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Evan Perkoski and Erica Chenoweth, Nonviolent Resistance and Prevention of Mass Killings During Popular Uprisings

International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict, 2018; 30pp; free download.

ImageInfluenced by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s seminal 2011 study Why Civil Resistance Works, this short report looks at the circumstances surrounding mass killings by government forces during popular uprisings. ‘Mass killings’ are defined as the intentional killing of 1,000 or more civilians in a continuous event.

‘The strategic interaction between dissidents and regimes is central to the occurrence of mass violence’, argue Evan Perkoski, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, and Chenoweth, a professor at the University of Denver. In addition, they note that the ‘characteristics… of campaigns play a significant role in explaining the likelihood of mass atrocities.’

Using a data set of 308 resistance campaigns between 1950 and 2013, and illustrating their findings with a number of case studies, the pair conclude that ‘nonviolent uprising[s] are almost three times less likely than violent rebellions to encounter mass killings, all else being equal.’

Perkoski and Chenoweth put this down to a number of campaign-level factors: nonviolent resistance is less threatening to the physical well-being of regime elites, thus lowering the chances of violent retaliation; government crackdowns on nonviolent protestors often produce defections from the armed forces; and ‘the likelihood of mass killings is greater when foreign states provide material aid to dissidents’, something violent insurgencies tend to rely on.

There are, of course, structural factors which influence the likelihood of government violence – regime type and whether mass killings have occurred in the past, to name but two – though the authors note that these are ‘slow-moving’ and therefore provide ‘little actionable information’ for activists.

This ‘counterintuitive paradox’ – that those campaigns which remain nonviolent and unarmed with no significant foreign support are safest from mass killings – has huge implications, both for those participating in popular uprisings and for peace and anti-war activists in the UK.

For example, the research suggests that those who have supported sending arms to the Syrian opposition forces – including activists who would identify as being on the progressive left – are pushing for a course of action that increases the chances of the mass killing of civilians.

The report helpfully ends with several practical steps that could be taken by interested external parties who are considering how to support popular uprisings.

These include trying to steer protests ‘toward strategies, actions and dynamics that are associated with a lower odds of mass violence’, and sharing knowledge and skills rather than providing direct financial or material assistance.

External forces can also undermine the cohesion of the repressing government forces by offering exile to leaders or supporting defections – a course of action more appropriate for powerful governments rather than grassroots activists.