repeatedly violate these rights. Conversely, Daniel Ritter argues that authoritarian regimes may be increasingly constrained in their responses to popular challenges. Because of foreign economic interests and the politics of foreign aid, many authoritarian leaders have had to tout the protection of human rights as a primary interest of the state. Such claims may embolden populations to challenge such regimes when human rights violations becomes especially egregious or insulting, while altering the interests of the economic, business, and security elites whose long-term interests may reside in cooperative relationships with foreign powers. That said, nonviolent campaigns have succeeded in numerous places where human rights were totally absent as national priorities, such as in Chile under Pinochet or Iran under the Shah.

Third, some argue that changes in communication technology—particularly the rise of the Internet—may explain the diffusion of nonviolent resistance. The so-called Facebook and Twitter Revolutions, wherein organizers use social media to plan campaigns and communicate actions, make this an appealing explanation. However, the precipitous increase in nonviolent uprisings preceded the arrival of the Internet. Moreover, many skeptics see the Internet as something of a disadvantage for activists today, since regimes can use the Internet for surveillance and entrapment as easily as activists can use it for organization and communication.

While each of these explanations may resonate somewhat, scholars have not yet fully uncovered the reasons for the rise of nonviolent resistance. Future work should attempt to do so. In the meantime, one thing is clear from the data: nonviolent resistance is here to stay as a force for challenging entrenched authority and building power from below.


About the author: Dr. Erica Chenoweth is Professor and Associate Dean for Research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. With Maria Stephan, she won the 2013 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order for their book Why Civil Resistance Works. On Twitter: @EricaChenoweth.