Training for what? - it is not all about strategies and tactics


With the new electronic format of The Broken Rifle we want to use the opportunity to also get the WRI network using the forums in our re-developed website. This article will be posted on the WRI forum, we invite people to react to it.

Nonviolence training is usually associated with preparing ourselves for our work against oppression - racism, occupation, war, human rights abuses, etc. But also for stimulating the process of building alternatives, in our organisational structures, in our ways of dealing with power, building alternative economic ventures, etc. Nonviolence training is one of the primary ways the nonviolent movement shares its knowledge -- by learning from each other's work and our own expertise. Trainings can increase the impact your group has on others, help you to function better in action and cope better with the risks and problems posed, and expand your action horizons. Basically, nonviolence training helps to create a safe space to test out and develop new ideas or to analyse and evaluate experiences.

In the present, trainings have many different forms. If you have taken part in one, probably it was as preparation for an action, to help you in your campaign development or maybe to introduce you to nonviolence. In this article I want to focus on a specific focus of nonviolence training that has developed through the courses of the years and which has some conflictive dimensions.

It's not all about strategies and tactics

To look at this problem I will focus on two organisations - the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC) in Washinton DC and the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) in Belgrade. The ICNC was founded in 2001 by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, the authors of A Force More Powerful, a far-reaching study of the use of nonviolent action to bring social change. Its main funder seems to be Peter Ackerman himself. ICNC describes itself as "an independent, nonprofit educational foundation that develops and encourages the study and use of civilian-based, nonmilitary strategies to establish and defend human rights, democracy and justice worldwide”. It has three main areas of work to promote nonviolence:

* to educate the general public;
* to influence policies and media coverage and
* to educate activists.

Its training comes up as part of the work of educating activists. They provide on request support for workshops in nonviolent conflict.

For a number of years ICNC has worked in close cooperation with trainers who came from OTPOR, the most dynamic group in the movement that brought down Slobodan Milošević. This group of trainers formed the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). Their vision is a “world free of violence, with every single political conflict solved by nonviolent struggle... CANVAS trainers and consultants support nonviolent democratic movements through transfer of knowledge on strategies and tactics of nonviolent struggle. CANVAS Supporting Active Network in four countries advocates and promotes battles for democracy worldwide”.

The main aim of these organisations is to bring democracy through nonviolent means all over the world. Democracy in terms of right to elections, freedom of speech, human rights and in some cases also freedom of market. Both organisations say that their agenda is not political, only pro-democracy and for human rights. But at the same time the main movements they use as an example for their model are the so-called 'colour revolutions' in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. In these people power struggles, there were clear plans on how to get rid of undoubtedly corrupt regimes, but when it was time to build the new society, the new power-holders have not turned out to be model democrats. Indeed in Ukraine, one faction of Pora - the youth group active in the 'Orange Revolution' - has not only been been pushing for Ukraine to join NATO but to again have nuclear weapons bases (as in Soviet days, but this time pointing in the other direction!).

The strategic model for nonviolent conflict includes understanding your enemy, building large groups of activists, a major focus on your communication strategies, demanding elections, running an election campaign and monitoring the election itself as to avoid fraud. It's also all about the branding of nonviolence, making it attractive and saleable to gain support. It does not, however, include much about nonviolent values or how we envision a nonviolent society. This strategy can be very effective in terms of bringing down regimes, but nonviolence should also be about what you want to build next. As these organisations say that their work is not political, they are happy to support initiatives that oppose these regimes, but they seem less concerned about what is to follow.

The focus of the materials produced by CANVAS are all about effective tactics. If you go to the CANVAS site you might be struck by some of the terms they use: battlefield, to explain where nonviolent movements have confronted dictatorial regimes; weaponry, which consists of what they call 'conventional arsenal' -- Group/movement building, communication and action -- and an 'unconventional arsenal' including 'How to act in virtual space' (using the internet) and how to act with limited human and material resources (use of guerrilla approach in propaganda when sending your message) .

I question this perspective of 'winning a nonviolent war'. Yes, we do want to make our campaigns successful, but not at any cost. Our final goal is to work to build the society we want to live in, where there is justice and equality. We can learn a lot from the huge experience on developing strategies for nonviolent conflict, but we also need to see its limitations and remember the fundamental insistence of nonviolence on the consistency between the means used and the ends desired. Is what happened after the 'colour revolutions' what we understand by a nonviolent revolution? I don't think so.

Javier Gárate

Programmes & Projects

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Submitted by howclark on Mon, 29 Dec 2008 - 18:29


Stephen Zunes was trying to get this comment onto the page, but didn't succeed -- so I've cut and pasted from his email message and am posting it on his behalf. And with thanks for his speedy and well-informed response.


Thanks for forwarding this to me. Unfortunately, I couldn't register my comments because I can't figure out how to log on. I couldn't find where/how one signs up.

The only part of the article with which I find at all misleading is the assertion "the main movements they use as an example for their model are the so-called 'colour revolutions' in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine." In reality, ICNC cites many successful nonviolent struggles, such as India, South Africa, Chile, Mali, the Philippines, and others, all of which have their limitations as well, but certainly included a wider array of progressive and anti-imperialist elements than the colour revolutions you cite. We also cite contemporary struggles for justice with which we've been involved, such as in Palestine, Western Sahara, the US immigrants rights movement, indigenous Guatemalan struggles, etc.

