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How Repression Can Backfire To Fuel Resistance

How Repression Can Backfire To Fuel Resistance


During resistance movements, repression can backfire. Rather than crippling the resistance, repression often fuels resistance and undercuts the legitimacy of a power elite.

In the News:

“From Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses attacking U.S. civil rights demonstrators to the massacre at Amritsar in colonial India, the use of coercive force against dissidents often backfires, becoming a transformative event that can change the course of a conflict. Rather than demobilizing a movement, repression often ironically fuels resistance and undercuts the legitimacy of a power elite. Although a long scholarly tradition explores the unintended consequences of martyrdom and other acts of violence, more attention could be paid to what we call the paradox of repression — that is, when repression creates unanticipated consequences that authorities do not desire. Efforts by power elites to oppress movements often backfire, mobilizing popular support for the movements and undermining authorities, potentially leading to significant reforms or even a regime’s overthrow.

“The last century produced a surge of innovation in nonviolent conflict strategies and methods, many of which have made effective use of the paradox of repression…Despite its ubiquity, the obscurity of the paradox of repression should not be particularly surprising. It is most apparent in conflicts in which one party employs strategic nonviolent strategy. However, it is only in the 20th century that we witness the prodigious expansion of nonviolence corresponding with globalization and accelerating technological development. In a globalizing world where communications, travel and arms technologies have become widely available, even small pockets of resistance have developed the capacity to challenge more traditionally powerful institutions, such as corporations and states. Greater international interdependence requires economic and political cooperation across an increasingly complex network of cross-cutting alliances. The use of coercive force in this environment may offend or inconvenience mutual allies and neighbors and leave an aggressor isolated. The United States has experienced this dilemma in connection with the invasion of Iraq. Despite considerable support from the United Kingdom, the Bush administration encountered significant obstacles in cobbling together a coalition of smaller, less influential states. Larger states on the United Nations Security Council, such as France, Germany, and Russia, probably declined to participate in part because of significant economic interests in the region, but they were also under pressure from their own citizens who sympathized with the Iraqi people and considered the invasion unjustified aggression.”

Support From Peace Science:

Peace Science Digest Volume 2, Special Issue Nonviolent Resistance: Nonviolent Resistance and Government Repression

  • More resistance movements are choosing to adopt nonviolent forms of struggle as the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance becomes more widely known.
  • Since 2010, the success rate of nonviolent movements—though still higher than that of violent movements—has decreased dramatically, partly due to target regimes’ use of increasingly savvy responses.
  • Contrary to popular belief, nonviolent resistance movements are subjected to mass killings much less frequently than violent resistance movements are.
  • There are multiple ways nonviolent movements/methods can overcome, resist, prevent, or protect people from violence, including “political jiu-jitsu”— when violent repression against a nonviolent movement backfires against the regime using it.
  • Nonviolent activists can strengthen a movement’s ability to withstand and lessen the chances of violent repression by strategically publicizing the contrast between their own actions and those of their opponent, strengthening organizational/civil society capacity, and taking measures to facilitate security force defection.

Peace Science Digest Volume 3, Issue  2: An Interactive Approach to Explaining Success and Failure in the Arab Spring

  • The success or failure of a civil resistance movement is best understood within a dynamic framework that can account for the interactions between movement activists and the regime, particularly the bearing their respective tactics have on the unity and coherence of the other side.
  • The success of a civil resistance movement depends on the movement’s ability to maintain unity and coherence while weakening the cohesion of their opponent, both of which are related to the timing of regime repression and of movement escalation.
  • Activists in civil resistance movements should consider the timing of escalatory activities carefully, planning them for moments of “cohesion and momentum.”


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