Nonviolent action as a tool to ignite global change – A conversation with Jamila Raqib

Jamila Raqib is an expert in the study and implementation of strategic nonviolent action and serves as the Executive Director of the Albert Einstein Institution. She is the legacy holder for Gene Sharp, who won the Right Livelihood Award in 2012 “for developing and articulating the principles and strategies of nonviolent resistance and supporting their practical implementation in conflict areas around the world”. Today, on the International Day of Non-Violence, we had the opportunity to discuss with Raqib about the dynamics of nonviolent action and how we can use it as a tool to face current global crises.

An increasing number of people are mobilising around the world to face deep global crises, from climate change to shrinking space for civil society, what is the importance of nonviolent action in the current circumstances?

Nonviolent action offers a very powerful tool to civil society groups, citizens, and organisations who are concerned about the very serious ecological, political, social, and economic crises that we’re facing as a global community. It is a tool available to us to organise, make demands and work together to both undermine oppressive systems and to defend existing systems and institutions that we value.

Humanity has huge potential. However, we don’t just get to be nonviolent and think that that’s enough. This is a complicated type of action, and it does require certain dynamics and skills for effectiveness. It’s important that we foster these skills in all of our communities, so it’s not something that we think about in times of crisis only.

We should make nonviolent action a part of democratic systems and institutions. In our role as citizens and society we should have this capability so that we can defend the institutions, norms, and political systems that we value, but also that we can continue pushing for the changes that our communities need.

Are there different nonviolent strategies for different oppressions or conflicts, such as race or gender? How can societies strategically organise to respond to these struggles?

Much of the work on nonviolence is quite theoretical and this was the huge contribution of Gene Sharp. He studied history to create a system out of what people had been doing, to face very diverse circumstances.

We’re in a changing world today. Climate is of increasing importance. It always has been, but we’re finally waking up to the existential crisis around climate and recognising that the world’s community is not doing enough to act to mitigate this crisis. Likewise, the use of technology and social media became a very relevant trend for sharing information and mobilising people.

All these changes have a complicated impact on movements. Crises are taking different forms, so the technique must absolutely evolve, and it requires people to understand the dynamics of this type of struggle. But first and foremost, people need to really understand their own situations and the context, because there is no formula that could be applied as a sort of cookie-cutter across the board, among diverse circumstances.

Therefore, developing strategies for particular conflicts or crises requires us to ask certain questions. What is the nature of our society? Where does the power lie? Is this a democratic system that is responsive to the demands of a population, or is it one that requires a different type of action to coerce the change? And is that enough to create the change?

Overall, the point is that this isn’t meant to be a formula, it’s meant to be something that people think about deeply. First, reflecting on what the relevance of the situation in their own society is, and then figuring out how to best use the resources they have available to achieve the change that they want.

Authoritarian regimes are gaining ground. Do you feel hopeful about important changes in global politics in the near future? In particular, how can nonviolence be used as a tool to achieve/restore/strengthen democracy?

In the work we do in human rights, there are lots of grounds to be very discouraged about some of the trends we’re seeing in the world and the ways in which some of the oppressive forces are doing everything they can to maintain the status quo. However, despite the dangerous trends, there are people doing a lot to resist that, and they are being very effective at it. They often don’t have the resources they need, they don’t have the support they need, they don’t have the solidarity that they need, but they continue and they’re achieving great things. We have a responsibility to better understand what they’re doing, to support them and offer them solidarity and resources.

I think nonviolent action offers us great hope, it enables people to take power, and to use it in ways that can benefit their communities. So yes, of course, I maintain hope. We couldn’t be doing the work we do if we didn’t have hope, because it’s a rational hope – based on an understanding that we have no choice but to continue, but also that what we do matters, that our efforts can be successful.

Historically and geographically speaking, which are the countries and/or communities with social structures supportive of nonviolence, both internally and externally? If so, how could we take them as a model to reduce reliance on violence as an instrument of policy? 

We are looking at how to learn and how to scale this work, we’re constantly looking for models, but I don’t see any societies offering more lessons and opportunities than others. And by that, I mean that nonviolent action is such a human way to act.

What we’re talking about here is humans having the capacity to be stubborn, to say no, to understand what is to their benefit and to act in ways that benefit themselves and their communities. It’s not something that has been studied in the way that for example, war and violence have been studied. The model that we’re seeking is in each one of our societies. I don’t think anyone holds the monopoly on nonviolent action. We have traditions of this in every continent and we also have the capacity to refine and improve it in every continent.

Nonviolent action exists anywhere people have political and social issues to grapple with.

You have conducted successful campaigns to promote non-violent actions. In your view, what strategies should organizations, human rights defenders, and/or activists adopt to promote to achieve a non-violence scenario?

Humans have the capacity for great creativity. The problem is access to information, insight, and skills that can make what they’re doing already more effective. Operating based on intuition and improvisation isn’t sufficient on its own. Most people need access to best practices, to stories about what others have done and to understand what makes nonviolent types of action succeed and fail.

It is not sufficient to just plan for the big change: “We want to overturn the economic system.” “We want to save the climate.” “We want to get rid of our dictatorship.” Whatever this big goal might be, people need to ask themselves: How do we do that as a community? How do we organise?

It’s about meeting the needs of a community and plugging it into a global strategy. To do this, education is the key. People can design very effective action at the community level, but we need to give them some tools on how to do that.

We can’t expect that everyone’s going to be able to reinvent the wheel. That is a very high threshold to put on people and a very high barrier to participation. On the other hand, having access to some basic resources – principles, general information, basic do’s and don’t, can greatly help them to participate effectively. What we want is to spark global action, but not action for the sake of it. Actions that really move a movement forward by building coordination and solidarity.