Category Archives: Nonviolent Resistance

Resistance DoveTales, Friday Live Readings, and E. Ethelbert Miller Essay

“Resistance” Deadline Extended

Brad Wetzler, Guest Editor

On Monday, writers submitting their work to be considered for our “Resistance” edition of DoveTales  found that our Submittable account had been closed before the June 15th deadline. Apparently, we received so many submissions that we exceed a maximum that we weren’t aware of. The problem has been remedied, and the deadline has been extended to June 20th. We apologize for the inconvenience. Read our full guidelines here.

Friday Live Reading Series

Adviser Lyla June Johnston

Every other Friday, Writing for Peace hosts an hour long reading and discussion on Zoom. It’s casual and conversational, and we always learn something that inspires us in our own writing. Our next reading will be on June 26th with Lyla June Johnston. An adviser since 2013, Lyla June Johnston is an Indigenous musician, scholar, and community servant of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages. Her dynamic, multi-genre presentation style has engaged audiences across the globe towards personal, collective and ecological healing.

Check out our complete author lineup, watch videos of our previous readings, and support our fellow writers by purchasing their work. Go to our Friday Live Reading page here.

America Upside Down

Our country is in the midst of a paradigm shift

By Adviser E. Ethelbert Miller | June 15, 2020

Adviser E. Ethelbert Miller

Social historian Vincent Harding often felt it was best to describe black history as being much like a river, flowing toward freedom and the delta of democracy. The challenge we face today is how to navigate this river. Our inability to do this too often leads us to compare historical incidents and movements to one another. We see a protest or a riot and we immediately compare it to the 1960s. Why should one be surprised by police brutality in the black community? Hasn’t there always been one historical moment flowing into the next?

Read the entire article in The American Scholar here.

Young Writers Contest

The 2020 Young Writers Contest is closed. Announcements will be made in our blog on July 1st, 2020.

Copyright © 2020 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.

Poetry fuels the fire; powerful play… by Andrea W. Doray

President’s Corner:

Poetry fuels the fire; and the powerful play goes on…

by Andrea W. Doray

Andrea Doray

Not surprisingly, I am in love with the written word. I love the power of the pen on the page to move, amuse, anger, or delight. The power to take us places we’ve never been before. The power to take us back to times and places we have come from.

Fiction, nonfiction such as biographies and creative nonfiction, memoirs, and essays have always had their devoted followers. Poetry is now also finding its way further into the mainstream … and even into the commercial realm as well. In an ad last year for the Apple iPad Air, we heard Robin William’s voice in his portrayal of John Keating, the beloved English teacher in the U.S. film Dead Poets Society.

From the sound track, replicated in the iPad ad, Williams/Keating quotes the poet Walt Whitman … but it’s far more than a quote, more than just a reading of words on the page. When Williams recites from “O, Me! O, Life!”, it is a performance that is as much a celebration of Whitman’s poetry as of the life about which Whitman writes. And for those of us who need a reminder of the profound power of Walt Whitman’s words, Williams gives it to us with a tantalizing invitation: “…the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

Our just-released fifth edition of DoveTales: An International Journal of the Arts, published by Writing for Peace, features both new and established poets (as well as talented artists, photographers, essayists, and fiction writers), writing on the theme of “Refugees and the Displaced.” As Carmel Mawle, founder of Writing for Peace and editor-in-chief for the issue, says: “Their suffering is in the front of our collective consciousness.” Carmel reminds us that their situation has descended to new levels of hostility and danger:

What can we do to change this trend? We march. We show up at airports. We boycott. We call and write and demand accountability from our legislators. We write to shine a light … and we are making a difference. Don’t let the drumbeat of dystopia dampen your passion for justice.

As Carmel tells us, this book is fuel for the fire in our bellies.

* * *

Sam Hamill, revolutionary poet and scholar, co-founder of Poets again the War to protest the conflict in Iraq, is our featured advisor in “Refugees and the Displaced,” and we are fortunate to include three poems from his book, Habitation.

When celebrated poet Martín Espada was asked to comment on the release of Habitation, he said: “When future generations want to know the truth of these times, they will turn to the words of Sam Hamill.”

As is evident in his poetry and his activism, Sam Hamill is a man who intensely feels the suffering of others, much like the character of John Keating from Dead Poets Society, who said, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.”

John Keating wanted his students to experience poetry with a different perspective of authentic knowledge and feelings. In our “Refugees and the Displaced” issue of DoveTales, the winners of our Young Writers Contest share this authenticity and power in their poetry.

Poetry judge E. Ethelbert Miller says of Lisa Zou’s first-place entry, “She Serves in Ben Hai”: “This is a beautiful poem – haunting in its tenderness … about family, aging, and the shadows of displacement created by [the Vietnam] war.”

Zou writes:

“… Each summer, my grandmother knits guilt / into my waitress dress and hot privilege lacquers my tongue. / I swallow each gated community, each “made in Vietnam” sticker, / one bleached spoonful after the other.”

Second-place winner Lydia Chew’s speaker issues an apology to a young woman harassed in school because she is Muslim. Says Miller: “Chew’s work attempts to understand what is at the root of our fears.”

In “Dear M,” Chew writes:

I don’t know if you remember me, / but this is my apology. / … I remember that I never saw you, / I only saw your hijab.

As Miller commented, “There is hope (in this poem) that perhaps we all have the capacity to change – no matter how long it may take.”

* * *

To quote from Walt Whitman:

“That you are here – that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

In poets such as Sam Hamill, Lisa Zou, and Lydia Chew – and, indeed, in writers of all stripes – we find the compassionate, empathetic members of the human race John Keating describes in Dead Poets Society. We find knowledge, and authenticity, and power. We find fuel for the fire in our bellies.

And the powerful play goes on.


