The Responsibility to Accompany: A Framework for Multilateral Support of Grassroots Nonviolent Resistance

Facebook Twitter Email
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

shutterstock_226924534Amidst the ashes of global war and genocide, the nations of the world united to develop an international legal architecture to protect the inviolable, intrinsic dignity of the human person. In the years that followed the signing of the Charter of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 and the passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, a tide of indigenous nonviolent movements sought redress for the systematic violation by their own governments of their human rights—rights now articulated in, albeit unevenly enforced by, international law. Ranging from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa to the civil rights movement in the United States, these grassroots campaigns profoundly changed the course of history and continue to resonate deeply in contemporary public memory and imagination. And yet, paradoxically, their philosophical, political, and policy importance remains radically underappreciated in the arena of international relations. This blind spot results in a failure to perceive the spectrum of opportunities for constructive, context-specific partnership between external actors and indigenous grassroots nonviolent actors on the ground in the pursuit of justice—in the pursuit of making the promise of international law real in the lives of the most vulnerable.

We here attempt to sketch what one might best call the “Responsibility to Accompany.” This responsibility refers to the duty of all multilateral actors—ranging across the intergovernmental, governmental, and nongovernmental sectors—with the capacity to do so to assist grassroots nonviolent movements that have arisen in opposition to systematic violations of human rights by their own governments.

The parallel construction to the “Responsibility to Protect” is deliberate. R2P seeks to provide a normative framework for external actors to intervene in the affairs of sovereign states that are unwilling or unable to stop atrocities or other large-scale political violence within their jurisdiction. The “Responsibility to Accompany,” or R2A, in turn, aims to provide a complementary normative framework to animate efforts to assist grassroots nonviolent movements rising in opposition to systematic violations of human rights.

The need for such a framework is particularly pressing in contemporary international affairs. As Michael Ignatieff observed in the New York Review of Books in July 2014, “For the first time since the end of the cold war, the advance of democratic constitutionalism has stopped.” This is a disturbing fact for those who consider democracy essential to realizing the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as international peace and stability.

We offer this initial framework in the hope that the Responsibility to Accompany might help revitalize the effort to secure in practice that recognition of the intrinsic dignity of every human person that animates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and indeed the very purpose of the United Nations.


The concept of accompaniment is of crucial import. Indeed, it has informed work in a number of fields, most prominently the public health scholarship and practice of Dr. Paul Farmer. Farmer’s insights about accompaniment and the global provision of health care, which he developed in a 2011 article in Foreign Affairs and a 2014 edited volume titled In the Company of the Poor, translate well to the global politics of human rights. At its heart, Farmer writes, “to accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey with a beginning and an end.” In authentic accompaniment, “the companion, the accompagnateur, says: ‘I’ll go with you and support you on your journey, wherever it leads; I’ll share your fate for a while.’” This points to two critical characteristics of accompaniment: the choice to enter into accompaniment itself, and the responsibility of the accompagnateur to demonstrate fidelity to that choice. It is these dual dimensions of accompaniment in public health that inform the following sketch of the Responsibility to Accompany.

R2A encompasses two aspects or connotations of “accompanying.” First, with regard to the choice to accompany, the international community has a duty to help those resisting systematic repression. Second, support must demonstrate fidelity to that choice—it must not subvert the agency of the indigenous movement in its fight. As that movement is trying to change a political order depriving citizens of agency, outside assistance must not exacerbate this deprivation, even unintentionally.

R2A is thus distinctive because it calls for a policy of assistance by external actors to enable precisely those indigenous actors whose agency has been systematically undermined by structural violence—and to help these actors secure for themselves the recognition of their dignity by their governments and the affirmation of their fundamental rights.

Beyond this normative aim, R2A, if exercised prudently, will prove instrumentally valuable to external policy-makers interested in advancing human rights, the rule of law, and democratization, with attendant national and international security benefits as well. As the 2006 Princeton Project on National Security’s final report Forging a World of Liberty under Law argues, “Americans would be safer, richer, and healthier in a world of countries that have achieved . . . mature liberal democracies.”


External actors can promote democratization in at least three ways. The first and perhaps most controversial way involves military intervention to produce regime change or humanitarian intervention under the United Nations’ “responsibility to protect” norm. The second is by providing military assistance to violent opposition groups. The third lies in assisting nonviolent civil resistance. It is this third option to which we would urge greater attention. Though this option is perhaps the least well understood, there is groundbreaking new empirical evidence that nonviolent resistance movements have proven significantly more effective than their violent counterparts over time.

In Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan collected data on all known violent and nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006. To be included, the campaigns had to have a minimum of 1000 persons, and thus have attained a level of maturity. Success was defined according to strict criteria: the campaign had to achieve its outcome within a year of the climax of the campaign and there had to be a regional judgment that the campaign had a direct impact on the outcome. Strikingly, nonviolent campaigns were more than twice as effective at accomplishing their goals relative to violent campaigns; and, notably, these trends increased over time in both success and frequency.

One of the most remarkable of Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings is that “people-powered” campaigns are effective because of the nature of “people power” itself. For example, the average size of nonviolent campaigns is approximately eleven times larger than violent campaigns as a proportion of the whole population. Size really does matter in predicting the outcomes of popular movements—according to Chenoweth and Stephan, campaigns that have achieved active popular participation of about 3.5 percent of the population have never failed. For violent campaigns, the size advantage is not nearly as distinct. This leads to a second significant finding: nonviolent resistance is demonstrably more effective, even when it is faced with violent repressive force. Moreover (and crucial to a normative defense of R2A), political transitions driven by nonviolent resistance tend to result in higher rates of democratic consolidation five years after the end of a campaign. The authors believe that this is so because the same skills necessary for building a large-scale nonviolent campaign are skills that relate to effectiveness in democratic development.

Grassroots nonviolent campaigns often can benefit from carefully calibrated external support. In April 2014 the Council on Foreign Relations convened a workshop cosponsored with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict to develop a deeper understanding of grassroots nonviolent movements in the context of U.S. foreign policy. A critical component of the workshop’s agenda involved discussions with current and former leaders of major civil resistance movements in Europe, the Near East, and Africa.

The dialogue reflected a consensus among all of these leaders that external assistance in general, and from the United States government in particular, can be extraordinarily valuable to indigenous movements on the ground. There is a need not only for involvement from nongovernmental organizations but from governments. Indeed, to a person, these grassroots leaders argued that the United States can and should exercise its unique power to support the struggle of civil resistance movements to secure human rights and democracy. In fact, a number of leaders expressed their frustration with the United States’ policy of often pressuring nonviolent movements, or the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that supported them, to cease or moderate their efforts, given the perceived alignment of some U.S. interests with sitting illiberal regimes. At the same time, these participants expressed caution in moving from the question of whether the United States and other governmental actors should support such movements to the question of how such external actors could most effectively support the protagonists of these movements. The central insight from the speakers was the need for a policy architecture to amplify the power of the movements themselves, rather than one that seeks to manipulate those movements in an externally imposed direction. What they need, in a word, is accompaniment.

Multilateral fora can offer legitimating and effective means for building consensus for action and identifying channels for assistance. The participation of multiple governments in assistance efforts to civil resistance movements can reduce the chance that such assistance is viewed as manipulation by a particular foreign government—the so-called “kiss of death” in which a foreign government’s collaboration with an indigenous grassroots nonviolent movement renders that movement suspect in the eyes of its own public.

The need for external public sector actors (states and international organizations) to engage with civil society actors points toward the need for a new brand of “societal diplomacy.” Diplomats should be empowered to reach out directly to civil society actors. To this end, the United States and other democracies ought to realign professional incentives for foreign service officers to reward those who facilitate collaboration and partnerships with civil society actors in the field, as well as extend the length of field rotations to enable such relationships to develop. At its core, societal diplomacy is personal diplomacy.


There is immense untapped potential in the capacity of grassroots nonviolent movements. However, if such movements are to flourish, more strategic, calibrated forms of external assistance will prove critical. To that end, external actors should strive to flesh out what adequate accompaniment of such movements will entail.

External assistance should be channeled through multilateral fora when possible to ensure international coordination of assistance as well as the protection of the real and perceived integrity of indigenous movements. Such assistance should include nongovernmental actors such as media and humanitarian organizations and responsible corporations, but it cannot stop there. It must include public sector actors to be truly comprehensive.

In the public sector, diplomats in particular must avoid a “fortress embassy” mentality. Foreign service officers, notably those of the United States, should be empowered to partner with civil society actors to the maximum extent possible, and rewarded when they do so well. Moreover, the strategic interests of countries like the United States increasingly demand that diplomats develop genuine partnerships with civil society actors in order to foster the kind of pluralism that makes extremism intolerable. Jeremy Kinsman and Kurt Bassuener offer a number of specific means for doing so in A Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development and Support. Their recommendations include having diplomats leverage their convening authority, bear witness to human rights violations, act in explicit solidarity with civil society actors, offer protection, and educate civil society actors about best practices from other successful democratic transitions.

In all of these efforts, external actors should seek to transcend mere assistance and strive for accompaniment—a walking with indigenous grassroots nonviolent movements in their pursuit of the realization of their human rights, which are themselves integral for the pursuit of the common good in global politics.

Facebook Twitter Email

Category: Blog, Online Exclusive

Comments are closed.