Brussels, novembre 2007
Facing down the guns: When has nonviolence failed? An introduction
In Sharpeville, South Africa in 1960, police opened fire on 5,000 unarmed Africans at a peaceful rally, killing 67 demonstrators. In Mississippi in 1964, three nonviolent civil rights workers were killed by a white Ku Klux Klan members and a local policeman. In Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Chinese People’s Army opened fire on nonviolent protesters, killing between 300 and 1,700 people. At the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili, East Timor, in 1991, the Indonesian Army opened fire on a peaceful procession, killing 270 peaceful demonstrators.
But did these acts of violence mean the failure of nonviolence?
The Sharpeville massacre was broadcast around the world, and both isolated South Africa and encouraged economic sanctions, though freedom was not to come for 33 years. The murders in Mississippi provided the spur to the U.S. Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which helped gain voting rights for African-Americans in Mississippi and elsewhere in the U.S. South. In China, however, twelve years after the Tiananmen Massacre, none of the democratic reforms sought by the student demonstrators have been achieved. The Santa Cruz cemetery massacre in Dili also made news around the world, and was part of the pressure that led to the independence of East Timor, although at the high price of many civilian deaths from the pro-Indonesia militias.
Being nonviolent does not mean that you might not become a victim of violence. That risk is something all nonviolent activists have confronted and accepted.
We do not define failure of nonviolence as the killing of nonviolent interveners or nonviolent movement participants, but we do consider as failures those cases in which such deaths stopped the nonviolent movement.
How does one define the failure of nonviolence?
Our working definition of failure in the face of direct violence - in the line of fire - includes :
a) deaths of nonviolent activists in cases where those deaths stop the nonviolent movement
b) deaths of third party nonviolent accompaniers of the protesters in cases where those deaths stop the nonviolent movement
c) the abandonment of nonviolence by the social movement that was carrying on the struggle, or the eclipse of nonviolence by a rival violent movement
d) the fizzling out of a nonviolent intervention due to lack of a well-planned strategy to cope with many outcomes
None of the above definitions provide a precise measurement of failure. However, avoiding deaths of nonviolent human rights workers and of their accompaniers, and helping a nonviolent movement stay nonviolent, should be taken as our minimum definition of success for the Nonviolent Peaceforce.