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Citizen action against crime and corruption

About the author
Vanessa Ortiz is Director of Civic and Field Relations for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, of which I'm a part, convened a panel during the IACC on the nexus of corruption and violence. Authoritarian regimes aren't the only systems in which people can live under extreme repression. In post-conflict states, often fledgling democracies, citizens are often subjected to violence perpetrated by paramilitary groups, gangs, narco-cartels, organized crime, insurgents, and state security forces, enduring the tyranny of multiple "authoritarian" forces.

Endemic corruption functions as an enabler of violent groups, which engage in illicit activities to make money and acquire weapons, or a by-product of their efforts to capture local and national state institutions and security forces such as the police. Violent insurgents use poverty and injustice to justify their actions which only sustains the cycle of violence.

But are people powerless in such situations? Two on-the-ground activists reported on their efforts to break this cycle. Claudia Samayoa, Co-founder of the Unit of Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, presented two cases of innovative grass roots campaigns engaging in civil resistance to break up the corruption-violence nexus, resist violent repression, and foster social and economic development. Dressed in traditional local dress, Kingsley Bangwell, Founder of Youngstars Foundation International and an Ashoka Fellow, spoke passionately about the role of youth in fighting corruption and "restiveness" in the Niger-Delta. He offered many ideas of how to engage youth in the fight against the insurgent groups multiplying in the Niger-Delta.

Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and Chair of the Middle East Studies Program at University of San Francisco, drew attention to lesser-known historical cases, including Sicily's anti-mafia campaign (1950-60s), South India's "Fifth Pillar" anti-bribery campaign, Juarez, Mexico's "Ni Una Mas" gender-based violence campaign, and Colombia's "Medellin Youth Network" anti-militarism movement.

One thing that struck me, and nearly always strikes me in these sorts of large international conferences, are the nay-sayers from the global north. There are two types. One set seems to believe that if they can identify the worst possible scenario of violence, the efficacy of civic empowerment and civil resistance is therefore disproved. They seem to have less faith in grassroots civic action than those who are assuming the risks and undertaking the struggles directly. We had people in the audience speak up who offered concrete examples from their own countries - South Africa, India, and Nepal - where nonviolent struggle led to dramatic changes.

The second type of naysayers, also from the global north, ask why should "victims" of oppression and violence be made to take action and risk their lives? This "view from the top" assumes that people living under less fortunate circumstances are not able to act of their own volition. I simply responded by introducing him to the idea that people themselves have the power to move from being victims or bystanders to becoming a powerful force for change. The next day, I came across a recent story in The New York Times about Congolese women, who, according to the UN, face the worst sexual violence in the world. Grassroots civic groups are trying to change this culture of violence and social shame, by encouraging women who have been raped to speak out in open forums, and even name their aggressors. One woman who spoke up, Claudine Mwabachizi, said she felt exhausted, but then added, "I feel strong." I would have liked to share this story with that person in the session.


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