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‘Does Political Violence Work?’ – Reflections on a British Academy Panel

‘Does Political Violence Work?’ – Reflections on a British Academy Panel

Written by Kate McNeil, based on an interview with panel attendee Dr. Tristram Riley-Smith.

On 18 September 2019, the British Academy brought together some of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism to discuss the question of whether political violence works, and to explore the efficacy of civil resistance and terrorism. The panel was chaired by Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Professor Richardson was joined by Professor Erica Chenoweth, Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School, and Queen’s University Belfast’s of Politics Professor Richard English.

Professor Chenoweth is best known for her work on why civil resistance works, while Dr. English explores topics including Irish history, conflict, and the response after 9/11. His most recent book, Does Terrorism Work? A History, was released in 2016. Presenting the results of her quantitative analysis of civil resistance movements, Professor Chenoweth used the panel as an opportunity to highlight that non-violent insurrection is twice as likely to succeed as violent insurrection, with 50% of non-violent insurrections succeeding.

Meanwhile, Professor English emphasized that there is value in recognizing that there are layers to the motivations which lead individuals to participate in political violence, including revenge, fame-seeking ego, political-strategic, and tactical incentives. Differentiating between tactical and strategic successes is particularly key, as a suicide bomber may experience a short-term ‘tactical success’ by driving a foreign force away, but that should not be considered a long-term strategic success.

Key takeaways from the panel included:

  1. Non-violent insurrection is a more effective tool for recruiting support from members of mainstream society. It is also particularly effective at achieving gender parity in its recruitment.
  2. Strikes and stay-at-home demonstrations are incredibly powerful tools of non-violent insurrection movements, because they are hard for repress and suppress.
  3. There are a whole host of issues surrounding the definition of terrorism, including whether to include state terrorism, and how to categorize civilian resistance which is backed by foreign states.
  4. Organizations involved in terrorism are also often involved in other forms of criminal behavior, and wealth often flows between these types of activities.
  5. It is important for states who have experienced an act of terrorism to not overreact. Overreaction can result in actions being taken against people who are not members of the terrorist organization, and their subjection to oppression can generate more recruitment in the long-term.

Panelists emphasized that research into the nuances of this subject is vital, because terrorists believe that their methods work, and sound academic research can provide objective assessments on the efficacy of such methods. The evidence-base supporting non-violent alternatives as more effective then has the potential to be used as a dissuading tool.

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Photo credit: Kate McNeil