As someone who has been involved with training for ICNC and CANVAS as well as with WRL and other more radical groups, I'm certainly aware of the limitations of the ICNC/CANVAS models as you describe them.

At the same time, I believe ICNC and CANVAS have made a very positive contribution nevertheless:

1) they have the financial resources to go in to a lot of places where less well-endowed organizations and trainers cannot

2) in arenas where there is imminent or ongoing struggle and the level of conscientization is too low for many to accept the more radical analyses inherent in the nonviolence training offered by WRI and like-minded groups, leading activists may be more open to accepting the kinds of workshops in strategic nonviolent action offered in the ICNC/CANVAS framework and thereby will be more likely to embrace nonviolent methods as a result

3) liberal democracy (even the messy kind which often follows many years of corrupt authoritarian rule) may be a necessary if not sufficient step towards a just society, providing the political space for organizing radical nonviolent action and thereby eventually allowing for a genuinely revolutionary transformation which may not have been possible under the previous autocratic system

4) since nonviolent action usually does not succeed unless the movement has a strong moral appeal and has the support of the majority of the population, it is unlikely that reactionary groups like Pora will be able to do much with it (except as part of a much broader movement with a more progressive agenda, such as the Orange Revolution's demand for a non-rigged election)

5) ICNC and CANVAS trainings are evolving and they are increasingly distinct from one another; for example, ICNC has recently incorporated new modules influenced by me, Philippe Duhamel, George Lakey and other radical trainers

In other words, as both a WRI supporter who identifies politically with revolutionary nonviolence and as a consultant with ICNC and CANVAS as a scholar of strategic nonviolent action, I see the work as complementary, not contradictory. And, just as ICNC and CANVAS certainly has a lot to learn from WRI and like-minded groups in terms of looking at the bigger picture, I hope WRI and its networks can find some of the work ICNC and CANVAS has done on the strategic and tactical questions beneficial to your good work as well.

In Peace,


plus an afterthought sent later ...

Hi Javier,

In re-reading my note to you from early this week, I realize I should have clarified a few things:

1) ICNC and CANVAS do not work together as a matter of course, but ICNC has sometimes asked for CANVAS's assistance on specific workshops where it's clear that
their specific experience as nonviolent veterans and their anti-authoritarian model is what activists really want, though ICNC must review the curriculum for any workshop we fund which they do.

2) ICNC has increasingly come to doubt the value of formulaic workshops for novices, and are trying to find ways to project introductory learning about nonviolent action
(cases, concepts) via digital and distance-learning methodologies and via community and local-NGO discussion sessions, reserving workshops only for more advanced activists.

3) In case you aren't aware. there are two different Poras in Ukraine -- the movement split into two after the Orange Revolution. The hard-core faction has tended to grossly exaggerate and glorify their role in the Orange Revolution. And I should mention that ICNC has never had a single contact with anyone in either Pora (except perhaps incidentally at conferences.)



Just two initial comments on Javier's piece.

First, I don't know how many groups and in which countries ICNC and CANVAS are currently working, but I do know that they have been a very valuable resource for various groups in Zimbabwe. And by that, I don't mean the opposition electoral coalition the Movement for a Democratic Change (MDC) but groups with a fuller of the kind of social change they want and also with a stronger commitment to nonviolence.

Second, all social movements -- including nonviolent movements -- are not in control of what they achieve. Gandhi did not want the partition of India, did not want India to evolve into a highly technological state with a strong military, etc etc. When we look at nonviolent 'victories', we're liable to be disappointed with the achievements. Solidarnosc was a miracle opposition movement -- not such a great governing party! This is one of the reasons why WRI's discussions on nonviolence so often focus on the process of empowerment, rather than the goals such as regime change.

However, we also need to think about how to build united movements to achieve goals that are seen as essential not just by diehard advocates of nonviolence or absolute anti-militarists but by much wider social forces.

all the best


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23 Feb 2009 - 23:55


Javier Garate has stated basic facts incorrectly about the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). First, the Center was established in 2002, not 2001. Second, our "main aim" is not "to bring democracy through nonviolent means all over the world." We are a private educational foundation whose only purpose is to transfer the knowledge of how to engage in civil resistance to educators and civic action-takers everywhere. What they do with this knowledge is entirely up to them. We do not only help educate activists interested in displacing authoritarian rule. If that is all we did, why would we have helped train Guatemalan peace activists, African youth organizations campaigning against social violence, and immigrant rights and antiwar activists in the United States? Third, we are not oblivious to the kind of society that comes after a political change. In the book I co-authored, "A Force More Powerful," we explain why the gestation and work of nonviolent movements help prepare civil society for holding newly democratic governments accountable for their actions, so that democracy can be sustained. Today I have a power-point presentation I make at universities, outlining the "emergent properties" or social traits of nonviolent resistance that help create durable, rights-based civil societies. Among the traits that nonviolent movements help foster among their participants are learning how to ascertain and represent the people's grievances, learning how to base political debate on reason rather than arbitrary force, and resilience among participants in democratic action so that they don't demobilize after a new government takes power but remain involved in the political process, in order that corruption or backsliding doesn't occur. We admire the work of WRI, and we invite Mr. Garate to get in touch with us and learn about the full range of what we are doing.
Jack DuVall, President, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict