Preventing mass atrocities — a conversation with Hardy Merriman

Hardy Merriman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict discusses the meaning of strategic nonviolent action and the new concept of "right to assist."
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Nonviolence is spreading all over the world. The research on it is developing and deepening. And we’re finding that we can offer not only advice and input and support for activists around the world, but also in terms of policy change, especially making policy change support nonviolent movements worldwide.

I had a chance to speak with Hardy Merriman, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, based in Washington, D.C. We discussed the meaning of strategic nonviolent action, as well as their special report “Preventing Mass Atrocities: From a Responsibility to Protect to a Right to Assist.

Here are a few excerpts from our interview, edited for length and clarity.

Hardy Merriman, you are the president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. What’s your story? 

The first thing that brought me to it was a strong, strong desire to see some kind of justice in this world. And in particular, to help promote a more peaceful world and human rights. And that’s a question I struggled with from a fairly early age. And at one point thought I was going to actually get involved in electoral politics in the United States. But as luck and circumstance would have it, I encountered the writings of Gene Sharp in the early 2000s.

And basically, I saw that Gene Sharp, for readers who don’t know, is one of the –was one of the leading scholars in the field of nonviolent action. And so, basically, I found Gene in 2002 and said, “I want to work for you.” And I wouldn’t really leave him alone until he hired me, and I did get a job. 17 years later, I’m in the field and it’s endlessly interesting. It feels incredibly impactful.

And, you know, the demand keeps growing for this kind of knowledge and this kind of work. So, I feel gratified and lucky to be able to continue to do it.

This idea of “people power,” can you speak to that? Because somebody recently said to us, “You know, I’d like to help make change in our country and in our world, but we are not the ones that have any power. It’s the politicians.” How would you respond to something like that?

Sure. So, institutions have power, right? We’re taught, generally, that if we want to make change on a macro scale, at a big scale, then institutions are the way to go. And the two big institutions to do that in the United States would be the electoral system and the legal system. Indeed, those are powerful – when they work. And then there’s a whole set of circumstances in which they haven’t worked, in which they’ve been insufficient.

And when that happens, the question is what other force can be brought to bear on that situation? It’s going to have to be a force that comes outside of institutions because the institutions themselves are not sufficient. And this isn’t just a problem we’ve had in U.S. history – and continue to have. It’s a problem that we’ve had all over the world, and that is acute in many parts of the world.

What people have done consistently is discover the power of collective action, that if we change our behaviour and obedience and consent patterns, if we change our buying habits, our work habits, and a variety of other, you know, small high risk or low risk, big or small ways, we can actually change the balance of power in society. In many societies the status quo comes from people behaving in predictable ways.

And when people do think like strike or boycott and do it in a strategic way–unified way with clear goals, they’re able to wield power that most people assume could never happen. And yet, we look around the world. We look in U.S. history and we look around the world. We see consistently that organized nonviolent people have won. And the prevailing view of power is one that it comes from control of material resources or the capacity for violence, or the capacity to control the information environment.

And yet again, you look, whether it’s Women’s Suffrage Movement or the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, or the Labor Movement, or struggles against dictatorships around the world, you’ll say, “How is that significant numbers of nonviolent people are able to defeat opponents who seem to have all the advantages?”

Well, it’s because our definition of power needs to expand so that we can see that actually shifting the behaviour of lots of people is incredibly powerful, and can wield real force.

That’s beautiful, Hardy. And you used a term, “Strategic.” Can you speak more to that? 

Sure. I mean– the first step in strategic planning process would be an assessment of the situation you’re in. Who are the different actors or groups in that situation? Both those who oppose you as well as those who are your allies and yourself, and those who are neutral, as well as sort of the general political, socioeconomic circumstances. Why does the status quo exist the way it is? And part of a strategic analysis – there are many different pieces of it. One piece would be assessing if we have a sense of why the status quo exists. “Okay, we buy these products. The money goes there. Then it goes there. Then it goes there.”

Then that money feeds into policies that really don’t serve us and actually oppress us. We say, “Okay. Well, so there is actually a dependency link at some point in that chain, where we have to do something. By buying, by behaving in predictable ways, we’re actually part of a process that’s actually coming back and hurting us.” There are many, many points of leverage that can be identified like that.

When you do that assessment, you actually might find 20 or 30 depending on what your circumstance is where you might be able to shift – you’re doing a nonviolent action to disrupt a certain relationship. And then the question is, “well, what’s going to be most effective? What’s the sequence of tactics that will be most effective? What’s the messaging that’s going to be most effective? What goals do you want to pursue, concretely, clearly? What goals do you want to pursue?” And all of those are real questions that require skill and strategic thinking to figure out. 

Explain the concept of the Right to Assist.

We developed the idea of a Right to Assist sort of in contrast with the Responsibility to Protect. So, the Responsibility to Protect is an international doctrine that exists now. Right to Assist is an international doctrine that we want to bring into existence.

