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Report of the Working Group on Non-violence


While anti-militarists are skilled in contesting the West’s armed intervention in Iraq and Syria, many of us are far less convincing when it comes to articulating what a non-violent response to conflict in the area might actually look like.

The issue seems particularly pressing at this moment, given the ongoing coalition effort — with Canada in tow — to recapture Mosul from ISIS, a frightening military adventure, doomed to be fought on the backs of civilians, rife with sectarian hostilities, and seemingly lacking palatable endgame.

With terrible news arriving daily, there’s no doubt many of those who participated in the Non-Violence and Civil Society Working Group seminar back on June 27 are now searching their memories for the best bits of an astounding discussion on the possibilities of destroying ISIS without arms.

The gathering took place in the airy Hot House Restaurant in the heart of Toronto’s old city, as 44 peace activists, academics, ecologists, and NATO interns dined on chicken, fish, and steak, and heard Maciej Bartkowski, senior director for education and research at the Washington-based International Center on Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC), offer his dramatic suggestions for a weapon-less take-down of ISIS.

As a bonus, we had a rare opportunity to see the strategic non-violent perspective stand up to well-reasoned scepticism in the form of a passionate commentary by Lieutenant-Colonel (ret’d) David Last, a professor from the Royal Military College with a deep experience in Peacekeeping.

The conversation travelled through time and space and touched on an array of experiences from East Timor to Poland, Mali to Ukraine, Nepal, Chiapas, South Africa, the Balkans and more, as well as probed potential action plans both for governments and civil society.

The fascinating exchange began with Bartkowski outlining a major finding of the new civil resistance scholarship. According to the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, non-violent contests are twice as likely to be successful as those fought with arms (53% to 26%). Moreover, nonviolent struggles are far less likely to relapse into civil war, and have a much greater propensity to lead to democratic change.

So here is Bartkowski’s breakthrough concept: there is a greater potential for destabilizing ISIS through the slow and steady non-violent elimination of its power sources, than there is through military intervention with its inevitable massive civilian body count, and tendency to fuel further ISIS recruitment. In the place of armed attacks on ISIS forces, he offered instead the enormous potential of containment and isolation.

Most dictators rely on authority and legitimacy, violence and an adversary responding in kind, he said, but they also can’t rule without skilled personnel, material resources, and a host of various intangible supports. If governments and civil society target these pillars of ISIS rule, there exists the reasonable prospect of defanging and destroying the organization.

Here is his menu of strategic possibilities:

  1. “The hollowing out of ISIS’s legitimacy through humour.” This is already occurring through off-the-wall Twitter responses to ISIS recruiting bids and witty online ads parodying ISIS leaders.

  2. Encouraging defections of ISIS followers. ISIS relies on its cadre, but it’s more difficult to entice its followers to leave when they are being fired upon — one reason a military intervention appears counter-productive. When members do make the break, governments should not send them to prison, but rather encourage them to participate in public anti-extremism campaigns.

  3. Increasing the space for civilian resistance. Because it’s territorially based, ISIS is reliant on the skills of the population — its engineers, teachers, writers, etc, presenting possibilities for protest and sabotage, even in small ways, as in generating deliberate inefficiencies. There are already acts of protest in the very heart of ISIS-declared capital Raqqa, he pointed out, like anti-ISIS graffiti and posters, and the distribution of dissenting magazines. No matter how brutal dictatorial rule is, there is always the possibility, he pointed out, for defiance, either overt or subtle, all the more so since ISIS depends more for its survival on taxes levied on its subjects than oil production.

  4. Ensuring that non-violent resistance offers a strong sense of identity, purpose and adventure. Successful movements have been able to offer citizens a new sense of purpose, and any civil resistance against brutal actors such as dictatorships or totalitarians like ISIS would need to do the same, he said. The Communist regime in Poland was arguably much stronger than ISIS with its strong services, yet the Poles nevertheless managed to overthrow it. But not until they offered the society an idea of an alternative, parallel community of people with a shared identity.

