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Modus Operandi

En librairie

Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


Brussels, novembre 2007

Facing down the guns: When has nonviolence partially succedeed or entirely succeeded? An overview

Nonviolent movements that succeeded despite significant deaths

There are a number of prominent successes of nonviolent movements, each of which involves the deaths of participants where these deaths did not stop of the nonviolent movement:

  • 1. Timosoara Massacre - a costly victory for nonviolence - 97 were killed one week, and 160 the next week in Romania in 1989

  • 2. Santa Cruz Massacre - another costly victory for nonviolence: 270 peaceful demonstrators were killed in Dili, East Timor, by the occupying Indonesian Army, 1991

Timosoara Massacre - a costly partial success for nonviolence

On December 17, 1989, Romanian security forces killed 97 peaceful demonstrators in the town of Timosoara, people who were protesting the exile of a Protestant minister by the Communist government of Nicolae Ceausescu. Nine days later, the security forces and the army opened fire on a crowd of 100,000 in Timosoara, killing 160.

Romania had the only major violent conflicts in the Eastern European revolutions of 1989. Initial reports said that thousand were killed. Later estimates by Bernard Kouchner, France’s Minister of State for Humanitarian Action, were that 700 were killed, half of them in Bucharest, as of December 26, 1989 (1).

The killings happened largely because while the Army had defected to the side of the protesters, the Securitate troops were loyal to Ceausescu, who used them against the demonstrators. The Securitate shot to kill. Most of the violence ended after the Ceausescus were executed, on Christmas day, 1989. “The problem being faced—murderous sharp-shooting by desperate individuals—was one with which civil resistance was ill-equipped to cope” (2).

The nonviolent movement in this case was not stopped, and the killing of the Ceausescus and the killing of protesters and others by Securitate, did not prevent free elections and the installation of a democratic government.

The large number of deaths, and the failure to persuade the Securitate to negotiate or to surrender, made this a very costly victory for nonviolence. It was costly in more than lives. It is just this sort of outcome that the proponents of armed force could use in arguing, “Look, if the movement had used armed force, most of those killed would have been the oppressors, not the oppressed.“

Santa Cruz Massacre - a costly partial success for nonviolence

On November 12, 1991, the Indonesian Army opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in the Santa Cruz Cemetery in Dili, East Timor, killing 270. Images of the Santa Cruz Cemetery Massacre were flashed across the world because a British photographer, Max Stahl, was there with his video camera. Two American reporters there were beaten by the Indonesian military - Amy Goodman, a reporter from Pacifica Radio, and Allan Nairn, a writer for The New Yorker. In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on February 27, 1992, Nairn told what happened that day in Dili. (3)

« People were chanting and giving the “V’ sign and talking among themselves. By the time it reached the cemetery the crowd had grown quite large. There were perhaps three thousand to five thousand people. Some filed in toward Sebastiao’s grave, and many others remained outside, hemmed in on the street by cemetery walls. People were, at that point, standing around, talking excitedly among themselves, when, suddenly, someone noticed that one of the exit routes had been sealed off by an Indonesian troop truck.

“Then, looking to our right we saw, coming down the road, a long, slowly marching column of uniformed troops. They were dressed in dark brown, moving in disciplined formation, and they held M-16s before them as they marched. As the column kept advancing, seemingly without end, people gasped and began to shuffle back. I went with Amy Goodman of WBAI / Pacifica radio and stood on the corner between the soldiers and the Timorese. We thought that if the Indonesian force saw that foreigners were there, they would hold back and not attack the crowd.

“But as we stood there watching as the soldiers marched into our face, the inconceivable thing began to happen. The soldiers rounded the corner, never breaking stride, raised their rifles and fired in unison into the crowd. Timorese were backpedaling, gasping, trying to flee, but in seconds the hail of fire cut them down. People fell, stunned and shivering, bleeding in the road, and the Indonesian soldiers kept on shooting. I saw the soldiers aiming and shooting people in the back, leaping bodies to hunt down those who were still standing. They executed schoolgirls, young men, old Timorese, the street was wet with blood and the bodies were everywhere. »

Nairn said that Indonesia later claimed that during the course of the march, a soldier was stabbed by a Timoriese in front of the military district command base. Nairn said he saw a scuffle that lasted 45 seconds but could not see anyone stabbed. None of the Western reporters present reported seeing a soldier stabbed that day.