Andrea W. Doray is an award-winning journalist, author, poet, and essayist in Denver, CO, and is occasionally a columnist for The Denver Post through their Colorado Voices panel. Her weekly opinion column, Alchemy, which appears in Colorado Community Media newspapers, has received a first-place award from the Colorado Press Association.Learn more about Andrea and her work here.

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2017 DoveTales, “Refugees and the Displaced” Now Available

2017 Front CoverThe fifth edition of our annual literary journal, DoveTales, An International Journal of the Arts, is now available. Our “Refugees and the Displaced” themed DoveTales is a timely affront to a status quo comfortable with the suffering of others. With contributors from every continent on the planet except Antarctica (we’re working on that), this is a book that is meant to challenge assumptions and explore issues of peace, social justice, and our responsibility to our fellow man. Cover art is by Canadian artist, Allen Forrest. Purchase your copy here, or find all our books at the Denver Lighthouse Writers Litfest!


Copyright © 2017 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.

The Night of Shattered Myth, by Swatilekha Roy

Swatilekha Roy is a 2016 Young Writers Contest Notable Finalist who writes from Durgapur, West Bengal, India. Swatilekha’s story caught the attention of our judges with its courage and hope. As one of our judges commented, “Swatilekha reaches for empathy in the darkest places of humanity and imagines not only what could cause a man’s extreme loss of compassion, but also where he might possibly find it again.”

In her words:

For me, the most deadly weapon yet discovered by mankind is a pen. ‘A pen is mightier than the sword.’ In today’s world, we have everything except peace and as they say, everything comes with a price. The biggest price yet has to be paid by those who fight for peace, physically and verbally. Writing has the power to bring about revolution. It is that gentle tremor that can shake the world. It is writing and writing alone that can change the face of the world for the better and make it a more peaceful place to dwell in. I would like to congratulate Writing for Peace on their outstanding feat of spreading the aura of peace through mere words.
~Swatilekha Roy


The Night of Shattered Myth

By Swatilekha Roy


9th November, 1938

Just as our truck neared the corner of the Heidereuter Alley, the moon retired behind the clouds. Shards of glass littered the pavement. The night was filled with desperate shrieks, breaking glass, gunshots, and pleas for mercy.

Our orders: to ship these savage fools with yellow stars to extermination camps.

Our duty: to follow without question.

Our job: to kill.

The coal-black swastika on the rear of the truck showed a ghastly grin. Peace is a fool’s concept. War is the imperial truth. The synagogues heaved desperately, and thousands of Jews prayed for escape.

The orders were precise, “Execute as many children as you wish. They eat, yet can’t work.” Men and women would be sent to separate extermination-camps to be starved or tortured until death arrived as a welcome release.

As I was loading the emaciated Jewish children into the truck, I felt something tug at my shirt sleeve. Disgusted, I turned to find a bony child with hollow eyes. My duty was to kill, but something about him was familiar. And then it dawned on me. “Abbott?”

The child nodded. “I am Issao, Abbott’s son. They killed my father.” Tears welled in his eyes.

I suddenly remembered the pool we had loved as children, Abbott and I playing our reeds at the lake’s edge. Our different religions never came between us until Herr Hitler began his crazy rampage. When I was taught about the Jewish scourge, I hadn’t wanted to think about my friend. And now, looking into his son’s eyes, I was no longer a soldier. I was just a human being, an indebted friend.

I knew I was making a terrible mistake. I could almost hear the Führèr screaming, “Treason! Death!” But, the one speck of humanity that still blotted my soul rebelled. Acting on instinct, I checked to make sure the children were seated safely in back and bolted the latch. I turned the key and the truck’s engine rumbled to life. The swastika glared at me. Treachery? Death! As I sped off with the truckload of gaunt children, the moon abandoned its hideout and lit my way. Children were crying from hunger and fear and I was in disbelief. How could anyone justify the murder of innocent children?

Near the heavily guarded Berlin border, my heart began racing faster. There was no way I could pass through without getting shot. I prayed for a miracle.

As I neared the gates, the guard stopped me. “Your pass?”

“I, well…the orders were last moment. I’m shipping this scum out of Berlin. Here’s my badge.” He eyed me suspiciously. I flipped him a couple of Reichsmarks. “For bier!”

The guard saluted and, with a cry of “Heil Hitler,” opened the gates.

Driving away from Berlin, I racked my brain for connections I could use for the children’s safety, but most of the people or places I knew were far too risky. And then I remembered Paul, my childhood teacher and the kindest man I had ever known. He was my only hope. I made my way toward the familiar village from my youth.

As I reached the outskirts of town, I was comforted by the familiar sights. I drove through the village, past the solitary willow tree and my old church, and turned onto a dirt road marked by a rusty signboard advertising cheeses and fresh milk. I pulled to a stop in front of the farmhouse, got out, and knocked on the door, but when I asked for Paul, the woman shook her head.

“Please, Paul was my friend and teacher when I was a boy.”

She hesitated, wiping her sturdy hands on her apron. “Follow me,” she said, and stepped outside to lead me around the house toward the barn where a man with gray hair and rimmed glasses sat on a bench, reading. He looked up at my uniform in alarm.

“Paul,” I whispered. “Is that really you?”

“Have we met?”

“It’s Alfred. I’ve come for a refresher on formulas,” I said.

Paul flashed me a cautious smile and said, “Come sit, my friend. I had one particular formula that has stayed with me all these years.”

I sat beside him, laughing in relief as he gave my head the same sturdy knuckling I remembered from my childhood. He introduced me to his wife and began filling me in on the goings on at the farm, the cows, and children. It was if we had never been apart. But could I trust him with the children’s lives? With my life? Was it fair to ask him to risk his own life? His family and farm?

Before I could ask these questions, his wife was coming back around the house with two of the children. “There’s more, Paul.” She held their little hands tenderly, but her face reflected the horror of our situation.