  5. ISIS relies on violence, but killing off its leaders won’t destroy the group, he said pointing to research showing that only 7% of violent organizations are actually defeated by violent means. It’s more efficacious to keep leaders alive and allow internal rivalries to percolate, Bartkowski argued. Often such groups undergo their own changes and stabilize by becoming service providers, Hezbollah being a case in point. The problem of retaking cities from ISIS is that these cities are destroyed for years, like Ramadi and perhaps like Fallujah. Violent warfare against ISIS is much costlier in human lives than a possible alternative policy such as containment; indeed, attacks on ISIS created more lashing out by the organization on the local populace. As well, violent armed groups expect violence. Why, he asked, would we then be interested in giving them what they expect or want?

  6. Draining the population ISIS relies on. ISIS is concerned about people vacating the territory, so the issue then becomes: how to help civilians leave and further what can only be called a “protest migration”. Carving out an area of civilian protection is key to a containment strategy, he said, citing the successful examples of Colombia’s San Jose de Apardado, which declared neutrality from armed groups, the same strategy employed by locals in Afghanistan and Tuzla.

He concluded with a reflection on what activists must consider before they contemplate civil resistance against armed groups. Among other items, civilians should assess the goals of the authoritarian group, and whether its survival depends on recognition and a degree of cooperation on the part of the locals. If this is so, resistors must discern how such cooperation is induced and locate the pillars of support for the armed group and its allies. Such information and analysis will prove invaluable, he said, for civilians in strategizing and planning their actions.

David Last then presented his energetic commentary on Bartkowski’s scenario, providing the audience with an amazing opportunity to process the arguments. “The ICNC is right,” he said emphatically, “but not entirely right.”

In June 1995, Last was a staff officer of the UN Protection Force in Zagreb in Croatia, and when it was clear that Serb forces were coming to Srebrenica, he sought information on non-violent civil defense, and “soon had faxes from all over the world on the best that non-violence had to offer at the time.” But “you know how Srebrenica ended,” he said. “We didn’t have time to build systems for non-violence,” and without time, it’s “irresponsible to urge non-violence when people are faced with those ready to do them harm.”

He ceded there is value and merit in strategic non-violence, which he further agreed derives its real strength from social organizations, and argued that cadets and NATO interns need to understand that it can be more effective than violence. But he argued, “if that’s all we’ve got in our magazine, we’re in trouble.” NATO needs to develop capacity for unarmed approaches, but it is irresponsible to offer only non-violence in the face of violence, he said, explaining that he doesn’t believe ISIS can be contained without resort to military intervention. Game Theory, the key principle of which is ‘do as you are done to’ suggests that a winning strategy comes from opening with cooperation, but being prepared to respond with what you are given. Hawks are a necessary part of the success of doves, he said.

Bartkowski took up the argument. In the case of Srebrenica, he said, 7,000 men and boys were killed, but would we expect fewer casualties if they had engaged with arms? “I would dare to say there wouldn’t have been 7,000 killed but tens of thousands of men, boys, women, and children killed. Arms wouldn’t have prevented the massacre; it would have escalated it on a much larger scale.”

NATO engaged with KLA in Kosovo against the Serbs, but atrocities by Serbs against civilians escalated during the NATO bombing. NATO provided a cover for atrocities, he said. Milosevic became a hero for resisting the western power but what took him down was not NATO but non-violent organizing — millions on the streets.

Last responded arguing that, “we don’t want professional soldiers who think the only moral and effective function is to use weapons”, and he declared himself in “vehement agreement” with Bartkowski on the NATO bombing. But in the end, the managers of violence have to be prepared to kill people, he said. In the case of Srebrenica, we can blame the international community for drawing lines around protected areas, and then failing to provide the military means of securing it. In Russia and the Balkans there is a two-sided strategy; on one hand, in Estonia, there is non-violent civil resistance training, people-based defense, but at the same time there are military threats and armed incursions that date from the cold war. “To stand up to Russian military power and say ‘they can’t kill all of us’ — sorry.”

That’s what NATO is for; that’s what the military balance is for, he argued. NATO is about containment in the Baltics. “Military forces have to know the utility of non-violence to organize democratic and civilian-based defense.” But non-violence can’t do the job on its own, he stressed.

The discussion meandered in a most illuminating direction.

