Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation: Transition from armed to nonviolent struggle

REVIEWS, 1 Sep 2014

René Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

Véronique Dudouet (Ed.), Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation: Transition from armed to nonviolent struggle, (London and New York: Routledge, 2015, 241pp.)

Advancing one’s interests by killing one’s opponents has gone on for so long and in so many cultures that it is the first approach which comes to mind. Can there be a second act if armed violence does not work during the first act of the drama? There are certain legal and moral restraints on advancing one’s interests by killing on an individual basis. There are fewer restraints on killing by organized groups. Such killing is called liberation, insurgency or terrorism depending on who is looking at what group. But what is one to do if the original armed violence does not produce the expected or desired results? Can groups move from armed violence to advance their aims by other techniques? Should one modify one’s aims if armed violence is blocked by one’s opponents?

These are the basic questions developed in this analysis of armed violence in nine case studies most recently published in the rich collection of Routledge Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution. As the editor Véronique Dudouet writes “The original intent behind this book project was to focus the enquiry on organized and cohesive armed groups which had made a decisive strategic shift from armed to unarmed resistance, directed from the top leadership and followed by members down the chain of command. However, while searching for empirical evidence in the ‘real world’, it became obvious that few groups (if any) would neatly fit this model. Most of the actors examined in this book did have clear-cut boundaries, clear hierarchies and decision-making systems, but the shifts in methods were usually undertaken in a much more decentralized manner.”

The nine case studies are grouped into three types of demilitarisation trajectories:

A. Collective shift to non-armed struggle while retaining use of violence or access to weapons, followed/accompanied by negotiations with the state:

–       African National Congress (ANC), South Africa (1980s)

–       Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) Chiapas, Mexico (1994)

–       Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M) (2006)

B. Unequivocal demobilisation in the context of dialogue/peace process, shift to institutional action, follow by a (re) turn to non-armed resistance by some members:

–        Armed Movement Quintin Lame (MAQL), Colombia, (1990 onwards)

–       Gama’a Islamiya, Egypt (1997 onwards)

C. Progressive escalation of civil resistance and de-escalation of armed struggle within a broader liberation movement, but with a geographical and generational gap and no clear-cut leadership endorsement:

–       Polisario, Western Sahara

–       West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-PB)

–       Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)

Each case is analysed in detail, some written by scholars from the country in question, such as Manish Thapa for Nepal or by an external observer such as Stephen Zunes of the USA. Much of the studies turn on the quality and aims of the leaders of the armed groups and the degree to which their options are followed. Thus as Dudouet notes “Yasser Arafat is depicted as a classical example of a strategist leader, who pursued the goal of national liberation, but was ready to support an inclusive approach within the repertoire of tactics to avoid factional struggle within the movement. He believed that armed struggle was a tactic, not a strategy and thus had the ability to shift such tactics as the circumstances dictated.” The debate in the Palestinian community on the use of armed violence, negotiations, and civil resistance is still open as the recent conflict in Gaza shows.

“The case study on the Nepali Maoists presents its leaders as opportunists who adapted their discourse and ideology to the interests of potential followers and to maximise their political power. Initially, their main demands focused on the grievances expressed by marginalised communities as a way to gain their attention and support. Later, the Maoist ideology was replaced by a readiness to embrace multi-party democracy, both for the movement to survive and to facilitate alliance-building with the mainstream parties.” Yet a stable system of government rooted in a constitution has not yet been found in Nepal.

Véronique Dudouet at the end of the book outlines the needs for further analysis “This book has only scratched the surface in terms of exploring the multi-level drives of change influencing behavioural shifts from armed to unarmed means of collective contentious action. It is hoped that it will encourage scholars, practitioners and trainers in security, conflict resolution, social movements, nonviolence and social psychology to collaborate more closely to uncover the full spectrum of the dynamics and factors of conflict demilitarisation.”


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 1 Sep 2014.

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