Event Summary: ‘How Nonviolent Revolution Work’


By: Alexis David

On Wednesday 5th October, the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Srdja Popovic, Co-Founder of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) & Leader of the Anti-Milosevic Demonstrations in Serbia, to discuss the mechanics of protest movements, and the impacts of unity, planning and discipline in enabling their success against autocratic forces.

Mr Popovic introduced his topic by explaining the significance of today’s date, the 5th of October, as it is the anniversary pf the Serbian revolution. As a teenager living in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Mr Popovic’s life and the lives of those around him began to crumble, as senseless nationalism and five bloody wars began to emerge and intensify. According to the speaker there were two options for the youth facing these challenges:

  • To flee the country; which a great number of individuals did
  • To stand up and fight; which is what Mr Popovic alongside a great deal of other individuals decided to do

The speaker of course encouraged the latter, stating that it is “our role and our destiny to take things into our own hands… when nobody else is there to do the job”, especially seeing as the opposition was in a state of disrepair, whilst the international community – from 992 sanctions to 999 bombings – encouraged Milosevic to be even less effective and even more oppressive. Mr Popovic alongside a group that started off with 11 supporters and concluded with over 70,000 were able to mobilise the country to go to standstill, and consequently ensure Milosevic stepped down from power.

My Popovic went on to discuss his success, explaining that in 2003 he started getting invitations from activist groups across the world and began to work with these. This started as a hobby, but has resulted in the speaker meeting with people from over fifty countries in order to develop CANVAS, a non-profit, non-governmental, international network oriented to educational work related to strategic nonviolent conflict. There is a stagnation in the world index of democracy, and so the speaker gave emphasis to education as a vital source to further individuals understanding of nonviolent conflict and thus prevent dictators from gaining and/or maintaining power. Furthermore, Mr Popovic alongside the other members of CANVAS, are currently developing an app that will enable people on the ground to report human rights abuses.

Major nonviolent campaigns are twice more likely to succeed than violent resistance campaigns, and are also ten times more like to end in a durable democracy. Mr Popovic went on to explain that while dictatorships may tumble as a consequence of violent resistance campaigns, democracy is unlikely to ensure, as the violence used to eradicate these regimes such as killing or raping, will be used when challenging subsequent leaders. Instead, the success and durability of a campaign is directly correlated to the number of people participating in the movement, as the activists become shareholders of the campaign and therefore claim ownership of whatever is a success in the nonviolent movement, thus safeguarding the endurance of democracy.

Mr Popovic explained the common successes and lessons of nonviolent campaigns:

  • Unity; vital in order to succeed, the opposition cannot be more united than the nonviolent movement
  • Planning; spontaneous or successful, no such thing as a spontaneous and successful revolution
  • Nonviolent discipline; not only because one single act of violence can destroy your reputation, but if you have 100,000 nonviolent activists, and 3 violent activists say, burning cars, the 3 violent activists will be on the front page of the papers. Nonviolent discipline is a skill, and people can learn these skills

The speaker then went on to explain Laughtivism, a concept which promotes the notion that whether or not a movement is successful, will be established on their ability to use their sense of humour. Enthusiasm and Humour vs Fear and Apathy. Mr Popovic explained how humour breaks fear and apathy, and thus guarantees a greater number of followers.

The talk ended with a focus on the three big challenges to nonviolent movements:

  • How to follow up successful revolution with a successful transition of revolution?
  • How do you use nonviolent approach fighting non state actors such as ISIS?
  • What is the role of the digital age? Media put a tremendous price tag on violations of human rights, a click on a screen will enable you to upload videos to social media and news outlets

For a transcript of this event click here


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