Paul looked surprised as I broke into tears. “I, we, need your help. I’m sorry to ask, but they’re just children. Innocent children.”

Paul’s kindness and moral integrity was unchanged. He immediately agreed to help the children with this risky endeavor. Two of his farmhands emerged from the barn to help unload the children and get them into the house.  Some were barely alive. As the children were carried inside, I again felt a tug. “Did you know my father?” asked the boy.

I lifted the bony, weightless thing into my arms and kissed his dirty forehead. “Don’t worry. They’ll take good care of you.” I couldn’t answer his question, admit what a selfish, bloodthirsty cut-throat his father had once befriended.

“It’s time you leave,” Paul said. “Your truck will attract attention.”

I nodded, as Paul’s wife took Issao’s hand.

“May God bless you! We’ll take care of them,” my friend promised.

As I hoisted myself into the truck, the sky was illuminated with a brilliant orange hue. Even if I died today, I had no regrets. For once, I had been my own Führèr.


Meet Swatilekha Roy, 2016 Notable Finalist

Swatelikha Roy, finalistSwatilekha Roy is a seventeen years old amateur writer. The day to day fancies of nature leave her flabbergasted. Swatilekha’s favourite pastimes include sitting alone and listening to hardcore music, painting, reading novels and, of course, writing and editing. She loves critical study in literature. She is a diehard fan of fantasy and science fiction. Moreover, traveling intrigues her. Swatilekha writes to ventilate her feelings and to give in to the indomitable spirit of her fountain-pen. Writing gives her great joy. It’s her dream to become a writer and train amateurs like herself. This is the second time Swatilekha has participated in the Writing for Peace contest and the fact that she is a finalist delighted her. Earlier, she had also been selected as one of the best entrants in national level Campfire Young Writer of the Year Contest. Swatilekha would like to use this platform to extend her heartfelt gratitude towards everyone who stood by her: parents, family (especially, her uncle who is unfortunately no more) and friends.


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2017 Young Writers Contest

2013 Writing for Peace Young Writers ContestOur annual young writers contest will begin as scheduled on on September 1st, 2016. Watch for details and announcements on this blog soon.

The Peace Correspondent: Call for Submissions

Information is beginning to go up on the website about our new online periodical, The Peace Correspondent, a tri-annual solution-based publication. The first issue will be published on October 31st. Submission deadlines are September 15th. Guidelines are posted here.

DoveTales, An International Journal of the Arts: Call for Submissions

DoveTales, a publication of Writing for PeaceGuidelines are posted for the 2017 Edition. DoveTales is an extension of our mission to promote writing that explores the many aspects of peace.  Our purpose is to expose young writers to a diverse collection of thoughtful works by established and emerging writers, as well as our advisers. The journal will also feature works by the winners of our annual Young Writer Competition. The journal will be released on May 1st, 2017. There is no fee for submission, but please read our guidelines carefully.

Theme: The theme of our 2017 issue of DoveTales is Refugees and the Displaced. As in our earlier issues, we encourage contributors to take a broad view of the definitions within the context of peace.

  • The reading period begins July 1st, 2016 and ends January 15th, 2017, and the journal will be released on May 1st, 2016.

Support Writing for Peace

You can help make the Writing for Peace Mission a reality by supporting our youth outreach, international journal, and peace journalism in the following ways.

  • Help spread the word about Writing for Peace. One way to do that is to frequent our Facebook page, share and like our posts.
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Thank you for your on-going support!


Copyright © 2016 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.


Tree, by Azfar Ali Rizvi


By Azfar Ali Rizvi

Among other things that almost all children universally share, is a tree. It could be the one in the backyard of our oldest house. The tree you played around. It could be the one you carved your name in, or the one you buried your pet cat under. Sometimes it’s simply the one you held close, while curiously looking at the funeral of your best friend’s brother. Or worse your own brother’s. Trees are our saviors, whether we acknowledge or not. They allow us to celebrate our gains and mourn our losses. They let us be.

This fleeting thought was triggered by news last year that the 007 Skyfall director Sam Mendes will bring to life the much loved British Author Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series. Blyton has left behind an unmatchable legacy– her books not only sold over 500 million copies across the world, but were also translated into 40 languages. Pippa Harris, co-founder of Neal Street Productions, the company responsible for this ambitious task, expressed her excitement over the development, saying, “The Magic Faraway Tree is one of the most loved children’s books series from an iconic author whose work has been adored by generations. To be able to adapt these for the big screen is incredibly exciting.”

So I picked it up again last week, and saw the merit in C.S. Lewis’ words: “ … a story worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.” I can read it again and again, and find something new every time. Storytelling at it’s best, the series sparks imagination about peace, diversity and family values. It reminds of us the potential of love and coexistence in a small world. This is a story that opens a portal to another world in every week, and gently nudges the readers to accept contrasting nuances and cultures. As adults, we tend to forget this as we take the world head on, and life gets in the way of our understanding of stories.

A good story amuses us; a great story allows us to fantasize and bend this world and the situations we find ourselves in, to allow us to clearly focus on the moral aspects of what’s happening. Hence, I consider it a privilege to be a small part of WFP. Every year, we are treated to some of the most challenging, unique and diverse perspectives from around the world. WFP is simply championing the cause of barebones storytelling for peace. My allegiance is not just because I crave a peaceful future, but also because writing liberated me from the clutches of my past, and allowed me to soar to a better future. A future where I could be with my tree and carry it on my sleeve.


Azfar Ali Rizvi, Writing for Peace Adviser2Azfar Rizvi is a proponent of social justice, and a driving force behind interfaith, cross-cultural and pedagogic initiatives across three continents. He is a Toronto based documentary filmmaker, Photographer, an academic and a cross-platform communications strategist.

