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PEACE in Action

People Power Across the Globe


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Building a Culture of Peace
People Power Across the Globe
First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.


—Mahatma Gandhi

With the smoke of a genocidal civil war scarcely cleared, over half a million people descended upon Belgrade with bread and bricks—bricks not for throwing but for rebuilding, as they demanded that Milosevic’s fraudulent election be recalled. Although some demonstrators were met with violence, they did not return it. Still, a dictator fell.

A mass of young protesters gathered from all reaches of Georgia, storming the government and parliament buildings, armed with food and roses for the very soldiers who were meant to stop them, by force if need be. Not a shot was fired, yet the sitting president was forced to resign.

Sheltered by navy blue umbrellas, wearing similar white T-shirts, and carrying signs that read “No to One-Party Rule,” a quarter of a million to half a million people have repeatedly gathered in Hong Kong to demand an end to China’s one-party rule—despite threats of violence from Beijing.

Indonesian students, teachers, nurses, and even security officers amassed throughout their nation. Some were threatened, some “disappeared.” Yet, when almost a thousand protesters were killed in a government operation to halt the organizing, roughly one million demonstrators flooded the streets of the Capital and other towns and cities. In the end, a dictator who had been in place for over three decades lost power.

On November 1, 2003, 100,000 Israeli demonstrators converged in Tel Aviv to protest Sharon’s policies towards Palestine. They believed that these policies were not in the interest of either Palestine or Israel.

While one must always be cautious about overly optimistic predictions of an emerging global civil society or sweeping new democratic reform, such examples of “people power” constitute an emerging trend of genuine deep democracy across the globe which governments and international organizations will increasingly have to contend with in their policy-making. New leaders have emerged who are calling upon the ideals and techniques of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Consider, for example, the demonstrations across the world against the recent war in Iraq. Those protests represented millions of people in the US, the UK, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Latin America, the Middle East, and throughout Africa (nearly half a million gathered in London alone!). Thus, it represented the largest and most powerful gathering of civil society globally that the world has ever witnessed. Although these demonstrations did not have their intended effect, the size and scale of the mobilization and its global nature was unprecedented—it crossed boundaries of class, gender, nationality, and faith.

As most political scientists have noted, democracy seems to have increased gradually across the globe for the last several centuries—from the revolutions of the 18th Century to the collapse of the Soviet Empire at the end of the 20th Century. Yet, the rising tide of deep democracy is something altogether new and different. Citizens are increasingly making use of peaceful means to bring about social change. The movement to shape the global economy around the needs of people is especially strong throughout Africa and Latin America, but also in North America and Europe as well. This can be seen in the movement for debt cancellation for impoverished nations, fair trade, and reform of the Bretton Woods institutions.

This people power movement for economic justice found its most powerful expression in Seattle, Washington, USA at the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings. Tens of thousands of people from various nations and backgrounds nearly brought the city of Seattle to a standstill, and did succeed in shutting down or delaying some of the meetings of the WTO.

The protesters carried signs, chanted, blocked traffic, and marched through the streets where the meetings were being held to determine the shape and scope of global trade. They represented a stunning variety of sectors—labor, faith and solidarity groups, environmentalists, and Southern Hemisphere civil society groups from around the globe. All cooperated to demand that the needs of the poor be made a central priority of the international financial institutions.

The legacy of what is now often called “The Battle of Seattle” remains alive. Since 1999, each meeting of the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO has been met with demonstrations and civil protests. The demands of the people committed to this movement remain the same: fair trade for the poorest, labor rights, environmental standards, and freedom from debt slavery. The impetus behind this mobilization of global civil society is the same as the nonviolent revolutions mentioned at the beginning of this article—an insistence that the rights and basic needs of the people be respected, and that civil participation in decision making is a must for just policies.

