It’s been more than seventy years since, following the atrocities of World War II, the nations of the world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, multiple human rights treaties and conventions have been drafted, and most countries have ratified one or more of them—including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and treaties focused on torture, race- and sex-based discrimination, and the rights of children. Human rights organizations have proliferated at the domestic and global levels, and international institutions dedicated to the monitoring and enforcement of human rights, including commissions, special rapporteurs, and courts, are well established.
The recent revolutions in Algeria and Sudan remind us that bottom-up movements of people power can create sweeping political transformations. They did this in part by mobilizing huge numbers of active protestors—1 million in Algeria, and around 1 million in Sudan—which constituted impressive numbers in absolute terms. Yet due to coordination problems and the possibility of free riding—where those who stay on the side-lines can benefit from the results of mass mobilization without paying the costs or assuming the risk of participation—few mass movements have been able to mobilize significant proportions of their population. Algeria’s peak event during its “Smile Revolution” reportedly mobilized under 2.5% of the country’s population to effectively topple Bouteflika’s government in March 2019. And Sudan’s ongoing revolution, which reportedly mobilized fewer than 2.5% of Sudan’s national population, has already toppled the 30-year role of Omar al-Bashir and forced the transitional military council into a transitional power-sharing agreement with the opposition.
How do people power movements succeed while mobilizing modest proportions of the population? And how can dissidents successfully assess their power along the way? In our paper, we begin to answer these questions by turning to a simple metaphor: the physical law of momentum.
Paths to Resistance: Professor Erica Chenoweth’s research shows the value of nonviolent resistance in societal conflicts, making her a resource for activists opposing oppressive regimes worldwide.
THEY REACH OUT TO ERICA CHENOWETH ALMOST DAILY—from Africa, South America, the Middle East, Europe, even the United States. They hail from places where authoritarian officials are tightening their grip, where repression is on the rise, and where citizens are mobilizing against governments they want to unseat. Their inquiries usually boil down to one key question: How can we win without resorting to violence?
Chenoweth’s painstaking research, unprecedented in its scope and historical breadth, has shed new light on the understanding of civil resistance, political change, and the surprising effectiveness of nonviolent action.
It has made Chenoweth, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, one of an elite group of global experts on civil resistance. She is sought out both for her remarkable chronicling of nonviolent movements and for her understanding of what can potentially make or break them.
In recent decades, global civil society and transnational advocacy groups have achieved breakthroughs on human rights through creative organizing and social movement-building, especially when working with partners on the ground. But unless they adapt to and embrace fast-evolving technological tools, they risk being outplayed by the governments and corporations they seek to confront.
Sushma Raman, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, outlined these challenges and opportunities during a recent seminar, part of the series, “Towards Life 3.0: Ethics and Technology in the 21st Century.” Titled “Technology, Tyranny, Transnational Advocacy,” Raman’s seminar explored what she called the promise and the perils of technology for human rights organizations.
Nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change.
"In 1986, millions of Filipinos took to the streets of Manila in peaceful protest and prayer in the People Power movement. The Marcos regime folded on the fourth day.
In 2003, the people of Georgia ousted Eduard Shevardnadze through the bloodless Rose Revolution, in which protestors stormed the parliament building holding the flowers in their hands."
A new tide of people power is rising in Africa. On April 2, a nonviolent resistance movement in Algeria succeeded in pressuring Abdelaziz Bouteflika to resign after 20 years as president. Nine days later, protesters in Sudan were celebrating the ouster of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president of 30 years, after a three-month-long uprising against his regime.
The nonviolent overthrows of Bouteflika and Bashir are not aberrations. They reflect a surprising trend across the continent: despite common perceptions of Africa as wracked by violence and conflict, since 2000, most rebellions there have been unarmed and peaceful. Over the past decade, mass uprisings in Africa have accounted for one in three of the nonviolent campaigns aiming to topple dictatorships around the world. Africa has seen 25 new, nonviolent mass movements—almost twice as many as Asia, the next most active region with 16.