Man with sign that says, 'Strategic Peacemakers'

The first item below appeared, in slightly longer form, as a news report in the National Catholic Register, September 29, 1991. The second appeared, also in longer form, as a column in Catholic Twin Circle, December 8, 1991.

The Challenge of Civilian-Based Defense

Mary Meehan

Windsor, Ontario--Praising the "brave soldiers" who "sat down and refused to move" against citizens during the August coup attempt in Moscow, a leading scholar of nonviolent action said that civilian resistance should become the normal response to coups and aggression.

Gene Sharp, founder of the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions at Harvard University, told a conference here that successful resistance efforts in Russia, Eastern Europe, South Africa and elsewhere "have been waged by people power" and that their methods provide "a practical alternative to war."

At the Sept. 6-8 gathering sponsored by the Civilian-Based Defense Association of Cambridge, Mass., Sharp addressed an audience of several hundred, including some military personnel and many peace activists.

He insisted that civilian-based defense (CBD) must be considered separately from pacifism and movements for radical social change. The essential point, he said, "is how actually to change things"--rather than showing "how bright our halo is polished."

He stressed that "defense is a legitimate need," but one that can be met with nonviolent methods.

While some of the "people power" resistance in recent years has been spontaneous and improvised, Sharp advocates advance preparation and the training of civilians for resistance.

CBD tactics may include:

  • refusal to obey orders from coup leaders or an occupying power--that is, total non-collaboration by civilians

  • befriending soldiers of the dictatorship or occupying power and urging them to delay carrying out orders, refuse orders, or desert

  • huge street demonstrations, including the blocking of tanks and other military vehicles

  • strikes, including general strikes

  • use of alternative communications (such as photocopied news bulletins) when a government or occupying army shuts down independent newspapers and broadcasting stations

  • help from sympathetic countries, such as publicity about the resistance and sanctions against the coup leaders or occupying power

At the Ontario conference, Canadian military historian Gwynne Dyer conceded that CBD has been used successfully against coups and oppressive regimes, but said "there is very little evidence" so far that it would be effective against most foreign invasions. Stressing the importance of international law and its enforcement, he urged the conferees to focus on "the long march, if you like, through institutions" in the effort to prevent war.

Don Macnamara, a retired brigadier general in the Canadian armed forces, told his audience that he sees the CBD idea as "particularly attractive" because of the low percentage of Canadians who serve in the military. He cautioned, however, that CBD is not an easy system. He also stressed the need for case studies and for considering the "what-ifs" of the Persian Gulf War.

Sharp, asked in a Register interview what he would have done if told to organize civilian defense after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, said he would have responded: "Why didn't you ask me this five years earlier?" But he said that it's possible to improvise some resistance in such a case.

He told the conference that international economic sanctions might have worked against Iraq, but that President Bush [the senior Bush] "didn't have any patience; he couldn't wait." Dyer and Macnamara, however, suggested that the Gulf War had positive effects on the United Nations and the possibility of a comprehensive peace settlement in the Middle East.

If the Shiite Moslems of Iraq had used nonviolent resistance against Saddam Hussein, Sharp contended, that "certainly could have had no worse or more disastrous effects" than their violent uprising after the Gulf War. He also suggested that guerrilla warfare has not worked for the Kurds and that "they might consider other kinds of options."

In his writing, Sharp has described civilian resistance to the Nazis in occupied countries during the Second World War. Had he been in Germany itself during Hitler's rise to power, he told the Register, he would have suggested "strikes and disobedience when it came to anti-Semitic laws and regulations." He added that "the Nazis were terrified of the prospect of a general strike." But to prevent the rise of a group like the Nazis, he said, "you need to be prepared to act as early as possible."

Sharp told the conference that countries recently liberated through nonviolent struggle will not necessarily adopt CBD as their defense policy. Yet he stressed that "some countries have no serious military options for defense" and that CBD provides their only real alternative. He mentioned the newly liberated Baltic countries--Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia--as "likely candidates" for CBD.

Last February, the Lithuanian government asked its citizens to use "disobedience, nonviolent resistance, and political and social non-cooperation" if there should be an "active occupation" of the country by the Soviet Union. Sharp and two of his colleagues visited Lithuania last April, at the government's invitation, to discuss CBD strategy.

Mubarak Awad, "director in exile" of the Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence, told the conference about his tactics against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. (Expelled by the Israelis, Awad now heads a group called Nonviolence International, based in Washington, D.C.)

When an old Palestinian wanted to regain his land from the Israelis, Awad told him to recruit others who were willing to go to prison or die. The man did so. Awad and about 150 other Palestinians started to take down the fence that kept the man from his land. They told the Israeli military authorities: "This is our land. Here are the papers. And you have to kill us for it." The Palestinians, Awad said, continued dismantling the fence, and the old man "took his land back."

# # #

"People Power" After the Cold War

In winning their liberation through nonviolent tactics, countries such as Poland and Russia have given a splendid example for the rest of the world to follow.

In August, Boris Yeltsin led an incredible display of "people power" in turning back an attempted coup in Moscow. Russians proved, as Filipinos had proved in 1986, that large numbers of brave people can even stop army tanks. Then the Baltic nations, after long and nonviolent resistance to Soviet power, won their independence.

If nonviolent techniques can be so successful in winning independence, why can't they also be used to defend it?

Gene Sharp, the leading scholar of nonviolence, believes that they can. For 40 years, he has studied the history of peaceful action, even finding cases of it in ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. He thinks that it offers "a practical alternative to war."

Sharp, who has a Ph.D. from Oxford, stresses the action part of nonviolent action. His books describe a rich variety of tactics: marches, rallies, sit-ins, pray-ins, strikes, boycotts, total refusal to cooperate with an imposed regime, urging soldiers of an occupation force to refuse orders or desert, offering sanctuary and many more.

Many pacifists like the idea of nonviolent action, but Sharp stresses that people need not be pacifists in order to adopt it. He once told the Boston Globe that nonviolent force builds on "people's capacity to be stubborn and cussed, and we're all good at that."

Nonviolent resistance often has been spontaneous and improvised. Sharp urges advance training of civilians for resistance, with close attention to strategy and tactics. This is called "civilian-based defense," or CBD.

Planned and publicized resistance capacity can be a deterrent to aggression. If deterrence fails, civilians must then try to make their country "indigestible" to the aggressor. If the aggressor wants to exploit the occupied nation's economy, Sharp has said: "Then you have to make the occupation result in a huge drain on his resources. You have to make it cost him economically." If the invader wants to establish a puppet government, then you must make the country "ungovernable."

Nonviolent techniques can also be used where tribal or religious groups are fighting--places like South Africa and Northern Ireland.

In a recent interview, Gene Sharp said he once attended an Irish conference and argued that "the realistic option" in the North was "to get the two sides which hated each other and feared each other at least to fight by nonviolent means." That, he said, "would stop the killing" and might "eventually get them to look at each other as human beings and in the future work toward some resolution of the real conflicts."