Civil society influenced the World Bank in other ways as well. One little known example of this resulted from the work of the Campaign for Tibet, a non-governmental organization which advocates for that nation. The World Bank had, against its own regulations and procedures, approved funding for a program in China to relocate 20,000 Chinese farmers to Tibet. The Campaign for Tibet discovered this, and responded with a week of demonstrations outside the World Bank. At the time, my office was directly across the street from the Bank and I saw that someone had hung a banner out of a World Bank window displaying a portrait denigrating the Bank’s president. When the latter discovered this, and the illegality of the funding for this program, the funding was terminated and the program canceled. This was an especially significant victory for the economic justice movement, since it represents the first time a civil group, an expression of people power, succeeded in persuading the World Bank to change its policies.

The Indian elections in May 2004 reveal similar dynamics. Three hundred million people voted, but it was largely the rural poor who influenced the vote—which resulted in the ouster of the incumbent party whose policies had generated wealth for India’s middle and upper classes, but not for the lower classes. In many cases, revolutions such as this have borne the fruit of real, sustainable change. This change is proving contagious, as new technologies and international fora provide mechanisms for civil society to organize and express concerns.

Peace scholar Hannah Arendt once wrote of the importance of distinguishing between force and strength. She noted that despite what she considered to be the regrettable intellectual imprecision of so many political scientists and sociologists who equate force and power, historically even monarchies have had to create consent for their policies in order to be seen as legitimate. She posited that power and force are actually opposites. One can always tell when a regime is losing true power by its increasing displays of force. She argued that Force, then, is actually a sign of weakness, because force is not necessary when one exercises true power. Arendt defined this true power as the ability to persuade and create consensus. As she summarized, “politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.”

What new global and state conditions are enabling this surge of “people power?” What characteristics define these peaceful revolutions? How might peace workers, scholars, civil society, and even governments themselves encourage them? Are they proving sustainable? Should they be encouraged? How should government and international organizations respond? This fascinating and potentially revolutionary trend raises a number of questions which peace workers and policy makers must answer.

To review this dynamic, Cheryl Duckworth and I did an intensive review of case studies of “people power” nonviolent revolutions (“Track 6” of Multi-Track Diplomacy) as they unfolded in Nepal, Indonesia, Belgrade, Hong Kong, and Georgia. We wished to shed some light on what is causing these movements, what seems to have allowed them to succeed, whether or not this success might be sustainable, and what policies might now be necessary with this new global political reality. The complete report can be found in IMTD Occasional Paper # 14, August 2004 [www.imtd.org/publications]

Our review showed that these peaceful popular revolutions share a number of causes and characteristics in common. One related phenomenon we have noticed is that, in every single case study, the ruling elite had lost the support of the military—often, of course, the only means by which the regime was able to keep power. In some cases, the soldiers allowed the demonstrators to proceed unharmed, as the protest was peaceful. Often, the organizers of the resistance explicitly reached out to the military, as was most clearly seen in Georgia. At times, as in Belgrade, the security forces even joined the demonstrators.

A second common characteristic is the skillful and poignant use of symbolism to galvanize civil society, specifically to rally the people around a message that was revolutionary and populist as well as peaceful. Georgia’s Rose Revolution, of course, is a powerful example—the students and other protesters not only offered roses to the soldiers guarding the presidential and parliament buildings, eyewitnesses and participants report that many of the demonstrators actually hugged them as well!

Belgrade has a similar tale to tell. As Slobodan Milosevic’s “victory” in the 2000 elections was being celebrated by his supporters, nearly half a million protesters demanded that he concede the election and admit to the fraud he had perpetrated. Expressive of their desire that the protest be peaceful and constructive, rather than violent, many protesters stacked bricks on the streets as a symbol of rebuilding. Others brought bread to the government building where Milosevic and the remains of his government were still installed; in i- Serbian tradition, this bread was a symbol of friendship.

The most recent protest in Hong Kong against the central government in Beijing’s refusal to allow a vote featured its almost half a million participants all wearing white T-shirts in a display of visual unity.