Originally from Karachi, Azfar experienced extremism in his early years after surviving violent ethnic cleansing first hand. The incidents shook him to the core and he started exploring reasons behind extremism through this writing; something that evolved from local dailies to covering systemic national issues for news and current affairs publications across Pakistan. Before transitioning into television news and documentaries, he took to presenting radio with the country’s first English radio network at the time.

Learn more about Azfar Rizvi here.


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Writing for Peace News

Activism Update From Adviser Dr. Margaret Flowers:

Dr. Margaret Flowers, Writing for Peace Adviser“Black Americans, Indigenous peoples and immigrants who are standing up to highlight the injustices they suffer on a daily basis are creating a long overdue teachable moment for whites in the United States.  Whites who believe in equality, an end to prejudice and equal justice for all are standing with them; together we can make transformational change on racism and prejudice.”

Follow the latest Popular Resistance developments here.


DoveTales “Nature” Edition Update

DoveTales "Nature" CoverPurchase your copy of DoveTales “Nature” and support Writing for Peace! To all those who have ordered books for yourself, family, and friends, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Book sales help to cover the substantial costs of funding our mission.

DoveTales are available through our website here.


 Copyright © 2015 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.

Conscientious Objector’s View From The Ground In Israel, by Natan Blanc

A Conscientious Objector’s View From The Ground In Israel

by Natan Blanc

Natan Blanc, Writing for Peace Young AdviserWhen I started writing this post, the Israeli government and the “Hamas” organization were on the verge of agreeing on a cease-fire, and ending the current cycle of violence. By now, the cease fire talks are ancient history. Hamas has rejected the cease-fire, and continued shooting missiles towards Israel,  Israel has retaliated, and we have very little hope for some peace and quiet in the near future.

This cycle of violence has been going on since I was a kid. Luckily for me, I live in the northern part of Israel, far away from the Gaza missiles. But ever since I was a kid, I keep hearing about Hamas’s attacks, Israel’s counter attacks, Hamas’s counter-counter attacks etc. I think I have heard more pompous prime-ministerial speeches about “stamping out the terror” in Gaza then I have heard speeches about the Israeli economy.

The most amazing thing about the endless war in Gaza is that almost nobody, on either side, seems to have any actual goals to achieve through it, except making the other side stop. A few people on the Israeli side talk about conquering Gaza, and a few people on the Palestinian side talk about conquering Israel, but nobody really takes them seriously.

The other amazing thing about this fight is that there is actually nothing to fight about. Unlike other conflicts that Israel has in other places (e.g. the west bank, the Syrian front), this specific conflict doesn’t include any territorial dispute, or any complicated issues. The hypothetical peace treaty in this issue could be written on a napkin. It will contain two sentences- “Israel agrees not to attack in Gaza, and remove the blockade on it. Hamas agrees not to engage in terror attacks towards the citizens of Israel.

Why, then, if everyone is so interested in peace and quiet, and if it is so easy to achieve, does this war continue? The answer to this question is complicated, but it comes down to two issues:

  1. The power of inertia- once the boulder of violence has started rolling, even after nothing is pushing it forward anymore, it will continue rolling, taking innocent lives with it. It will not stop until it has ruined enough lives, enough homes, enough families.
  2. The power of the extreme- the most frustrating thing about this conflict is to see how a handful of extremists can drag millions of people into a never-ending cycle of war, death and violence. One terrorist who fires a missile during a cease-fire, one Israeli soldier who beats up a Palestinian kid, a few 9-year old racists who write “death to the Arabs” on Facebook. These extremists can light a fire that is extremely hard to extinguish, despite the fact that 99% of the citizens on both sides oppose them.

So despite the stupidity and absurdity of this war, the continuation of this cycle, and the next war in a year or two, seems inevitable. If we don’t want to lose hope, we must try and remind ourselves all the time that this stupidity can’t last forever. That eventually, sooner or later, this conflict will end.

About Natan Blanc, Writing for Peace Young Adviser

Natan Blanc was born in Jerusalem, and moved to Haifa (a major city in Israel) when he was a kid. Haifa is a “mixed” city, with both Arabs and Jews, so he learned about co-existence and peace between people of different religions at an early age. During his teenage years, Natan took part in quite a few different peace activities and organizations. He was also part of a social-democrat youth movement called “hamahanot haolim.”

When Natan was 19, he was drafted (like any Israeli after high-school) to join the IDF (the Israeli army) as a combat soldier. He refused, saying he wouldn’t be part of such an army. Natan told the IDF representatives that serving in this army was against his conscience, because of its actions against the Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.

Natan Blanc, Writing for Peace Young AdviserNatan was jailed repeatedly for his refusal. In total, he was sentenced 10 times, to a total of 178 days in jail. “Eventually,” said Natan, “the army tired of me.” He began an alternative civil service the September after his incarceration.

Natan’s struggle was first of all a struggle for the freedom of conscience, but it was also a struggle for peace between the Jews and the Arabs in Israel. “I hope that my actions, then and in the future, might help end this conflict that has been going on for more than 70 years.”

Natan currently serves in the MDA (the national rescue organization) as a medic (E.M.T.I) in an ambulance. He is also  involved in assisting and guiding potential conscientious military service objectors, as well as the forming and running of “Shelanoo” – a non-profit cooperative for socio-economical change.

To learn more about the pursuit of peace in the Middle East and what you can do, see Natan’s recommendations here.

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  • 2014 DoveTales “Contrast” Edition On Track for Release

DoveTales, a publication of Writing for Peace McNaughton & Gunn has completed the printing and we’ve received notice that the books have shipped. Contributors will be notified directly by email regarding their personal copies. Contributor pages will appear on the site later today. Official release date is July 30th, one week from today!

  • Website Changes

You may have noticed the blog posts scrolling in the right sidebar. We’ve updated the blog titles to include the author’s name so you can easily find posts from all our amazing advisers and guest writers.  This is the first of many exciting changes that will make Writing for Peace content more accessible. Watch for our 2014 DoveTales “Contrast” pages and a new header reflecting the beautiful black and white photography by our Artist-in-Residence, Paula Dawn Lietz.

