Nonviolent action during military action


Taking part in activity against violence is particularly difficult when it is in the face of heavy, often arbitrary and unregulated, violence, as is the case during military action.

Instead of receiving the respect they deserve, nonviolent activists are frequently attacked by both sides. This is a very isolating and lonely experience, especially in emotive situations, where peace activists or conscientious objectors are denounced as traitors to their own people. The concept of citizenship as tied to military service is prevalent throughout the world, even in those countries that have long abolished compulsory service.

Is there any value in having a nonviolent presence in war regions, or is it a waste of time and energy and maybe even counterproductive ?

Should we rush in at the first sign of conflict, or is it more productive to wait for the conflict to blow over?

While it was generally accepted that nonviolent action during military action is subject to severe constraints and "success" (which remained undefined) was far from assured, the overriding consensus was that a nonviolent presence can be of great value. Such activities could include:

  • monitoring of all sides, objective reports
  • showing solidarity for victims of violence
  • non-armed peace-keeping
  • delivering humanitarian aid
  • making links to (nonviolent) protest movements elsewhere
  • challenge aggressors ability to shoot, or exert other forms of violence, by NVDA which places their fellow citizens directly and vulnerably in the line of their fire
  • teaching nonviolent, non-retributive responses to violence.

Nonviolent Activities During Military Action

The Congo

The Kivu provinces of the Congo, as many other African regions, have a long tradition of nonviolent resistance. In Kivu, the more recent manifestations of this have been first anti-colonial and then anti-Mobutu. In the past few years, nonviolent tactics have been used to resist oppression by rebels, in particular against the Rwandan and Ugandan occupation. As peace campaigners have been persecuted, beaten and even killed, internal radio and the churches have called for an end to the violence. Attempts by the occupying to silence this nonviolent opposition have included exiling the Archbishop of Bukavu to a small inaccessible village in the north of the province. Mass nonviolent tactics have included "dead cities"


Igor Seke reported on Women in Black's experiences in Former Yugoslavia. The 1980s had seen a lot of verbal violence in Yugoslavia, but there were still hopes that it would not become physical. Women in Black was founded in 1991 as a nonviolent response to the outbreak of war. In opposing the war, Women in Black were labelled ´traitors' to the ideal of the Serbian nation. People involved in the anti-war campaign were persecuted particularly heavily by Milosovic. The counterproductive effects of a violent response to military action were shown by the NATO war over Kosovo.

Besides the obvious negative results of military action, the NATO attacks strengthened Milosovic' position, legitimising further attacks on Albanians and fanning nationalist sentiment.

The most obvious nonviolent resistance to war is conscientious objection (CO). While Yugoslavia did recognise the right to alternative service, this right was not extended to soldiers. Those that refused to fight were attacked in the media and labelled traitors, while facing persecution by the state.

Many thousands deserted during the NATO bombing after fliers were dropped from planes. However, NATO cynically used them for tactical purposes, member states offering almost no support to COs who fled Yugoslavia. As it is, NATO countries regularly don't grant asylum to COs from countries where they face both prosecution and persecution, including Iraq.

Despite the repression, COs organised a conference in Serbia on conscientious objection, establishing a network for those who had gone AWOL, with links to Bosnian and Croatian groups. They have also set up a ´Safe House Project' in Budapest, for those COs who have managed to get out and don't want to live in Hungarian refugee camps. Some German cities have also been persuaded to invite Serbian COs to come and live there.

CO has a central role in the nonviolent movement within war-zones. This is especially so in countries where the regimes do not recognise the right to abstain from war and violence. Taking part in military action is still widely seen as a requisite for gaining citizenship rights; those refusing are thus not only "cowards" and "traitors" but also "non-citizens".

Chechnya -- Nonviolent Action Coming From Outside The Conflict Zone.

The presentation on Chechnya discussed problems and possibilities of nonviolent action coming from outside the conflict zone. Taking a nonviolent perspective should help us to support refugees. Most aid does not reach civilian refugees, as large portions are confiscated by soldiers as tolls. Aid meant to alleviate the suffering of the victims of war can inadvertently support the continuation of the conflict. It can also be difficult to differentiate between refugees and soldiers. Where guerrilla tactics are used, many are civilians by day, soldiers at night. Do we support these groups? How do we interact with them to alleviate suffering without supporting violent resistance?

