Small acts of resistance can make a big difference, a leading human rights advocate tells News-Decoder. And non-violent civil disobedience is usually more effective than armed militancy.

By Nelson Graves

Small acts of resistance can make a big difference. And non-violent civil disobedience is usually more effective than armed militancy in bringing about lasting change.

Those were two key messages that human rights expert Steve Crawshaw delivered to the News-Decoder community during an hour-long online discussion earlier this month.

“Individuals together can create amazing change,” Crawshaw said before describing “tiny, little actions” that strung together have transformed the world.

Crawshaw is finishing his latest book while on sabbatical from his position as director of the office of the secretary general at Amnesty International. The book, which will come out next year, is on creative nonviolence and entitled “Street Spirit: The Power of Protest and Mischief,” with a foreword by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

From 2002 to 2010, Crawshaw worked for Human Rights Watch, first as UK director and then as United Nations advocacy director. Between 1986 and 2002, he was a journalist with The Independent newspaper, reporting on the east European revolutions, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Balkan wars.

“Political bungee jump”

In an earlier book, “Small Acts of Resistance,” Crawshaw documented dozens of campaigns of civil disobedience that led to major political change, from the collapse of Soviet Communism to the end of apartheid in South Africa.

change
Australia’s Cathy Freeman after winning a gold medal at the Summer Olympics, 25 September 2000, Sydney. (AP Photo/Eric Draper)

The human rights advocate recounted how Poles fed up with Communism in the early 1980s would protest against state-controlled news by putting their television sets into wheel barrows or children’s strollers, and then walking around the central square in a show of defiance.

Ordinary people who participate in small-scale protests risk danger but often find more meaning in life from taking what Crawshaw called “the political bungee jump.”

Crawshaw listed acts of resistance that have brought about change in:

  • Myanmar, where decades of protest against military rule have started to bring about change;
  • United States, where the civil rights movement won progress for blacks in the 1950s and 1960s;
  • Australia, where sprinter Cathy Freeman won respect for indigenous peoples by carrying the Aboriginal flag during the 2000 Olympics in Sydney;

Syria — the number one human rights issue of today.

Crawshaw took issue with restrictions on women’s dress in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and France, and said the recent Brexit vote in the UK had unleashed a “massive increase” in xenophobic attacks there.

Women demonstrate for the release of Nelson Mandela, 16 August 1962, Johannesburg. (AP Photo/Dennis Lee Royle)
Women demonstrate for the release of Nelson Mandela, 16 August 1962, Johannesburg. (AP Photo/Dennis Lee Royle)

“The politicians themselves were not encouraging those killings,” he said. “But I do think that the sense of permissiveness that you give by changing the dialog and by fostering mistrust and hatred, that can help create a place where really dangerous things happen.”

Asked to name the world’s top human rights issue of today, Crawshaw cited the effects of conflict in Syria, which he called “truly shocking.”

“All of the richest countries in the world have done absolutely nothing by comparison with the much, much poorer countries who are taking an incredible burden of refugees,” he said.

Crawshaw said non-violent protests and acts of civil disobedience generally are more successful than armed struggle in bringing about lasting change. He cited the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the U.S. civil rights movement.

“It’s pretty hard to find examples where the armed struggle has not then become toxic,” he said. “I think that’s true in many, many different contexts.”

Crawshaw was joined on camera during the September 13 webinar by students and faculty at Indiana University, one of 14 academic institutions in News-Decoder’s pilot program.

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