Overview

In discussion of the role and future of nonviolent action around the world, the seminar dealt with many of the concepts and activities central to WRI.

With the beginning of a new century and the UN Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence, it seemed apt to reflect on the events and experiences of the last years of the 20th century.

1999 in particular will be remembered as the year that NATO declared war against Yugoslavia and began a bombing campaign that resulted in the destruction of both civilian and military infrastructure. Lauded by politicians and media as a successful "humanitarian intervention", the war set new precedents in the interpretation of international law, in the control of the media, and in the political and operational policies of NATO itself. The long-term work of anti-militarists and peace projects in the region, the solidarity actions of radical antiwar activists further afield, and the alternative perspectives they collectively provide, were largely ignored.

1999 would also be remembered as the year in which the first so-called "All-African War" raged in Central Africa. Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola and others all sent troops to support either the Congolese government or the rebels in the east of the country, with many other countries indirectly involved. The militarisation of an entire continent appeared to destroy all hope of creating a better future, although indigenous African nonviolent resistance mechanisms did in some cases prove effective.

Finally, 1999 also saw the massive growth of a new movement of activists taking on the symbols of global capitalism and militarism in Seattle and around the globe.

This mass action is part of a growing global resistance to rampant capitalist ideology and its consequences. This radical growth in mass action has extended to campaigns against genetically modified organisms, for animal and human rights, social justice and the cancellation of Third World debt. Does the dramatic scale and inclusiveness of these actions herald a new era of mass nonviolent activity by concerned citizens?

These and other issues were discussed in the seminar, which aimed to provide an opportunity for activists to reflect together on the potential of nonviolent action to challenge current political realities and bring about social change. While there were not expected to be any specific conclusions, it was hoped that new insights would be reached into the practice and theory of nonviolent action, with identification of potentially effective strategies for future action. WRI's definition of nonviolent action is "a form of action that affirms life, speaks out against oppressions and acknowledges the value of each person." But this is both abstract and ambiguous. What does this mean in practice?

As always, the seminar provoked as many questions and ambiguities as straightforward answers.

Questions arising included:

  • What precisely is nonviolence? Is damage to property (eg smashing up McDonalds) violence or can it be nonviolent?
  • How to practice nonviolence in the face of violence? How can we disarm violence?
  • How do we judge whether a nonviolent action has been successful or not? Does the presence of violence mean failure or is it merely a problem?
  • How can we ensure that nonviolent action is recognised and represented as something positive for society? How can we make the media report nonviolent direct action as the opposite of violence, rather than one and the same thing?
  • Who can we work with -- is it counterproductive to co-operate with the state or violent organisations in achieving shortterm goals?
  • How can we establish connections with some groups without alienating others?

How can we reconcile the desire for a nonviolent revolution with the here and now -- the present conditions of violence, but no revolution?

  • How can we build nonviolent mechanisms and structures into society? How can we ensure the growth of nonviolent practices in the long-term?
  • How can we present nonviolent thought/action without using violent imagery and metaphors, eg. "eco-warriors", "guerilla gardeners"?