Friday, March 4, 2011

Civil Resistance and the Law

I am continuing to ponder the implications of the popularly-inspired political changes in the Middle East (which the experts appear not to have anticipated, perhaps because experts tend to underestimate the power of the local and fail to connect the local and the global). A review essay by Brian Urquhart in the current issue of the New York Review of Books caught my eye, and it may be of interest to legal historians who study political and social change. Urquhart reviews two books, including Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash. This volume of essays explores non-violent political action from a comparative perspective. It covers, among other things, the Iranian revolution, the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, the rejection of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, the liberation of East Germany, the independence of Kosovo, the Serbian people’s removal of Slobodan Miloševi´c, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and the Prague Spring. (The photo shows Václav Havel, the Czech writer and dissident, leaving an unofficial meeting with Lech Wałesa, the Polish dissident and politician, at the Czech–Polish border, March 17, 1990).

Based on Urquhart's discussion of the essays in the volume, the book appears to provide a rich collection of facts that, in turn, are helpful in puzzling over the extent to which law, in its various forms, is a resource for those who employ non-violent tactics to achieve reform. Urquhart's review begins this way:

Amid both the gloom of the season and the recent uprisings in the Arab world, it is bracing to look back at the last thirty years or so and see how much has actually gone more or less well. The end of the cold war, the demise of communism, and the emergence of new democratic states of varying quality all represent important historical change. Most of the radical political and economic transformations of the last quarter-century, moreover, have been brought about with little or no bloodshed. The “velvet” revolution, based on civil resistance, organization, and negotiation, came into fashion. Much was owed to Mikhail Gorbachev.

What we now call “civil resistance” often takes the form of mass rallies and demonstrations, as in Prague in 1989 and Tehran in 2009. People also engage in strikes, boycotts, fasts, and refusals to obey the law. All these have been evident in the largely leaderless, but Internet-coordinated, overthrow of the government in Tunis and the mass protests in Cairo, whose outcomes probably won’t be clear for some time. Civil resistance usually cannot survive systematic and violent repression or a totalitarian police state, and it is still often suppressed by authoritarian governments and oligarchies. At least in the Arab world, this seems to be changing.

Modern nonviolent civil resistance has usually been associated with Mohandas K. Gandhi, who began his experiments with civil resistance to discrimination against Indians in South Africa in 1906 and moved to India to challenge the British administration of the Raj in 1915.
The entire review is available here.