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Civil Resistance During Civil War

Research on civil resistance tends to focus on cases where nonviolent methods are used to challenge authoritarian or otherwise unjust regimes, who may in turn respond with violent repression in a last-ditch (and often counterproductive) effort to maintain control. But what resources does nonviolent action have for challenging violence itself? Scholarship on this question generally falls into two categories: that on unarmed civilian peacekeeping (the use of accompaniment, proactive presence, and other nonviolent strategies to deter/prevent violence and protect civilians) and that on civil resistance against armed groups/state militaries (including the creation of zones of peace) as a means of protection and/or communal defense. Contributing to the second category, this research focuses on efforts of the civilian population in Samaniego, Colombia, to resist violence and maintain a semblance of autonomy in the face of various armed groups struggling for dominance in the country’s half-century-long civil war. The authors’ interest in this case is twofold: first, what explains the emergence of civil resistance against armed groups in Samaniego from 1997 until 2014, and, second, what explains the success of such efforts in stemming violence in the area?

The authors base their findings on field research—in the form of interviews with local authorities, civil society leaders, community members, former rebels, and external actors (from national/international organizations); observations; and document analysis—conducted in the Colombian municipalities of Bogotá, Samaniego, Pasto, and Cali from 2011 until 2014. Breaking up their analysis into three time periods, the authors examine 1) 1997-2000, when community members resisted armed interference in their elections and declared Samaniego a peace territory under Mayor Cuéllar, 2) 2004-2007, when Mayor Montúfar negotiated a local peace pact among the armed groups, as well as an agreement to remove land mines, and 3) 2008-2014, when community members in Samaniego’s mountain region established an indigenous reserve as a strategy to resist confinement and maintain independence and impartiality in the armed conflict.

On the question of what contributed to the emergence of civil resistance in Samaniego, the authors argue that both structural factors and the agency of particular individuals were important. During these three periods, the prominent structural/contextual factors that facilitated mobilization were, on the one hand, the experience of violence, control, and confinement at the hands of armed groups at the local level, which motivated resistance, and, on the other hand, the presence of peace negotiations and the strength of the peace movement at the national level, which provided support for and connections between local initiatives like peace territories. Additionally, especially during the third period, the support of external organizations (like the UN Development Program) and “enabling norms at the national level” with regards to the recognition of indigenous reserves shaped the ability of community members to establish a reserve with an autonomous local government to maintain independence and impartiality amid increased fighting. At the same time, the agency of individual actors was crucial, especially when structural conditions were not as conducive to civil resistance. For instance, the authors cite instances where gains made under one mayor were reversed upon the election of a new mayor or where grassroots leaders effectively counteracted unfavorable structural conditions—showing the difference individuals make.

On the question of which factors contributed to the success of civil resistance in Samaniego—including a drop from 63 to 24 homicides per year from 2003 to 2007—the authors argue that characteristics of the civil resistance movement and particular strategic choices made by the movement were crucial to stemming violence. The movement characteristics the authors found to be most important include broad participation (which facilitates movement resilience and the ability to influence armed group members), unity (which increases the movement’s leverage and self-protection), and representative leadership (both elected and grassroots leaders).

The strategic decisions made by the movement that were key to its success include the articulation of “clear, specific, and attainable objectives,” adherence to nonviolent discipline and impartiality (to take away justifications armed groups might have used to target civilian communities, especially that they may be collaborating with rival armed groups), strategic use of leverage against armed groups (especially armed groups’ concern for their reputation and reliance on the local population), and the priority placed on gaining “buy-in” from armed groups (often through direct communication). In short, civil resistance can work not only against unjust regimes and conditions but also against violence itself, enabling a community to preserve its autonomy in the context of war and not be controlled by the armed logic surrounding it.

Civil resistance: “the application of unarmed civilian power using nonviolent methods such as protests, strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations, without using or threatening physical harm against the opponent.” (Chenoweth & Cunningham 2013, 271)

Peace territory/zone of peace: “a territory in which armed actors are asked to ‘abide by certain rules in order to limit the effects of armed conflict’.” (internal direct quotation from Mouly et al. 2015)

Contemporary Relevance:

When civilians are subject to armed group violence during civil war, it is easy to assume that they must necessarily turn to (or join) one of those groups or the country’s military for protection. This thinking follows the common-sense logic (mentioned earlier in this Digest with reference to Chenoweth & Schock’s research) that violence is necessary to confront violence. What this logic misses is the way in which such an association can actually increase civilian vulnerability at the hands of other armed actors, who see these civilians as collaborating with their enemies and therefore as suitable targets. It is important in such cases to know that there is another option besides taking up armed protection, on the one hand, and complete submission, on the other. Peace territories or zones of peace provide this alternative—a way to carve out islands of autonomy, free from the interference of armed actors, during violent conflict. Key to this strategy is recognition of the fact that most armed actors (non-state armed groups and state militaries alike) are very concerned about whom civilian populations are supporting; if a community can clearly demonstrate that it is not supporting any side/armed actor, that is a way to, in a sense, meet the “needs” of these armed actors while also serving to protect—and maintain the independence of—community members who might otherwise be at risk.

Talking Points:

  • Civil resistance—in particular, the creation of peace territories—can be used to resist not only authoritarian regimes but also violence itself.
  • The interaction between advantageous structural conditions like a national peace process or peace movement and the individual agency of local leaders facilitated the emergence of civil resistance in Samaniego, Colombia.
  • The factors most responsible for the success of civil resistance in Samaniego, Colombia, include broad movement participation, unity, and representative leadership, as well as strategic movement choices regarding clear objectives, nonviolent discipline and impartiality, the use of leverage, and armed group “buy-in”.

Practical Implications:

This research provides useful recommendations for activists and practitioners alike. For activists, especially those living amid violent conflict, it is important to know about the protective (not just emancipatory) effects of nonviolent action, as such knowledge can create options for creative and effective strategizing. In particular, activists should encourage their communities to maintain nonviolent discipline and impartiality with regards to the various armed actors in the war—both of which can have a protective effect, while also helping to deescalate war at the local level and perhaps at the national level. As with all civil resistance movements, activists should also think strategically about leverage, with special consideration given to armed groups’ dependency relations and their concern for their reputations with regards to particular issues. At the same time that they are finding points of leverage for effectively pressuring armed groups, activists should also balance that pressure with engagement with armed groups to gain their “buy-in” with various initiatives (like the peace pacts or demining initiative noted above). Internally, activists should do everything they can to build unity and broad-based participation in the movement—the more diverse the movement, the more links and influence it is likely to have with armed groups.

As for practitioners who may be eager to find ways to assist such efforts from outside, one of the most important roles that they can play is to facilitate linkages between communities engaged in similar civil resistance or peace territory activities within a country or in different countries, so activists can share experiences, learn best practices, strategize together, and, perhaps most importantly, not feel isolated. In addition, they can provide resources and international publicity, as or when requested.


Mouly, C., Belén Garrido, M., Idler, A. (2016). How peace takes shape locally: the experience of civil resistance in Samaniego, Colombia. Peace & Change, 41(2), 129-166.

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