The media, including new communications technologies, such as cell phones and faxes, have also played central roles in these peaceful revolutions—they provided a means of political organizing and communicating which the government was unable to regulate. One former Russian official even noted that the Soviet Union was brought down, in his view, by the fax machine. As Reader’s Digest once reported, “Workers of the World, Fax!” was the headline of a Washington Post article in late 1990 during the waning days of the Cold War. Michael Dobbs reported that correspondents in the Soviet Union had gone from having too little information to too much. It was a “revolution by fax,” he wrote, which “has made a mockery of attempts by Communist Party bureaucrats to control the flow of news.” Similarly, the student democracy demonstrations in Tienanmen Square are often referred to as a “revolution by fax.”

The press in many of these cases also played a central role, providing a means of disseminating information about fraudulent elections, protests against the government and the like. This coverage also helped attract and enable the support of the international community, another common factor in the success of these historic popular revolutions. As Dr. Kurt Mills wrote, “Gil Scott-Heron says that ‘The revolution will not be televised.’ The global reach of CNN makes that claim doubtful. Regardless, however, the revolution will be digitized, faxed, e-mailed, uploaded, and generally be available electronically to a large portion of humanity.”

Despite the opportunities that this presents, these new technologies are not available to two-thirds of the world. Access to electricity and even literacy, in an ever more printed world, is a must if the poorest of the poor are to close this digital divide, and thus have some hope of bettering their situations.

The international context and the connections between domestic resistance groups, such as Otpor in Belgrade or Kmara in Georgia, was also influential. The concerns of various neighboring nations, as well as the involvement of powers such as the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, provided pressure in some cases on the sitting government to concede falsified elections, or enact certain democratic reforms. Without disregarding the valid concerns many have expressed about globalization, this process as represented by new technologies and international forums of governance can offer crucial advantages to voices who otherwise would struggle to be heard.

Nepal, Indonesia, Belgrade, Hong Kong and Georgia all offer hope that peaceful social change is possible. Some of the resistant groups were explicitly linked. Yet all of these movements are connected by a common zeitgeist – a passionate belief that peaceful change is possible and a growing conviction across the globe that fundamental human and civil rights are not negotiable; hence the contagious nature of these movements.

They also represent, however, a new and growing trend across the globe of civil political expression, possibly the nascent beginnings of a global civil society. This is perhaps most evident in the protests against globalization as we know it. Citizens are demonstrating for change because they know the North/South gap, the gap between the wealthy minority and the poor masses, is growing larger, not smaller. They are demanding that their needs be a priority.

If this new phenomenon of peaceful revolutions is to be dealt with effectively, in a manner that protects civil freedoms and human rights regardless of one's nationality, governments will soon find it necessary to begin creating policies and institutional mechanisms to respond to these demonstrations of people power. Most importantly, governments must learn how to listen to their people to determine what their needs are before violence occurs; once a conflict begins to escalate to violence, it becomes astronomically more difficult to resolve peacefully. Presently, governments are not changing with this new reality, and their people are leaving them behind.

Ambassador (Ret.) John W. McDonald is a lawyer, a professor, a published author, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Western Europe and the Middle East, and with agencies of the United Nations dealing with economic and social affairs. He is the co-founder, Chairman and CEO of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD) in Arlington, Virginia, USA. For more information on his activities and that of the IMTD, see SPOTLIGHT on Peacemakers at the beginning of this issue of PEACE in Action. For a detailed look at eight more examples of people power, see IMTD Occasional Paper Number 18 of August 2007.

Faith is greater than any bomb!
Faith is the most potent weapon ever devised.
Do not lose faith in mankind, and in the purposes of the Creator.
Do not lose faith in the future.
Much is being done to promote brotherhood, understanding and peace…

David E. Lilienthal

The best defence of peace is not power, but the removal of the causes of war, and international agreements which will put peace on a stronger foundation than the terror of destruction.

Hon. Lester B. Pearson
Former Prime Minister, Canada

So long as we govern our nation by the letter and the spirit of the Bill of Rights, we can be sure that our nation will grow in strength and wisdom and freedom.

Hon. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Former President, United States



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