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How nonviolence reduces government-led mass killings

IGNORED by the mainstream media, in 2018 Dr Evan Perkoski, an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Connecticut, and Erica Chenoweth, a professor in human rights & international affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, published a very important study titled Non-Violent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings.

With commentator Gary Younge heralding the 2010s as the decade of protest, and huge demonstrations continuing in places such as India, Chile and Iraq, Ian Sinclair questioned Perkoski  about his co-authored report.

Ian Sinclair: Your report is informed by the seminal 2011 Columbia University Press study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by your co-author Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan.

For those unfamiliar with the idea of non-violent resistance, can you summarise the key findings of Chenoweth and Stephan’s book?

Evan Perkoski: Chenoweth and Stephan produced a ground-breaking book in 2011 that was the first to systematically compare the efficacy of violent and non-violent resistance methods.

In other words, it statistically evaluates how likely popular uprisings are to succeed — to remove a dictator from power or to gain territorial independence, for example — when using either violent or non-violent strategies.

They find that non-violent strategies are nearly twice as effective. 

As to why, there are many possible reasons. Non-violent uprisings tend to be bigger and more diverse since lots of people can participate; they are difficult to suppress owing to their size, but also because militaries might not follow orders to crack down on protesters;  and they are often seen as more legitimate by international audience.

As a result, these uprisings can very effectively disrupt civic affairs and apply pressure to governments.

Yet Chenoweth and Stephan also find that non-violent movements have to grow quite large if they are to succeed.

Specifically, if 3.5 per cent of a state’s population actively participates at a campaign’s peak, then success is almost inevitable.

But that’s a lot of people: in the US, for example, that would require over 10 million individuals to turn out.

IS: What does your report tell us about non-violent and violent resistance and the incidence of mass killings during popular uprisings?

EP: We find that mass killings tend to occur less frequently when dissidents use strategies of civil resistance and non-violence compared to violence.

Specifically, nearly half as many cases of non-violent resistance experience mass violence as do cases of violent resistance.

There are a few reasons why. Non-violence might seem less threatening to regime elites and their families, giving them a way out without using force.

Non-violent movements also probably make it easier for members of the regime, including soldiers, to defect to the opposition, which they might hesitate to do when the opposition is a violent insurgency.

And non-violent movements don’t give the regime any cover for resorting to violence. In other words, they make it hard for states to justify a crackdown to their domestic and international allies.

IS: What are the other key factors which influence the chances of government forces carrying out mass killings in response to an uprising?

EP: Overall, we find that the interaction between dissidents and states matters greatly when it comes to the onset of mass violence.

For instance, while strategies of non-violent resistance seem to be safer, so are movements that can elicit defections from members of the armed forces.

We also find that those resistance movements seeking to overthrow the incumbent regime are at a greater risk of violence — which makes sense: leaders in such cases have the most to lose, compared to a secessionist campaign, for instance. 

But we also find that outside actors can have a big effect. One of our most consistent findings is that highly internationalised conflicts where foreign states are supporting dissidents as well as the regime they’re fighting against are particularly dangerous. 

But it’s not only the dynamics of the uprising that affect whether mass violence happens, either.

Certain types of states are especially likely to kill their own civilians, and this includes non-democracies, military-based regimes (where the military controls the state), and those that are generally less developed.

IS: Can you give a real-world example of this playing out in a recent struggle?

EP: One of the cases where we’ve seen some of these dynamics play out in a terrible way is Syria.

In some ways it fits with our findings, and in other ways it doesn’t.

In terms of it fitting, this is a highly internationalised conflict with foreign states supporting both dissidents and the regime in very overt ways.

Syrian dissidents are also seeking to overthrow the Assad regime, which might explain why Assad is willing to use lethal force — specifically, to stay in power.

Dissidents and the regime are also engaging in direct battles against one another which can help explain the high level of civilian victimisation.

Of course, dissidents initially began protesting the regime with non-violent means and only escalated after the regime began its campaign of brutal repression.

This shows how it is important to remember that cross-national statistical findings will not always explain every case perfectly, and they are instead most useful for identifying broader patterns that will generally — but not always — hold true across contexts.  

IS: If resistance campaigns who receive external support are more likely to experience mass killings by government forces, are there any practical steps concerned citizens and organisations in the US and Britain can take if they want to assist resistance campaigns in other countries?

EP: In our research we focus on a very specific type of foreign support: namely, overt material assistance.

While we find that this particular type of engagement can make violence more likely, this does not necessarily mean that all forms of engagement should be avoided.

States and other interested groups might therefore avoid sending money and arms, and instead provide training materials, to help develop organisational capacity, support dissidents through acts of diplomacy, and to use their leverage to isolate and sanction any regimes that resort to violence.

Doing so would also send a powerful signal to other states that such behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Non-violent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings is published by the International Centre for Non-Violent Conflict and can be downloaded for free from


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