  • Facebook

Our Facebook page has taken on a new life! You’ll find inspiration there, about the craft of writing, peace, and the intersection of the two. Check it out, like and share. Help spread the word about Writing for Peace!

Copyright © 2014 Writing for Peace. All rights reserved.



Drop Your Weapons, by Chenoweth and Stephens

Drop Your Weapons; When and Why Civil Resistance Works

By Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephensswords-into-plowshares-frank-tozier

Over the past three years, the world has witnessed a surge of nonviolent resistance movements. Pictures of huge demonstrations in public squares have become a staple of international news broadcasts, and Time named “the protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. These days, it seems that at any given moment, thousands of people are mobilizing for change somewhere in the world.

But these movements have varied widely in terms of their duration, their success, their ability to remain nonviolent, and their cost in terms of human life. Building on years of intermittent protests and strikes, Tunisians toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator who had ruled their country for 23 years, after a sustained period of 28 days of protests beginning in December 2010. Between 300 and 320 Tunisians civilians died in the upheaval, all of them killed by police or security forces. Weeks later, Egyptians ended Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade reign after a decade of lower-level opposition and civil resistance culminated in 18 days of nonviolent mass demonstrations — but Mubarak’s security forces killed around 900 people in the process. In Libya, scattered protests against Muammar al-Qaddafi that began in February 2011 quickly became an armed rebellion. NATO soon intervened militarily, and within nine months, Qaddafi was dead and his regime demolished, but between 10,000 and 30,000 Libyans, according to various estimates, had lost their lives. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad brutally cracked down on mostly nonviolent demonstrations against his rule between March and August 2011, killing thousands and setting in motion a civil war that has since resulted in over 150,000 deaths and the displacement of around nine million people. Most recently, in February, Ukrainians ousted President Viktor Yanukovych after three months of mass civil resistance and occasionally violent protests. Around 100 Ukrainian protesters died during the clashes between demonstrators and riot police — fewer than in most of the confrontations of the Arab Spring in 2011. But Russia’s response to Yanukovych’s overthrow — seizing the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and attempting to destabilize the eastern parts of Ukraine — has created the most dangerous and unpredictable security situation Europe has seen in decades.

The basic trajectory of these recent movements — each successive one seemingly more violent and more geopolitically charged — has encouraged skepticism about the prospects for civil resistance in the twenty-first century. Such doubts are understandable but misplaced. A longer view is required to see the real potential of nonviolent resistance, which is evident in a historical data set that we assembled of 323 campaigns that spanned the twentieth century — from Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian independence movement against British colonialism, which began in earnest in 1919, to the protests that removed Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power in 2006. This global data set covers all known nonviolent and violent campaigns (each featuring at least 1,000 observed participants) for self-determination, the removal of an incumbent leader, or the expulsion of a foreign military occupation from 1900 to 2006. The data set was assembled using thousands of source materials on protest and civil disobedience, expert reports and surveys, and existing records on violent insurgencies.

Between 1900 and 2006, campaigns of nonviolent resistance against authoritarian regimes were twice as likely to succeed as violent movements. Nonviolent resistance also increased the chances that the overthrow of a dictatorship would lead to peace and democratic rule. This was true even in highly authoritarian and repressive countries, where one might expect nonviolent resistance to fail. Contrary to conventional wisdom, no social, economic, or political structures have systematically prevented nonviolent campaigns from emerging or succeeding. From strikes and protests to sit-ins and boycotts, civil resistance remains the best strategy for social and political change in the face of oppression. Movements that opt for violence often unleash terrible destruction and bloodshed, in both the short and the long term, usually without realizing the goals they set out to achieve. Even though tumult and fear persist today from Cairo to Kiev, there are still many reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the promise of civil resistance in the years to come.

Nonviolent campaigns against authoritarian regimes are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.

In the United States and Europe, policymakers often seem at a loss when confronted with the questions of whether to support civilians resisting authoritarian regimes using nonviolent protest and, if so, what form that support should take. Liberal interventionists cited a “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify NATO’s intervention in Libya and have also invoked that argument in advocating for similar action in Syria. But the promise of civil resistance suggests an alternative: a “responsibility to assist” nonviolent activists and civic groups well before confrontations between civilians and authoritarian regimes devolve into violent conflicts.


Civil resistance does not succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime. No single civil resistance campaign is the same, but the ones that work all have three things in common: they enjoy mass participation, they produce regime defections, and they employ flexible tactics. Historically, the larger and more diverse the campaign, the more likely it was to succeed. Large campaigns have a greater chance of seriously disrupting the status quo, raising the costs of government repression, and provoking defections among a regime’s pillars of support. When large numbers of people engage in acts of civil disobedience and disruption, shifting between concentrated methods such as protests and dispersed methods such as consumer boycotts and strikes, even the most brutal opponent has difficulty cracking down and sustaining the repression indefinitely. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s last shah, had little difficulty neutralizing the Islamist and Marxist-inspired guerilla groups that challenged his rule in the 1960s and early 1970s. But when large numbers of oil workers, bazaar merchants, and students engaged in acts of collective nonviolent resistance, including work stoppages, boycotts, and protests, the regime’s repressive apparatus became overstretched and the economy tanked. From there, it didn’t take long for the shah to flee the country.

