Nonviolent Action in Acute Interethnic Conflicts
by Gene Sharp
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Nonviolent Action in Acute Interethnic Conflicts," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 371-381.
Sharp examines alternatives to the use of violence in acute ethnic conflicts. He defines acute ethnic conflicts as "persistent conflicts between ethnic groups over perceived fundamental issues that have been, or are on the verge of being, carried over into direct mass action, either violent or nonviolent, or by harsh state action against an ethnic group."(p. 371) Such conflicts often cannot be resolved by compromise, since compromise would be seen as a betrayal of basic belief and values. These conflicts often persist over time. They may also involve significant power differences between the groups, with one group exercising social, political or economic dominance over another.
Ethnic groups must express act on and express their fundamental beliefs. Requiring groups to change their essential beliefs, or to keep those beliefs strictly to themselves, is generally not a practical option. Groups must also have some means available to pursue their goals and objectives. Sharp observes that "commonly, the dominant group has established institutions and procedures in society and government that favor its own status and interests to the disadvantage of the subordinate ethnic group."(p. 373) Subordinate groups may resort to violence when they are denied access to other means of pursuing their goals. The can result in a cycle of violence. The subordinate group justifies its use of violence by claiming it had no other effective option. The dominant group will likely respond with violent repression, justifying their actions as a needed response to the subordinate group's violent acts.
While violent actions, such as terrorism or guerilla warfare, may seem like effective means for less powerful ethnic groups to use, they are often ineffective and costly. Terrorist and guerilla activities, by their very nature, exclude from participation most of the population they are supposedly benefiting. Such activities are not very effective in building group solidarity in the resisting group. The use of terrorism may harden public opinion against the resisting group, and against considering their grievances. Considering the terrorist group's demands seems like "giving in" to terrorism. Guerilla warfare provokes massive repression, high civilian casualties, and a greater build-up of the dominant group's machinery of repression. Even when successful, such violent means rarely produce democratic societies that respect human rights. Instead the guerilla military becomes the dominant institution in the new society.
Ethnic groups need an alternative to violence. Any alternative should allow the groups to retain their beliefs and goals, and to continue to struggle for their goals. It should allow for general participation in the struggle, and so for a sense of satisfaction and solidarity in the general membership of the group. It must be effective in creating at least some gains for the ethnic group. And, Sharp says, it must "provide the group with a technique of struggle able to wield power and to confront the power of the opposing ethnic group."(p. 375)
Sharp argues that nonviolent action can be an effective alternative to violence for ethnic groups. Nonviolent action aims to undermine the opponent's power by undermining their support. "The power of all oppressive groups, of all dictators and aggressors, depends upon the support they receive. This support refers to acceptance of their authority and the duty to obey, the operation of the economic system and the continuing function of the civil service and the bureaucracy, the loyalty of the army and the reliability of the police, the blessing of the rulers by religious bodies, and the cooperation of workers and managers."(p. 375)
Nonviolent action falls into three main types. Nonviolent protests and persuasion includes symbolic activities like marches or vigils, or the display of flags. Non-cooperation includes activities such as strikes and boycotts. Nonviolent interventions include such acts as sit-ins, establishing a parallel government, or creating new institutions.
Unlike violence, repression of nonviolent resistance often serves to strengthen that resistance. Violent suppression of nonviolent actors moves more people to take action themselves. Violent repression may even weaken the dominant group, by alienating its own members. Sharp calls this effect political jujitsu--turning the effect of violence back on its user.
Nonviolent action has succeeded more than is generally believed. Strategic planning and concrete goals are key to successfully nonviolent actions. Success comes in four forms. Rarely, the opponent may be converted to the nonviolent group's beliefs. More commonly, they may reach an accommodation with the dominant group in which some of their goals are satisfied. Exhausted by the struggle, the dominant group may give in to nonviolent coercion and grant the subordinate group's demands. In extreme cases the struggle may end in the disintegration of the opposing group, as their sources of power are completely undermined.
Nonviolent action has a number of immediate advantages over the use of violence. Nonviolent resistance is more likely than violence to be effective when the dominant group controls the state apparatus. Nonviolent action strengthens and develops the power of the resisting group's institutions and people. It produces enhanced self-esteem, and feelings of empowerment and autonomy in the nonviolent group. This may in turn make the struggle seems less desperate. Nonviolent resistance may reduce the dominant group's power and solidarity. It gives the resisting group a better public image, generating more sympathy and support from third parties. Nonviolent action is less expensive than warfare. It also produces lower casualty rates, even among the resisting group, since the dominant group has less justification for violent reprisals.
Sharp offers a number of examples of successful nonviolent resistance. In India members of the untouchable caste held constant vigil on a road which they had been banned from using. Nonviolent action played a crucial role in the U.S. civil rights movement, and in ending apartheid in South Africa. Both sides in the Northern Ireland conflict have used nonviolent action. In 1974 the Ulster unionist worker's strike brought down the government. Hunger strikes by IRA members in prison generated high levels of popular support for their cause. When the strikes were called off and violence resumed that support diminished.
Some may object that nonviolent action may be used to pursue unjust goals--to maintain oppressive institutions, for instance. Sharp notes that, although most people would want the group to give up those unjust goals, practically speaking it is very unlikely that any group will abandon its most deeply held beliefs. While it is unlikely that the group will change its goals, it is would be better if those goals were pursued in nonviolent, rather than violent, ways. The group that is the target of their action will need to take nonviolent counter-action.
Nonviolent action also offers some longer term benefits over the use of violence. The nonviolent group is no longer adding to its opponent's fear of attack. This may begin to weaken the cycle of reciprocal revenge. The nonviolent group's show of discipline, courage and persistence may begin to undermine the opponent's negative stereotypes about them. Nonviolent strategies call for setting limited, concrete, achievable objectives, rather than making vague, sweeping demands. In addition, the resisting group must present reasonable and justifiable objectives if it hopes to gain third party support. This shift in the form of objective may help to depolarize the conflict, and to reduce hostility. Nonviolent resistance may also prompt the dominant group to reconsider its own use of violence.
Sharp concludes by pointing out that "the use of nonviolent action in an acute interethnic conflict will not produce a loving society, but it would result in a less violent one."(p. 381) The use of nonviolent means of conflict leaves more room for mutual understanding between the conflicting parties, and creates less hostility.