The Chechen problem threw up some novel problems and proposals, including:

  • Should we use opportunities to approach high-level leaders? Or should we concentrate on the grassroots level, leaving this task to other organisations? There was a unique situation in Chechnya where grassroots activists have been able to communicate with both the Russian Duma and the Chechen leaders.
  • Should police and the ´blue helmets' be trained in nonviolent conflict resolution? There are both benefits and drawbacks.
  • Should the status of civilian observers, volunteers, etc be protected by inclusion in the Geneva Conventions.

Actions In Solidarity

Of course, relevant nonviolent actions during military action need not only take place in the war-zone: there can also be solidarity actions taking place thousands of miles away.

Solidarity campaigns are frequently taken for granted, but we rarely ask ourselves some vital questions:

  • Precisely who are we in solidarity with?
  • Does the campaign bring about change?
  • What effect does it have on those we are supposed to be helping? Some solidarity campaigns make matters worse, as the effects tend not to be evaluated, as long as we feel we are helping. E.g. Bosnia became a playground for the peace movement and solidarity actions.
  • What is a true solidarity action? Do some groups merely buy into the marketplace or use wars for their own agenda or as part of their own strategy? How do we get the anti-violence message across?
  • Does solidarity necessarily mean support? Groups such as the anti-sanctions campaign, the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and the Cuba Solidarity Campaign all show varying levels of support for the local regime. The perpetrators can range from a local regime to rebels to our own governments, to all of these.
  • How do we articulate our solidarity and get the message across?

This last is especially important when our message runs counter to the dominant theme presented in the mainstream media. For example due to the definition of the situation, the anti-sanctions campaign is frequently perceived and presented as supporting Saddam Hussein, while those who were anti-NATO bombing of Yugoslavia were seen as Milosovic supporters, rather than as campaigning in solidarity with the victims. Solidarity campaigns face the constant problem of the media sensationalising and over-simplifying what are very ambiguous situations, while ignoring the grinding hardship of the victims. It is very easy to believe that sanctions are needed to contain Hussein and that all Serbs are murderers and racists. It is far harder to accept that our countries' policies are not only not helping, but further maybe making the situation significantly worse.

Learning From Solidarity Work -- Bosnia.

Sian Jones reported on her experiences with solidarity actions, including bringing aid to a women's group in Bosnia. This had resulted in a fusion of feminist, anti-militarist & anti-war perspectives. They had attempted to respond to the needs and requests of women in the region. But these actions were far from successful or effective. It was necessary to examine whether the peace movement's involvement in humanitarian aid & nonviolent conflict resolution was merely due to a lack of imagination? Did it achieve anything against war and militarism? Or did such actions merely perpetuate the conflicts? Should the peace movement keep to what it is best at -- cutting fences and lying in front of tanks?!

Many Solidarity actions take place with little or no dialogue with those with who we are in solidarity. As a result, many campaigns have zero effect on the lives of the victims. Sian established the basis for a true solidarity action to be responding to needs in a collaborative manner.

Necessary components of an effective solidarity campaign are:

  • self-appraisal of both parties, including power differences
  • accountability on both sides
  • working towards long-term relationships
  • actions as appropriate, consultative and effective as possible
  • bringing the voice of the oppressed to centre stage
  • raising public awareness in other countries
  • good communication and connection with local activists We should also try to follow threads and make connections:solidarity with one group can also relate to our own situation (TNCs, nuclear industry etc)
  • examine the legitimacy of groups you stand in solidarity with -- do they really represent people
  • reflect on what is happening in your own backyard
  • be selective about accepting support (can be positive or negative)
  • using existing systems if possible/appropriate
  • countering isolation of victims
  • identify the positive and negative effects of the action and weigh up the balance

While the impact of campaigns is rarely immediate or tangible, one should try to aim for clear outcomes.

The most successful nonviolent actions during the Bosnia conflict were the result of many thousands of women standing up for their rights, ensuring that sexual violence was recognised as a serious matter and given priority for the first time. This was a result of a rare degree of empathy.

Probably the most powerful and effective solidarity action would be local direct action against militarism. Eg. A mass blockade of military bases, particularly RAF Fairwood, could have incapacitated the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia far more effectively than the many demonstrations and marches that went past Parliament and the Embassies.

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