Broad-based support for a resistance movement can also weaken the loyalty of economic elites, religious authorities, and members of the state media who support the regime. When such figures defect to the opposition, they can sometimes force the regime to surrender to the opposition’s demands, which is what happened with the Philippines’ People Power movement of 1983–86. Broad movements also enjoy a tactical advantage: diverse, nonviolent campaigns that include women, professionals, religious figures, and civil servants — as opposed to violent ones comprised of mostly young, able-bodied men trained to become militants — reduce the risk of violent crackdowns, since security forces are often reluctant to use violence against crowds that might include their neighbors or relatives. And even when governments have chosen to violently repress resistance movements, in all the cases under review, nonviolent campaigns still succeeded in achieving their goals almost half the time, whereas only 20 percent of violent movements achieved their goals, because the vast majority were unable to produce the mass support or defections necessary to win. In cases in which the security forces remain loyal to the regime, defections among economic elites can play a critical role. In South Africa, boycotts against white businesses and international divestments from South African businesses were decisive in ending the apartheid regime.

But civil resistance requires more than just mass participation and defections; it also requires planning and coordinated tactics. Successful nonviolent campaigns are rarely spontaneous, and the seemingly rapid collapse of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes shouldn’t fool observers: both revolutions were rooted in labor and opposition movements going back nearly a decade. Indeed, between 1900 and 2006, the average nonviolent campaign lasted close to three years. As Robert Helvey, a retired U.S. Army colonel who organized civil resistance workshops in Myanmar (also called Burma), the Palestinian territories, and Serbia in the 1990s and the early years of this century, told activists during his workshops: if they wanted their campaign to succeed in one year, they should plan as if the struggle would last for two.

During the 1980s in the United States, Helvey worked closely with the scholar Gene Sharp, who has identified 198 different tactics that nonviolent resistance movements employ. These include various methods of protest, persuasion, noncooperation, and what Sharp calls “nonviolent intervention” — all of which have worked in various contexts. Tech-savvy scholars, such as Patrick Meier and Mary Joyce, have updated Sharp’s list to include tactics linked to new technologies, such as using social media to report repressive actions in real time and even using small drones to monitor police movements.

Even campaigns that possess the holy trinity of features — mass participation, regime defections, and flexible tactics — don’t always succeed. Much depends on whether state authorities can outmaneuver the protesters and sow division in their ranks, perhaps even provoking nonviolent resisters to abandon their protests and strikes, lose their discipline and unity, and take up arms in response to repression. But even when nonviolent campaigns fail, all is not lost: from 1900 to 2006, countries that experienced failed nonviolent movements were still about four times as likely to ultimately transition to democracy as countries where resistance movements resorted to violence at the outset. Nonviolent civic mobilization relies on flexibility and coalition building — the very things that are needed for democratization.

Of course, nonviolent revolutionaries are not necessarily equipped to govern during a political transition. In Egypt, for example, the young secular activists who filled Tahrir Square in January and February of 2011 have failed to organize effective political parties or interest groups. Nonviolent mass uprisings cannot always resolve systemic governance problems, such as co-opted institutions, entrenched corruption, and a lack of power sharing between a regime’s military or security forces and the civilian bureaucracy.

But revolutionary campaigns can still maximize their chances of achieving more representative government — of bringing the successes of the street into the halls of power — if they develop so-called parallel institutions during the course of their struggles. Poland offers one of the best examples. In 1980, after some 16,000 workers launched a strike at the Gdansk shipyard, Polish labor groups, which had already been fomenting resistance to the Soviet-backed communist regime in Poland for a decade, formed Solidarity, a trade union that morphed into a civil resistance movement and gradually eroded the communist authority’s grip on the country. Solidarity published underground dissident newspapers, organized demonstrations and radical theater performances in churches, and resisted years of repression, including the imposition of martial law in 1981. Eventually, ten million Poles joined the group, which operated as a kind of shadow government, facilitating its ability to step into a leadership role as communism crumbled. In 1988, Solidarity organized a series of strikes that led to direct negotiations with the regime, which resulted in semi-free elections in 1989. When Poland emerged from communist rule a year later, it did so with a new set of electoral rules and practices, many of them shepherded by Solidarity through a series of negotiations, which allowed for a much more durable and confident turn toward democracy. Although problems remained, Polish civil society was fully capable of holding its new leaders to account — including Solidarity’s Lech Walesa, who was elected president in 1990.


Rather than illustrate the limits of nonviolent resistance, Syria shows how devastating the choice of violence can be.

At first glance, recent events such as the struggle to consolidate democratic gains in Tunisia, the counterrevolution in Egypt, the chaotic state of affairs in post-Qaddafi Libya, the seemingly intractable civil war in Syria, and the instability of Ukraine in the wake of the revolution in Kiev appear to provide little evidence for the promise of nonviolent resistance. But a closer look at these five cases actually reinforces why people power is still the most effective method of political change, even in highly repressive countries.

Despite setbacks last year, including the assassinations of two prominent liberal politicians by Islamist militants, Tunisia still looks like the bright spot among all the countries shaken up by the Arab Spring. Indeed, Tunisia’s revolution most closely resembles earlier examples where civil resistance succeeded, such as the Philippines and Poland. The country stands a good chance of completing a full transition to democracy within the next five years. This positive trajectory is in large part a product of how Tunisians organized against Ben Ali. Massive numbers of Tunisians participated in a sustained series of public protests, and the demonstrations included a diverse set of citizens: women helped lead them, and members of labor unions marched alongside lawyers, professors, and students. When it came to tactics, the protesters mostly improvised, but they also relied on a wide range of techniques, alternating between demonstrations and crippling national strikes organized by labor unions. The regime’s repressive countermeasures, such as lethal security crackdowns, backfired, drawing more people into the streets and encouraging defections from the military and among regime loyalists. After the Islamist party Ennahda swept the first post–Ben Ali elections, in 2011, power struggles between the Islamists and their secular rivals, amid flare-ups of protests and political violence, eventually yielded to compromise and a power-sharing deal late last year. The country’s trade unions, notably, played a key role in brokering that deal.