Marty Klein, for example, raised the issue of army-less Mali and the incursion of Al Qaeda. “I don’t think you can let people die,” he said.

Bartkowski responded, referring to the 1991 popular uprising in Mali which brought down a brutal regime, and the case of the librarians of Timbuktu in 2012 who smuggled out ancient texts, at the risk of the resistors’ lives.

Non-violent resistance isn’t an ethical stance, he explained. The Poles chose to struggle non-violently not necessarily because they were committed Gandhians, but because they remembered Hungary in 1956 and said “we just can’t take up arms or we will be crushed in a couple of days.” So they chose civil resistance. That’s the tradition he comes from, he said, pointing out that he would support the use of violence if it looked more effective — he would be “comfortable” with this. But he sees so many arguments that violent resistance would be futile and costlier than engaging in nonviolent resistance, including such strategies as staying put, or fleeing.

In Poland, there was an annual celebration of the armed uprising of Warsaw (where in two months 200,000 civilians were killed) but, he said, we don’t recognize as heroic the decision of Krakow elites to rationally refuse to rise up against Germans. We don’t celebrate the decision of the Krakovians to stay down and save the city. People were immersed in the ethos of struggle, saying it was moral to respond. But not taking up arms was the rational strategic decision, he said.

Lyn Adamson raised the issue of East Timor and how, after the independence referendum, the guerrillas remained in the mountains despite the repression of the regime so as not to provide a pretext for even more of it.

Bartkowski enlarged upon this issue of the strategic refraining from violence, talking about the ANC and its “iconography of violence” used to motivate people to engage in nonviolent resistance through conjuring romantic notions of struggle. During some demonstrations, wooden-made and real Kalashnikovs were displayed as part of the resistance, “but right now, we are going on strike,” the leadership said. “The ANC and United Democratic Front or UDF were able to mobilize many more people this way, children, women, men. Regardless of whether you had a Kalashnikov or not, you could engage in boycotts and strikes.”

Comparing the number of civilian deaths in Syria during the non-violent period of struggle (March to Aug of 2011) with the number in the next phase, which was partially non-violent and partially armed, Bartkowski finds that civilian casualties increased by 60%. But in the purely violent phase in 2012, there were three or four times as many deaths in a six-month period as in the nonviolent phase. If there is only one-sided violence, fewer people die, he concludes. When the other side responds with violence, it provides a pretext for the dictatorship to attack both nonviolent activists and those with arms.

The back-and-forth continued with Last arguing that the international community failed to provide security in the face of predictable violence in East Timor. “That requires trained and effective military troops. I applaud non-violent effectiveness, but there is another side to that equation,” he said.

Addressing Last’s earlier comment on NATO, Bartkowski said he believed that Eastern Europe would probably be more successful using civilian-based resistance against Russian occupation than relying on the alliance, saving lives and minimizing destruction of cities and towns in the process. Last rebutted this in strong tones: “I think that’s an experiment in which you are prepared to sacrifice the lives of other people,” he said.

Bartkowski response was that in some non-violent struggles, the army can provide security with their bodies, but without arms. In Ukraine in 2004, for example, many soldiers defected from the regime but didn’t send tanks to protect the Maidan against interior security forces still loyal to the government. Instead, they threatened to form a protective cordon, a human chain without weapons, knowing that Ukrainians wouldn’t stand for the killing of unarmed soldiers.

“Security,” he said emphatically, “might not come from the barrel of a gun but from strategic positioning of manpower. One might imagine such a human chain of unarmed soldiers in Srebrenica.”


This conversation continued until nearly 10:00 pm, and there were a dozen hands still waving, begging for an opportunity to ask more questions. The evening was an enjoyable success in that everyone was stimulated to think about historical events and to postulate general inferences from them.

When members of the audience were invited to leave their email addresses for additional meetings of the working group on nonviolence, all seven of the NATO interns signed up. Our next challenge is to decide what to organize next — for them, and for the more committed activists in Science for Peace. We are immensely grateful to ICNC for generously enabling us to hold such a useful meeting, and, of course, we are deeply grateful to, and impressed by Maciej Bartkowski for coming and sharing his profound insights. We also thank David Last for bringing this debate to life in a cogent way.

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