Nonviolent Movements Are Best Chance for Democracy. And They Must Be Helped.

04/06/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

As the bombing campaign of Houthi positions in Yemen continued and Saudi Arabia and Egypt threatened ground invasion, the men and women of Taizz, Yemen's third largest city, came out in thousands last week to protest the Houthi's take over of their city. The Taizz residents used the most effective weapon they had, but which the international community often ignores: collective, mostly peaceful, resistance.

Peaceful resistance was the same tool that millions of Yemenis wielded so resiliently in 2011, eventually forcing President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign later that year. It was around that time nonviolent movements of the Arab spring raised high hopes for democracy in the region. Yet, four years later, with resurgent authoritarianism in Egypt and Bahrain, and raging civil wars in Syria--and now Yemen--skepticism about their power is widespread.

Recent challenges aside, historical data backs up the longstanding success of nonviolent movements and cautions us against dismissing them too quickly. Longitudinal studies of nonviolently rebellious societies over more than 100 years show not just the power of nonviolent movements to take on brutal regimes and defeat them. They also demonstrate their unmistakable positive impact on democratization.

Fifty-three percent of nonviolent movements have sealed the fate of seemingly irremovable dictators. At the same time, armed struggles, often seen as the only way to force brutal adversaries to concede, were twice less effective. Violent outside interventions fared even worse, extending the duration of civil wars and increasing the number of civilians killed.

The long-term impact of nonviolent movements is impressive. The probability for countries to become democracies 5 years after a major political breakthrough is estimated to be tenfold higher if driven by nonviolent movements than by arms. Socially diverse movements that forced power holders to negotiate or agree to hold elections paved the way for successful democratization in 65 percent of cases of political transitions. In contrast, elite-driven and violent transitions (e.g. via civil war or external armed intervention) were 5 to 10 times more likely to result in reemergence of authoritarianism than nonviolent revolutions. Hence Tunisia has had much higher probability of becoming a democracy than, for example, Libya.

Meanwhile, the international community has yet to recognize the contributions of nonviolent movements to democratization--the necessary spark to support grassroots campaigns in Yemen, the Middle East and beyond. Doing so requires a paradigmatic shift in the way it views conflict and political transition.

First, the international community must acknowledge that nonviolent resistance is as legitimate and needed as dialogue, negotiations and conflict resolution. After all, Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist Czechoslovakian dissident and later President, wrote about the need to disturb, not make peace and wage, not resolve, conflict nonviolently.

Second, it is time to look beyond formal civic and political organizations and instead, pay attention to loose networks of citizens and informal grassroots associations. In the last 15 years, it was these informal groupings of determined activists by the thousands--not established opposition or nongovernmental organizations--that spearheaded political change in Serbia, Ukraine, Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen. In the international community, there is a tendency to miss the majestic forest for the towering trees.

More significant is the need to develop norms and tools that could be activated to assist nonviolent movements. For example, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) guided the international community to intervene militarily in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. Yet, no equivalent norm exists that would stipulate the international community to assist nonviolent movements. We have responsibility to use internationally-sanctioned violence against those who unleash illegitimate and unjust violence but we lack a simple right to help nonviolently those who choose to struggle peacefully.

This is where a Right to Assist (R2A) would come into play. The R2A would sensitize the international community about the need to help nonviolent movements and legitimize such assistance. It could ultimately obligate the international community to provide coordinated help and avoid leaving nonviolent movements abandoned and vulnerable to being hijacked by armed groups. See Kosovo in the 1990s, or Syria in 2011, for example.

The R2A would help better inoculate these movements against their violent adversaries and bestow greater legitimacy on collective nonviolent actions than at present. Moreover, a R2A could be used to establish global networks for dissemination of translated content on nonviolent resistance and enhance capacity and skills of nonviolent movements by bringing together veterans of nonviolent struggles to share their expertise.

In the midst of a global authoritarian backlash and a dominant, reflexive, response of states to challenge violence with more violence, nonviolent resistance offers a serious alternative. Nonviolent movements show that ordinary people, if mobilized and disciplined, are capable of defeating repressive regimes and can build democratic and stable societies long term. The big thing missing is for the international community to come on board.