Egypt’s telegenic uprising, like Tunisia’s, illustrated the potential of nonviolent resistance. Protesters employed a wide range of tactics, from occupying major public squares to organizing large labor strikes. Activists found allies in the Egyptian army, which refused to open fire on the crowds and abandoned Mubarak, leading to a victory for civil resistance in 2011. But it soon became clear that the popular refrain “The army and the people are one hand” was a hollow slogan: the Egyptian military (unlike its Tunisian counterpart) intended to hold on to power at all costs. Last year, after the army toppled the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the military-backed government turned on the same activists who had organized the first protests against Mubarak in Tahrir Square, throwing many of them in jail. With the military’s power firmly intact — and its former chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, expected to win a presidential election in late May — Egypt provides ample proof that a successful nonviolent campaign that manages to oust an authoritarian ruler cannot necessarily guarantee greater freedom and stability in the period that follows.

Nevertheless, had the Tahrir Square protests turned violent, the situation in Egypt might well have been far worse than it is today. Armed uprisings tend to reinforce the power of the military even more quickly, discouraging defections. Moreover, they tend to initiate mass atrocities against civilians on a scale much larger than nonviolent action does. Armed revolts rarely succeed, and when they do, they almost never bring about greater stability.

When thousands of Ukrainians mobilized in late 2013, calling for Yanukovych to resign, it appeared to be a vindication for the promise of popular nonviolent resistance. Although most of the international media focused on Kiev as the hub of the protests, people actually rose up in many cities and towns across the country. As in Tunisia and Egypt, the resistance made use of a variety of tactics. People boycotted consumer goods from businesses linked to Yanukovych; in Kiev, a mass car pool ensured that protesters could move in and out of the city’s main square. The demonstrators also exhibited a high degree of commitment to the cause: in one instance, civilians lay down across railroad tracks outside the city of Dnipropetrovsk to prevent a train carrying 500 elite riot police from entering Kiev. The movement was diverse, including men and women from different political groupings, classes, and ages. Its inclusiveness encouraged regime officials and security forces to switch sides in cities and throughout the countryside.

Of course, soon after Yanukovych fled Ukraine, in late February, the victory of civil resistance was undermined by geopolitics, as Russia reacted to the pro-European momentum in Kiev by seizing Crimea and fomenting instability in eastern Ukraine. But none of that changes the fact that it was mostly nonviolent popular protests, and not armed revolution, that brought down Yanukovych.


Libya does not fit neatly into this group of countries in which nonviolent resistance led to political change; after all, Qaddafi was toppled by an armed movement with NATO support. But Libya is revealing because it demonstrates the pitfalls of ignoring the strategic possibilities of civil resistance. Libya never saw a coordinated civil resistance campaign; instead, the revolutionaries and regime defectors turned from disorganized mass protests, such as those that rocked Benghazi in February 2011, to violence in the uprising’s first days, killing security forces, torching police stations and security offices across the country, and mobilizing an armed rebellion. Despite their early tactical victories, moreover, the rebel forces were badly outnumbered by Qaddafi loyalists and might have suffered a catastrophic loss without NATO’s help, making them wholly reliant on the international community for their victory. The death toll from the Libyan civil war, furthermore, was far higher than those in Tunisia, Egypt, and other cases in which activists relied on nonviolent means alone. After all, it was the armed revolt that provoked Qaddafi’s famed speech in late February 2011, in which he promised to go “door to door” and “capture the rats” who had betrayed him. And Libya today looks ominously like past cases in which armed rebel groups have toppled authoritarian regimes: dozens of militias roam free, and the feeble central government teeters on the brink of collapse. Relatively free elections in 2011 have not ushered in effective governing institutions. In the end, violent resistance succeeded against Qaddafi — but it came at a high price. Although it is impossible to know whether nonviolent action could have succeeded, the spontaneous protests of February 2011 that provoked mass defections from Qaddafi’s security forces after just two days indicate that it may not have been fruitless to try.

Although more organized than Libya’s, Syria’s initially nonviolent resistance struggled owing to a lack of sufficient participation and a coherent plan. Activists failed to coordinate protests across the country in a way that could have mitigated government repression and inspired more defections among both the security forces and economic elites. Most of the opposition’s early tactics against the Assad regime were isolated and improvised: sporadic protests after Friday prayers at a mosque or flash mobs in popular markets. Decades of living under a brutal police state, where neighbors spied on neighbors at the behest of one of the many security branches, discouraged trust among the protesters and undermined collective action. Yet during the nonviolent phase of the uprising, some members of the Syrian security forces still defected to the opposition, and the movement featured moderate levels of domestic support.

But taking up arms against the Assad regime’s inevitable brutality destroyed any chance of maintaining the open support for the Syrian opposition on the part of significant numbers of Alawites, Christians, and Druze — minorities who were represented among the nonviolent movement and were crucial to any inclusive, successful civil resistance. The subsequent civil war has alienated many former participants in and supporters of the revolution, and in many ways, it has fortified the regime. And the costs have been enormous. From March to September 2011, when the uprising was mostly nonviolent, the Assad regime killed an estimated 1,000 people a month and reportedly arrested thousands more. But the ensuing civil war has claimed around 5,000 lives a month, and one-third of the Syrian population are now refugees.

If the Syrian case follows historical precedent, the rebels’ future looks gloomy. Even with support from outside states, violent campaigns from 1900 to 2006 had less than a 30 percent chance of succeeding. The successes include dubious cases, such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975 and the mujahideen of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The failures include the Shiite uprising against Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the early 1990s, after the Gulf War. And as bad as the situation in Syria is, it could get worse. Since 1900, the average civil war has lasted over nine years. Even if the rebels win in the end, their victory will likely not satisfy the opposition’s original hope for more freedom. Less than four percent of rebel victories in armed resistance struggles from 1900 to 2006 ushered in democracy within five years; nearly half relapsed into civil war within ten years.

