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Outside Intervention in Nonviolent Revolutions—A Commentary by Jane Mansbridge and Chibli Mallat

The following commentary was posted on on September 11, 2012.

Outside Intervention in Nonviolent Revolutions
By Jane Mansbridge and Chibli Mallat

JURIST Guest Columnists Jane Mansbridge of the Harvard Kennedy School and Chibli Mallat of the S.J. Quinney College of Law say that the international community ought to develop a system to trigger intervention when governments violently suppress nonviolent revolutionary efforts, so that revolutionaries are not encouraged to utilize violent means...

The recent revolutions in Libya and Syria offer a bitter lesson: to generate outside intervention against a dictator, armed rebellion is more effective than even the most heroic nonviolence. In the Syrian tragedy, the first long phase of the revolution from mid-March 2011 to the middle of the summer was militantly nonviolent, with "peacefully, peacefully" the continuing refrain as nonviolent protesters were mowed down by government forces. Even as the nonviolent casualties mounted, the revolutionaries themselves resisted calling for outside military intervention, partly because such intervention seemed to contravene the very nature of nonviolent resistance. Since the revolution turned violent about a year ago, the call for outside intervention, even military intervention, has multiplied several-fold.

Nonviolent resistance, however, is more likely to foster successful negotiation among all parties during the transition to a new government. Not only is a nonviolent transition more likely to create the conditions for economic and political renewal after the dictator is gone, but the process of nonviolence is more likely to surface the kinds of leaders who can both broker a peaceful transition and lead effectively after the transition. It is also well-known that nonviolent revolution is far more capable of attracting universal sympathy. Paradoxically, however, only violent revolution is capable of attracting outside intervention through either direct military involvement, as in Libya, or through increased delivery of weapons to the revolution, as in Syria.

We believe the paradox can be resolved by a settled policy among the international community of nations on nonviolent protests against dictators.

We need a set of automatic triggers based on an international assessment of the level of violence that a dictatorial government is using against nonviolent protest. The exact form of the triggers is less important than the principle of reaction. The international community should begin thinking immediately about the appropriate outside responses when a dictatorial regime begins to shoot nonviolent protesters in cold blood. The UN, or one or more regional alliances, could set up an ongoing commission mandated to investigate deaths in nonviolent protests within its area of jurisdiction. One claim of such a death might produce attention to the problem. Ten claimed deaths, with some corroboration from outside sources, might generate a small task force mandated to investigate the issue. Fifty claimed deaths, with significant corroboration from outside sources, might trigger the formation of a formal committee of inquiry. One hundred corroborated deaths might trigger a formal investigation. And 200 corroborated deaths might trigger taking the issue to the UN Security Council (UNSC) for consideration of UN sanctions or sanctions by regional alliances if UN action is vetoed.

From this point on, there would be no specific triggers, but the general principle would be that the more nonviolent deaths, the more likely would be some form of intervention, either by the UN or a coalition of the willing. It is also important to factor in the role of the international judge, presently constrained by the International Criminal Court (ICC) rules allowing the UNSC to veto investigations. In a nonviolent revolution, a dictator's killing of multiple peaceful civilians is tantamount to a crime against humanity.

At no point should any number of deaths automatically trigger military intervention. Military intervention of any kind is a last resort, one particularly abhorred by the nonviolent. Yet the inexorable rise of deaths in a nonviolent revolution ought not to continue without any response. That conclusion lies at the heart of the "never again" pledge since the horrors of Nazism during World War II. The Rwanda and Srebrenica massacres have revived a similar idea, which has evolved into the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine (R2P). R2P, however, does not take into consideration the nature of the revolution against entrenched dictators. It does not privilege a nonviolent rebellion over a violent one. This is a deficiency in the doctrine that we argue needs to be remedied.

At the point where some form of military intervention must be considered — if a situation ever reaches that point — it should be the responsibility of those taking action to devise means that keep violence to a minimum and that respond as much as possible in the manner of a well-trained police force responding to the report of a violent crime. The imminent killing of large numbers of nonviolent demonstrators, who are by nature civilians, might at some point require an immediate violent response of significant military proportions. In Benghazi, the Western-Arab coalition intervened before Gaddafi's forces occupied it in order to prevent a large-scale massacre. Yet, long before this the Libyan revolt had become militarized. By contrast, when the Syrian cities of Deraa and Homs rebelled, carefully avoiding any violence, and the Syrian government subdued them with the use of artillery and tanks, the international community generated no effective reaction whatsoever. This scene was repeated time and again. The nonviolent death toll grew higher, with no reaction from the West or from other Arab countries. Under our threshold theory, it was past time for some effective form of an outside military intervention.

As a result of what we consider the unpardonable irresponsibility of the international community, the nonviolent revolution slowly and predictably became militarized. The message from the international community was short and clear: so long as you are nonviolent, we shall not intervene. Your only chance for intervention is to use violence.

With an automatic threshold for inquiry in place, accompanied by a general principle of graduated intervention with increasing suffering on a massive scale and intensity, nonviolent revolutions will no longer be punished. Quite the contrary: the dictator who unleashes more violence against peaceful demonstrators must expect some form of intervention from the outside. The triggers will not only deter the dictator but encourage the nonviolent, giving them realistic hope that their deaths will not have been in vain. Although we cannot solve the paradox of eventually using some form of outside violence to support domestic nonviolence, we will have avoided the more terrible paradox of nonviolence deteriorating into civil war, with all the evils that brings upon a country, both morally and materially.

Jane Mansbridge is Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values at the Harvard Kennedy School and the President of the American Political Science Association.

Chibli Mallat is a lawyer and professor of law, now Visiting Professor and Oscar M. Ruebhausen Distinguished Senior Fellow at Yale Law School. Both Mansbridge and Mallat work with Right to Nonviolence, an international NGO based in Beirut.