Study: Nonviolent Civic Resistance Key Factor in Building Durable Democracies

New York

A major new study released today by Freedom House shows that nonviolent "people power" movements are the strongest force in most successful transitions to democracy. The study, "How Freedom is Won: From Civic Struggle to Durable Democracy," focuses on 67 countries where dictatorships have fallen since 1972. It draws on over 30 years of Freedom House data analyzing the state of global freedom and is the most comprehensive examination of political transitions ever conducted. The report's central conclusion is that how a transition from authoritarianism occurs and the forces that drive the transition have significant impact on the success or failure of democratic reform. In large measure, the study finds that transitions generated by nonviolent civic coalitions lead to far better results for freedom than top-down transitions initiated by elites. The study finds that "people power" is a frequent phenomenon, and civic coalitions are a major presence in most transitions. In 50 of the 67 transitions, or over 70 percent of countries where authoritarian systems fell, nonviolent civic resistance was a strong influence. Civic resistance employs such tactics as mass protests, boycotts, blockades, strikes, and civil disobedience to challenge the legitimacy of and erode support for authoritarian rulers. "How Freedom is Won" is available on the Freedom House website.

"This study is of special significance in the wake of mass-based nonviolent political ferment in Lebanon, post-election upheaval Kyrgyzstan, and the transitions toward democracy in Ukraine and Georgia that followed nonviolent, civic-led protests," said Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor. "The study is especially timely as international organizations and many governments are considering how best to promote democracy and rights worldwide."

The new study focuses on transitions that have occurred since 1972, when Freedom House began publishing its annual, global, comparative survey of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World (the post-war transitions in Western Europe and Japan were therefore excluded). Freedom in the World rates countries as "Free" (where there is a broad range of rights), "Partly Free" (where some rights and liberties are restricted), and "Not Free" (where many or all rights are systematically denied).

Among the key findings:

  • Freedom and democracy are best advanced by powerful, broad-based, and cohesive civic coalitions employing non-violent tactics; in 32 transitions in which strong non-violent civic coalitions were active, 24 countries (75%) are Free, 8 (25%) are Partly Free, and none are Not Free today.
  • The largest gains for freedom occur as a result of transitions driven primarily or in large measure by significant civic protest and mobilization. Of 50 such transitions, 32 have led to high levels of respect for political rights and civil liberties. By contrast, in the 14 transitions from authoritarian rule in which the driving force was from the "top down" and led primarily by reform-minded power holders, only 3 (21%) are Free, with strong performance in terms of fundamental rights. Three other transitions were sparked by international military intervention.
  • When cohesive and strong civic coalitions emerge in an environment where there is little or no violence, the result almost uniformly is a high level of freedom. Pre-transition, 9 such countries were Partly Free and 9 were Not Free. Today, post-transition, 17 are Free, and only 1 is Partly Free.
  • Even in settings of significant or high violence, the prospects for freedom are significantly better when the opposition refrains from using violence. In the 20 countries in which both the government and segments of the opposition used violence, only 20 percent of the countries are Free today, while 60 percent are Partly Free, and 20 are Not Free. By contrast, in the 12 countries where the authorities employed violent force but the opposition resisted with nonviolent tactics, 7 (nearly 60 percent) are Free, while 5 (more than 40 percent) are Partly Free.

The study offers a series of recommendations for policy makers:

  • After the collapse of authoritarian rule, many transitions fail to result in consolidated democracy. It is therefore vital that the international community invest in the emergence of broad-based, non-violent civic coalitions in closed and/or transitional societies.
  • Governments, regional bodies, and global institutions should exert diplomatic and other pressures on states to curb repression and create political space for civil society activity.
  • Democratic governments and outside donors should pressure states to ensure free, fair, and transparent electoral processes and offer timely support when civic forces peacefully rally in opposition to sham elections, as recently witnessed in Ukraine and Georgia.
  • Despite the abiding importance of civic coalitions and civic nonviolent resistance in recent transitions from dictatorship, only a small proportion of international aid assists nonviolent civic movements and groups; such support should be increased and support grants should focus on sustaining the infrastructure of emerging civic groups and civic coalitions, especially in their early stages of formation.
  • Training in strategies of nonviolent civic resistance should be an important component of technical assistance efforts.
     

"Given increased international attention to the expansion of freedom, there is an urgent need to understand the crucial role of civic nonviolent resistance in the promotion of democracy and liberty and to respond with new resources and new aid initiatives," said Adrian Karatnycky, senior scholar at Freedom House and director of the study.

"'People power' works when ordinary civilians learn the skills needed to conduct strategic nonviolent action, so teaching those skills should be at the heart of new assistance to civic movements and activists," said Peter Ackerman, co-author of the study's overview and chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

A team of Freedom House analysts produced the study, which is composed of an overview, detailed comparative data, a methodology, and individual country reports. An advisory board of respected scholars from Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, Stanford University, Rutgers University, and the Inter-American Dialogue reviewed the study's coding and underlying data.

Freedom House prepared the study with support from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, a group that disseminates knowledge and helps improve skills in using nonviolent strategies where progress toward democracy and human rights is possible.

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