The odds were probably against any opposition campaign in Syria, nonviolent or violent, given the brutality of the regime. But as counterintuitive as it might seem, civil resistance was working in Syria and would have had a greater chance of success than armed struggle. Indeed, rather than illustrate the limits of nonviolent resistance, Syria’s path shows how devastating the choice of violence can be. It has played to Assad’s strengths while making the opposition wholly reliant on external armed intervention. Although entirely understandable given the scale of repression, engaging Assad on his own violent terms has had tragic — yet predictable — consequences.


Comparing these cases brings out a few key points. First, nonviolent campaigns attracted far more diverse participation than armed ones, which increased the chances of defections among security forces and other regime elites. There is, in fact, safety in numbers, especially when protesters represent a cross section of society. Second, the nonviolent campaigns that succeeded used a variety of tactics. In Syria, on the other hand, nonviolent activists tended to rely solely on demonstrations and occupations, which are among the riskiest methods of civil resistance. Attempted strikes, boycotts, and other forms of mass noncooperation were weak, localized, and lacked support.

Third, although the protests of the Arab Spring inspired one another and were united by a similar, iconic slogan that was first chanted in Tunisia — “The people want the fall of the regime!” — they were hardly all the same. In fact, the different outcomes in each country underscore why nonviolent groups must resist the temptation to replicate a mass demonstration in another country without a broader strategy of their own, especially when that mass demonstration represents the endgame of a much longer nonviolent campaign. Fourth, in addition to killing more unarmed civilians and undermining participation, armed resistance makes rebel groups dangerously dependent on outside support. In both Libya and Syria, that total reliance made the rebels more vulnerable to accusations that they were agents of foreign enemies. Moreover, international support for armed groups is usually conditional and fickle, subjecting rebel groups to the whims of their sponsors (as Washington’s reluctance to follow through on its pledges of significant help for the Syrian rebels shows).

During last year’s UN General Assembly meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to a roundtable about the essential role that civil society has played in nearly every major social and political transformation of the last half century, from the civil rights movement in the United States, to the fight against communism in Eastern Europe, to the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa. The right of peaceful assembly and association, Obama said, is “not a Western value; this is a universal right.” But the space for this right is shrinking in many parts of the world. Countries are passing laws to stifle civil society, restrict nongovernmental organizations’ access to foreign funding, crack down on communications technology, and, in more extreme cases, arrest and harass journalists and activists. Obama called on governments to embrace civil society groups as partners and, in a slightly edgier appeal, pressed governments and nongovernmental organizations to come up with more innovative and effective ways to support groups and activists fighting against injustice and oppression.

But that raises the question of which forms of external assistance to nonviolent civic groups work and which ones don’t. The idea of “do no harm” remains an anchoring principle for how outside governments and institutions should promote democracy and aid civil society groups in other countries. International support to such movements can take many forms, such as monitoring trials of political prisoners, engaging in solidarity movements to support the right of peaceful assembly, providing alternative channels of news and information, targeting warnings to security officials who might be tempted to use lethal force against nonviolent protesters, and supporting general capacity building for civic groups and independent media. But local actors are in the best position to determine which type of support is appropriate and if it is worth the associated risks.

Strengthening civil society is not only a precondition for sustained democratic development. It can also protect civilians from the worst excesses of violent repression. Although regimes may not refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters, history suggests that helping civic groups maintain nonviolent discipline — a practice that often requires coordination, preparation, and training — can ultimately minimize civilian casualties. In addition to staving off armed rebellion, sticking to civil resistance can insulate protesters from the most extreme forms of state violence by raising the costs of repression (although as Tunisia and Egypt proved, hundreds of protesters could still pay with their lives). Nonviolent movements are not as reliant on outside support as armed ones are, but the international community can help ensure that civil society groups maintain the space they need to exercise their basic rights of free speech and assembly while avoiding the temptation to turn to arms to pursue their goals.

Policymakers should prioritize a “responsibility to assist” nonviolent activists and civic groups, rather than only seeking to protect civilians through military force, as in NATO’s Libya intervention. Of course, civil resistance campaigns are and must remain homegrown movements. But in recent years, the international community has done much to undermine civil resistance by quickly and enthusiastically supporting armed actors when they arrive on the scene. Syria’s tragedy is a case in point. Although regime repression, supported by Iran and Russia, undoubtedly helped turn a principally nonviolent uprising into a civil war, external actors could have done more to aid civil resistance and prolong the original nonviolent uprising. They could have helped encourage, coordinate, and exploit for political gain regime defections (including from key Alawite elites); demanded that Assad allow foreign journalists to remain in the country; accelerated direct financial support to grass-roots nonviolent networks and local councils; and provided more information to Syrian activists about what it takes to remain nonviolent under highly repressive conditions. Instead, the international community provided political recognition and sanctuary to armed actors, supplied both nonlethal and lethal aid to them, and helped militarize the conflict, undermining the momentum of the nonviolent movement. There was no silver bullet for effectively aiding the nonviolent Syrian opposition. But speed and coordination on the part of external actors, particularly early on in the revolution, were lacking.

Syria highlights the moral and strategic imperative of developing more flexible, nimble ways to support nonviolent resistance movements. The local champions of people power will continue to chart their own future. But outside actors have an important role to play in assuring that civil resistance has a fighting chance.

Printed first in the July, August 2014 Issue of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations, and reprinted by permission of Writing for Peace Adviser Erica Chenoweth.

Erica Chenoweth smallErica Chenoweth, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and an Associate Senior Researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO). An internationally recognized authority on political violence and its alternatives, Foreign Policy magazine ranked her among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013 for her efforts to promote the empirical study of civil resistance. Chenoweth received the 2014 Karl Deutsch Award, which the International Studies Association gives annually to the scholar under the age of 40 who has made the greatest impact on the field of international politics or peace research. Learn more about Chenoweth and her work here.

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