Responsibility to Protect came about as a response to atrocities in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo in the 1990s. And it was adopted, if I recall correctly, in 2005 in the United Nations. It basically has three pillars. And the first pillar says that all states have a responsibility. If you’re going to call yourself a sovereign government of a particular population, a particular country, you have the “responsibility to protect” your population from mass atrocities, which are: genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. You have a responsibility to do that.

Pillar Two says, “The international community and the United Nations will help governments that request it to protect their population.” So, if a government feels that it doesn’t have the capacity to provide that responsible protection to its population, the international community can help that government.

And then Pillar Three says, “If a government does not protect its population and refuses help to do so, it has effectively given up its sovereign claim to be able to call the shots within that territory. And therefore, the international community can intervene forcibly, including with armed intervention. And so, that is the prevailing doctrine, how to prevent atrocities.”

It was given a major test run in Libya in 2011 and with very, very mixed results that I – we could spend a whole [interview] on that, but I won’t go into it. But there are plenty of arguments that could be made, that in fact, we’ll never know for certain. But what we do know for certain is that intervention in Libya certainly didn’t stop violence. There was significant violence afterward. There was significant destabilization afterwards.

We won’t know what the scope or the scale of what would have happened if that intervention hadn’t happened. But the intervention itself was extremely problematic. And moreover, after that intervention happened, the Russian and Chinese governments said, “We’re never going to vote for violent intervention under Responsibility to Protect again,” because, you know, NATO was supposed to stop an atrocity by Muammar Gaddafi and instead they got Gaddafi out of power.

So, Russia and China said, “We gave this mandate to stop an atrocity. You interpreted that mandate as getting him out of power. That’s not what we interpreted. That’s not what we voted for. We don’t trust you anymore to wield this power responsibly. And we’re not going to vote for it anymore.”

And on the NATO side they said, “If we stop Gaddafi from committing an atrocity, how can we possibly leave him in power afterward? He’ll probably just commit one subsequently, so we need to remove him from power.” So, what happened in 2011 deadlocked responsibility to protect a significant portion of it. And subsequently, we’ve seen atrocities take place in Syria and other places with no clear international mandate on what to do about it. So, that’s some background.

And so Peter Ackerman and I said, “There is a different way to think about atrocity prevention and Right to Assist is part of it.”

Are there any laws or international laws in place right now that would prevent groups and governments from supporting nonviolent movements when there are mass atrocities? Would they say, for example, those groups are placed on terrorist lists because that term, terrorism/terrorist, is a political term?

Can you speak to the work that this report is actually trying to do in that regard of kind of making a breakthrough in terms of whether there are laws against supporting nonviolent movements?

Well, two things. I mean the first is that a big part of our argument is not just that atrocities could be stopped if they’re happening. But just they could be averted because one of the prime reasons why atrocities happen is because groups choose to take arms. So, by one measure, about two-thirds of atrocities have taken place in the context of civil wars. And we’ve seen, for example, in Syria, atrocities happen once the nonviolent opposition shifted to violence.

If we can make people aware of, can support them, and incentivize the choice to wage nonviolent struggle rather than violence, we will–and statistically speaking– reduce the probability of atrocities happening. In terms of different ways of support and to the legal basis, we pull together different strands of thinking in international law. The first step is saying, “Is civil resistance protected under international human rights law?”

And the answer by and large is “yes.” I mean depending on the tactic, but many, many tactics would be protected under most international human rights law. And then this question of, “Okay, well, is there reciprocity in certain human rights?” So, for example, if I have the right to associate as a dissident, do I have the right to be associated with? And various thinkers, we draw on the thinking of Elizabeth Wilson, who’s a scholar. We draw on the thinking of Maina Kiai, who’s former special Rapporteur on freedom of association for the United Nations.

So, yes, this is a reciprocal right. If I have a right to associate with you, how do you associate with me, even across borders? If I have a right to express to you, I have a right to also receive your expression, to be expressed to. This enables at a minimum, information exchange, right? But arguably, significantly more than that. Resources, funding, and then the more interventionists sort of forms of assistance may be triggered depending on the extent of repression used.

So, if you say some order comes from representing a population but you (a dictator) are not giving that population any chance to actually give you sovereignty because you’ve taken it, and simply claimed it; and they don’t have a chance to regularly express and show that they’re actually choosing you, your claim to sovereignty and [willingness] stop what’s happening becomes weak.

Because you’re not actually providing the real holders of sovereignty, the people to vest you with that authority. And so, if you start using repression, when significant numbers of your population are advocating for their rights, you’re effectively making your claim to sovereignty weaker and weaker and weaker. And this can be used to justify increasing forms of intervention for a nonviolent movement.

Transcription provided by Matthew Watrous.

This story was produced by Metta Center for Nonviolence

We provide educational resources on the safe and effective use of nonviolence, with the recognition that it’s not about putting the right person in power but awakening the right kind of power in people. We advance a higher image of humankind while empowering people to explore the question: How does nonviolence work, and how can I actively contribute to a happier, more peaceful society?

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