The world-wide publicity given this massacre of nonviolent protest had a significant effect. Together with East Timor solidarity networks, the message of this atrocity led to international pressure that eventually gave East Timor its freedom. Eight years later, on August 30, 1999, more than 98 per cent of all eligible voters in East Timor went to the polls to vote in a referendum on independence. More than 78 per cent voted for independence

This protest was a success by a nonviolent movement, despite the deaths of protesters, because of the international publicity and support it generated.


Third party nonviolent intervention that succeeded

There are a few cases of prominent successes of third party nonviolent intervention involving either the deaths of more than one participant in those movements or the failure to achieve the protesters’ goals:

  • 1. Mississippi Freedom Summer - killing of three civil rights workers, 1960

  • 2. Deaths of U.S. nuns in El Salvador, 1980

Mississippi Freedom Summer - a success for nonviolent intervention

In 1964, the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee helped to organize Mississippi Freedom Summer, a project to bring hundreds of white northern youths to help Mississippi Blacks register to vote - an activity that up to that time could put a Mississippi Black in danger.

On June 21, 1964, three Mississippi Freedom Summer workers, who had been arrested earlier that day, were let out of jail at night. They were chased and captured by a gang of members of the Ku Klux Klan and by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price and shot dead, their bodies buried in a local dam on private property belonging to one of the conspirators.

The theory held by the civil rights workers was that a large-scale voting rights registration campaign might succeed, and the presence of outsiders would deter violence that would otherwise be brought down on local Blacks. Their theory was wrong. White northerner “outside agitators” were detested by Southern whites. And if the white northerner was Jewish, he was doubly hated. So it was for Michael Schwerner, a Jewish New York social worker who had helped establish a community centre in Meridian, Mississippi as part of Mississippi Freedom Summer. To let Schwerner to continue working unhindered would have been an unimaginable surrender by local white racists.

There was evidence that the killings had been ordered by a leader of the Klan. “Sam Bowers, the imperial Wizard of the White Knights (of the Ku Klux Klan), had personally approved (Schwerner’s) ‘elimination’ Schwerner’s death would send a message to all the northern civil rights workers who had no business meddling in the South’s affairs.” (4) Bowers was never convicted in the case, but in 1998, he was given a life sentence for a bombing he planned in 1966 that killed one person.

Deaths of U.S. nuns in El Salvador - a success for nonviolent intervention

On December 2,1980, three nuns, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, and Dorothy Kazel, and one lay missionary, Jean Donovan, were killed on the road from the international airport to San Salvador. Their bodies were found on December 3, 1980, in Santiago Nonualco, La Paz. Their killing followed the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot in the back on March 24, 1980 while he was performing mass. For the murder of the nuns, five National Guardsmen were eventually convicted in the case, the first known convictions of Salvadoran armed forces personnel for human rights violations. Unfortunately, higher-up involvement was not investigated. In 1989, six Jesuit priests were murdered by soldiers of the Salvadoran Army at the Central American University in San Salvador (5). In 199, two Salvadoran Army officers, Colonel Benavides and Lieutenant Mendoza, were convicted of killing the Jesuits.

The American citizenship of the nuns was not enough to protect them. Americas Watch reported 23 priests, nuns and ministers murdered or disappeared in El Salvador from 1972 to 1991. The four U.S. citizens made up 18 per cent of the total killed. Death squads in Central America fostered hatred of ministers, especially Catholic priests. In Guatemala, there were at one time slogans painted on walls “Renew the country - kill a priest.”

The killings did not stop those working for nonviolent change. The 1992 peace accords between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN (the armed rebel group), did officially end the guerrilla war in El Salvador, and the FMLN was transformed into a political party, which emerged as the second-largest political party in El Salvador (6). The bravery of the churchwomen, who went in unarmed to help the people of El Salvador, was an example for others. Their killings received worldwide publicity, and their martyrdom was a success rather than a failure of nonviolence.