The following article appeared in Nonviolent Sanctions News
from the Albert Einstein Institution, 50 Church Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, tel:(617)876 0311, fax:(617)876 0837, Email:, in the Spring 1994 issue
Vol. V. No. 4.

STRUCTURAL APPROACH TO HUMAN RIGHTS by Gene Sharp Senior Scholar-in-Residence

[Editor's Note: This working paper is an effort to think about how gross violations of human rights might be prevented in the future. The paper points to the need to prevent the rise of new dictatorships and to bring an end to existing ones. To achieve those objectives, massive noncooperation and defiance are identified as central. The paper is printed here in the hope of generating discussion. Comments from readers are welcome.]

Vital work to defend and advance human rights is being conducted by a variety of meritorious organizations and individuals around the world. These bodies have used various means to expose human rights abuses and to pressure repressive regimes to uphold individuals, and institutions have concentrated on creating new agreed standards with respect to human rights through the formulation and adoption of international conventions.

These means have contributed to a wider recognition of human rights. Many individuals have been spared repression, torture, and death. Even repressive regimes sometimes feel they must pay lip service to human rights, which may have been achieved in part because of the work of these groups, and in part because some of the regimes that have been major violators of human rights no longer exist.

Most human rights organizations have understandably concentrated on ending specific government practices such as torture, securing the release of unjustly held prisoners, or gaining the right to emigrate for particular individuals. Broader issues usually have not been raised in the interests of achieving one of these limited, but important goals. With the forces for human rights often relatively weak it has often been rightly judged wise to concentrate on limited achievable objectives. There was no need to irritate the established regimes by pressing for larger objectives which could only imperil achieving the specific, immediate goal. Such limited victories could relieve the immediate suffering, and, hopefully, contribute cumulatively to a broader recognition of human rights in the future. Significant gains have been won in this way, and such efforts should continue by human rights organizations dedicated to this approach.

Yet, it cannot be denied that major human rights violations continue widely in various parts of the world. Even regimes that give way a little here and there on specific issues or for particular persons often broadly continue their oppressive practices and violate human rights in other ways. In some countries, established governments that have had reasonable records on human rights practices have themselves increasingly become violators of civil and personal liberties. In other cases, those governments have been replaced by coups d'etat or other means with regimes indifferent or actively hostile to human rights. These have been countervailing tendencies to those in which some authoritarian regimes have become less authoritarian and have practiced relatively greater recognition of human rights.

In still other cases, such as China, Cuba, and Burma, the violations of human rights continue without major departures in policy, only limited cosmetic changes being made. In some countries, such as Zaire and Nigeria, the struggle for human rights seems tied to the struggle for a change of regime, and the decision is still hanging in the balance. It is still possible for new dictatorial regimes to come into existence, especially by military or political coups d'etat or executive usurpations.

Unfortunately, it also remains true that some approximately democratic countries practice specific human rights violations, such as the United States with its widespread executions of convicted criminals and radiation experiments on human beings, France's sinking of the "Rainbow Warrior," Israel's shooting of youths for throwing stones or wearing certain clothing, and the United Kingdom's shooting policy in Northern Ireland.

It is impossible to ignore, however, that a strong correlation seems to exist between extreme human rights violations and the existence of a dictatorship. In countries which have a generally democratic political structure, violations of human rights tend to be more limited and less severe. In countries which have a dictatorial political structure, violations of human rights are more widespread and more severe. Broadly, the more authoritarian and dictatorial a given regime is, the more serious the human rights violations are, and the less responsive the regime is to traditional human rights pressures and activities. This is not to say that democracies have no serious problems, but only that application of human rights is far more possible there than under dictatorships.

The implications of this simple overview seem to be clear. If would-be dictatorships can be blocked from coming into power, the human rights violations that they would have perpetrated are unlikely to occur, at least not to the same extent and degree. If existing dictatorships can be disintegrated by means which are not conducive to the establishment of similar regimes, then the changes for the protection of human rights under a democratic political structure are significantly increased.

People who work in the area of human rights, therefore, have two important political tasks before them:

  • (1) Develop and apply programs to prevent the establishment of new dictatorships, whether through coups d'etat or other ways (not excluding electoral means); and
  • (2) Develop, assist, and apply programs designed to disintegrate existing dictatorships.
  • We know from certain historical cases that both of these tasks are achievable. Actions to install new authoritarian regimes or dictatorships have, in fact, been blocked by improvised massive noncooperation and defiance: as against the Kapp Putsch in Germany in 1920, in France against the Algiers generals coup in 1961, and in Gorbachev's Soviet Union against the 1991 hard-line coup attempt. Established extreme dictatorships have also fallen as a result of the revolt of their own populations applying "people power" and because of the weaknesses inherent in dictatorships of all types. Three of these were the Communist regimes of Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Of course, not all mass uprisings to bring down a dictatorship have succeeded, as for example in Burma in 1988.

    In other situations, as in Argentina, authoritarian regimes responsible for gross violations of human rights have also been replaced. In each of these cases, the reductions in human rights violations have come as a result of changes in the political structure, not as a result of traditional human rights activities.

    Cases of improvised defense against new coups d'etat and of improvised struggles against long-established dictatorships operated under unfavorable circumstances. There had been no significant preparations and no strategic planning for the struggles.

    With advance analysis, strategic planning, preparations, and training, the effectiveness of these types of dictatorship prevention and dictatorship disintegration probably could be dramatically increased.

    The establishment of realistic and well-grounded policies of mass noncooperation and defiance to prevent and disintegrate dictatorships can have wide-ranging implications. If new dictatorships are blocked from being established, they will not be able to violate human rights. If established dictatorships can be disintegrated, the chances of building democratic structures with greatly enhanced recognition of human rights are vastly increased.

    A note of caution is in order here. The implementation of these prescriptions is unlikely to be cost free. Indeed, those struggling to defend and achieve more democratic governments, which would have greater respect for human rights, may trigger serious repression against themselves. This should be anticipated and planned for.

    While established human rights organizations will and should continue their important work to prevent specific types of violations and to assist imperiled individuals, other human rights advocates may want to chart courses of action based upon this structural approach to human rights.

    The principle is simple: End human rights violations by denying human rights violators the power to perpetrate their atrocities. Cultivate the capacity of oppressed peoples to liberate themselves and to defend their growing liberties by means of their own empowerment.

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