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Tactics and Solutions – What about Civil Disobedience?

“If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration,”
Al Gore to the Clinton Global Initiative gathering, 2008.

I wrote previously,  broadly,  about Economic Justice -  but the themes of 2010 Civicus Assembly are also about advocating for, and implementing, solutions. Some solutions are positive,  they build on our successes, and try and create the conditions for, and models of, the world that we would like to see – a more equitable and just world.  Examples abound, and I could have chosen many others,  in CIVICUS member groups,  and around the world -  including such projects as:  increasing all aspects of the “Solidarity Economy”, working on building housing and improving access to food and markets, finding sustainable ways of living – by creating sustainable agricultural, forestry and fishing practices, or in a myriad of ways available to build community, civil society participation,  and sustainability.

But,  sometimes we have to stop the attacks, the damage, the inequality, the injustice,  and we are forced into a defensive or aggressive (but non-violent)  posture – we cannot wait for a chance to join with others, globally or locally,  to build the world that we want to see eventually – sometimes we have to act now and we have to STOP actions: be it, whaling, bulldozing homes in the West Bank and Gaza, ripping up the land and polluting the water like in the Canadian Tar Sands, or stealing land from peasant and/or indigenous peoples.  And for that, we have a limited number of options – letter writing, protesting in the street, PR through social networks or earned media, lobbying governments, and internationally agencies,  and working in elections . . . and, also, civil disobedience.

Kumi Naidoo – Executive Director of Greenpeace and author of a new book - Boiling Point : Can Citizen Action Save the World? - has a video posted on his blog, on the Greenpeace site.

In the video (see video below) Kumi says, in part, “At a time, when civil disobedience appears to be the only way we can actually push our governments, Greenpeace’s methodology [of non-violent direct action] offers us the most promise.  Because, right now, the only possibility that we have to get our governments to listen to us and to act with the urgency that the situation calls for is to ensure that they are constantly being pushed.”


The Canadian Environmental law Centre at the University of Victoria, has a handbook for Canadians particularly for struggles in the forest industry, called: Civil Disobedience: a Legal Handbook for Activists.  In it they define and contextualize civil disobedience:

Civil disobedience can be defined as deliberate disobedience of the law out of obedience to a higher authority such as religion, morality or an environmentalist ethic. Civil disobedience has existed in various forms for as long as people have lived in organized societies governed by the rule of law. Its primary purpose is usually to change the law or society’s views on a particular issue. It is a public action intended to have a political effect. Civil disobedience can be defined by certain criteria:

  • it is employed only after other means have failed
  • it is non-violent
  • it is undertaken openly
  • its participants are willing to submit to prosecution and punishment for breaking the law
  • it is aimed at publicizing and challenging injustice
  • it is not employed for coercive or intimidating reasons

Civil disobedience is seen as morally justifiable if it contributes to the social good and is performed by someone who is well intentioned and well informed. Reasoned and thoughtful resistance through civil disobedience can often serve as a check on the political system and prevent serious departures from justice. The fact that one can engage in principled disobedience of the law is generally a sign of a nearly just society, for in an unjust society, dissenting voices may be simply crushed. In a relatively just society, the use of civil disobedience can be an effective and morally justifiable way to change laws or government policies.

So, do we need to agree with this definition?  Do we need to have a debate about how and when civil disobedience is a useful and productive tactic?   Lots of people being arrested and jailed (as in the G20 in Toronto June, 2010 – although they were not for the most part practicing civil disobedience but were legally protesting) is not much use,  if all of the activists are simply imprisoned, and  for many years.  And, yet, being willing to accept the punishment that goes with the disobedience,  was traditionally part of civil disobedience (as it demonstrates one’s agreement with the rule of law, in general, just not the one you are protesting!) along with non-violence.

If we are using civil disobedience, what principles are important, and what – if you use it in a country which has no functioning “rule of law” or where inequality and or discrimination against certain groups is rampant – is the role of civil disobedience?   Is it still a valid choice?

Some of these issues, and the increasing criminalization of any kind of dissent, will be explored in a workshop on Day 3 of the Assembly called W25: Activism is Not a Crime.

What do you think about Civil Disobedience?  Have you used it?  Are you willing to be arrested or jailed for your beliefs?  To save the planet?  To save a people?  To save yourself and your family?

Category : Civil Society and Democratic Space
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