Confronting Armed Non-State Actors with Nonviolent Resistance

1 Apr

So I have recently become aware of a number of cases where unarmed civilians have attempted to confront, disrupt, and/or expel armed non-state actors from their locales. Generally these civilians are not “pro-state;” they are often just as critical of the state as they are critical of the armed groups they oppose. Their primary aim is to end violent bloodshed, and to eliminate the institutions and practices in their cities or villages that perpetuate the bloodshed.

Such attempts are more complex (and perhaps more difficult) than typical anti-state campaigns. They involve confronting “invisible” adversaries who are not accountable to any particular constituencies, making it very difficult to identify and disrupt their pillars of support. Moreover, the most important factor in assuring success against a state adversary–broad-based participation–does not necessarily provide the same kind of leverage over non-state actors as it does vis-a-vis state actors.

Nevertheless, some movements around the world have succeeded (or made progress) in depriving violent armed groups the means with which to exploit or oppress them. Here are some examples:

  • Colombia “peace villages” (anti-FARC, anti-government, and anti-paramilitary)
  • Algeria (anti-GIA)
  • Lebanon (anti-sectarian violence)
  • Afghanistan (anti-Taliban, anti-NATO)
  • Mexico (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity: anti-drug war)
  • Nicaragua (anti-Contras)
  • If you know of others, please add in the comments section below!

A number of interesting questions arise. Under what conditions do civilians use unarmed methods to oppose and disrupt violence by non-state actors? Under what conditions, and by what mechanisms, do such efforts succeed? I know of a few people, like Oliver Kaplan, who have studied such phenomena. But it is clear that much more research must be done to understand how the dynamics of civil resistance change in environments like these.

9 Responses to “Confronting Armed Non-State Actors with Nonviolent Resistance”

  1. y.tellidis April 2, 2012 at 2:04 am #

    Basque Country – anti-ETA, as well as anti-securitisation. Let me know if you want links to articles.

  2. nonviolentconflict April 2, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Reblogged this on NonviolentConflict.

  3. Rex Brynen May 10, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    I’m hard-pressed to think of any cases where unarmed popular mobilization in Lebanon resulted in displacing or seriously constraining non-state armed groups. (On the other hand, I can think of many cases in Lebanon where unarmed popular mobilization was used in support of non-state armed groups). What example were you thinking of?

    • rationalinsurgent May 16, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

      I was thinking of the anti-violence protests that developed in opposition to the various sectarian militias during the Lebanese civil war. I am not sure they ever really developed into an organized campaign, but there were some protests and demonstrations against the violence.

  4. Bjoern Kunter May 16, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    My spontaneous thoughts went to the neighborhood safety program of the movement for a new society in Philadelphia. George Lakey had been involved in its creation. We once published a book about it – in German. ( )

    While the nonviolent neighborhood safety concept(s) had been developed against violent crime and not against “armed groups” in your sense, their methodology might still be helpful and the probably vast experience in this field might give valuable clues on what might or won’t work in your cases.

  5. Jonathan Sutton May 18, 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    Dear Erica, I think this is a very good point and a logical next step for the study of nonviolent action. How you would differentiate between organisations using nonviolent action to counter violence and those involved in peacebuilding? For example Victoria Sanford calls the peace villages ‘peacebuilding communities’ (Sanford, 2010, “Peacebuilding in a War Zone,” International Peacekeeping, 10(2)) and presents them as a campaign of passive resistance. I think that if you use the same NVA framework that you have for your NAVCO work the case would have to be made quite strongly that these kinds of movements are actually engaged in a nonviolent but direct conflict with non-state armed groups, and not peacebuilding activities or passive resistance. It’s not immediately clear to me how a Gene Sharp-esque view of NVA would even apply to these situations. Regards, J S

    • Mark Mattaini May 24, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

      My thought would be that such campaigns would best be understood in terms of constructive noncooperation (roughly, Gandhi’s constructive programme), which by its nature is simultaneously constructing a new reality and an act of resistance to current power structures (state or nonstate). Jonathan Schell wrote a good deal about this in his Unconquerable World, see also our paper in Peace and Conflict Studies ( … would of course benefit from similar strategic planning and analysis as other forms of nonviolent struggle. Gene Sharp encouraged us to look at constructive noncooperation as one to which he had not devoted much attention … I believe there is much more to be done there.

  6. Evan Weissman September 13, 2012 at 10:32 am #

    Las Abejas community in Oaxaca, Mexico. As far as I know, these are the same folks as the Zapatistas but they are committed to nonviolence through their understanding of the Bible (Catholics).


  1. People Power against Armed (Non-State) Groups | rationalinsurgent - May 15, 2014

    […] I mentioned in a previous post, nonviolent action against armed non-state actors may be especially tricky because it’s often […]

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