Rights and repression: how leaders respond to violent and peaceful protests

1 May 2017

Dr M. Rodwan Abouharb, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at UCL, looks at the multipronged approach of leaders in responding to both violent and peaceful protests.

Clyde Beatty, one of America’s most famous lion tamers performing in the early 20th century, had a distinct approach to keeping lions and tigers at bay during performances. He arrived with a whip, gun, and chair to demonstrate his dominion over the animals believing that a varied response was the best way to deflect threats and preserve control of the situation within the ring. Beatty’s insights may help us better understand how political leaders respond to violent and peaceful protests.

Was Beatty correct? Do leaders take a multipronged approach in response to different strategies of citizen protests?

The argument made by much of the literature about when governments use repression is characterised as the ‘threat repression nexus’. Put simply when governments face greater threats they are more likely to use repression. They use repression in order to strengthen their position and hold on to power and to weaken the position of the opposition groups they face. Some researchers have argued that leaders are so likely to respond to protest with violent repression that they give it a law like status called ‘the law of coercive responsiveness’.

Of particular interest to us is the idea that while leaders may utilise violent repression against members of the opposition in an effort to raise the costs of protest they may also improve their records on civil and political rights to peel off other members of the opposition from protesting against the state by ameliorating some of their demands. Leaders may use the route of improving civil and political rights practices as a shrewd decision-making tactic that strengthens their hold on power, divides the opposition and keeps protestors off their guard. This empowers moderate protesters, sending a subtle message that less violent strategies are likely to elicit human rights improvements, while violent strategies will only lead to violent repression. It may also be easier for leaders to convey positive signals to opposition groups about the government’s intentions by improving civil and political rights practices in comparison to constraining the violent behaviour of their agents, over whom they may have limited control.

There are two reasons to think that it may be easier for leaders to send conciliatory signals to opposition groups by choosing to positively improve the rights of their citizens rather than try to restrain the use of force by their agents, especially when dealing with peaceful protest which they may view as less threatening than violent protest. The first considers the role of the decision maker in relationship with their police and military. It may be that leaders have limited ability to control their police and military and prevent them using violent repression. So even if they wanted to instruct their agents to stop killing, torturing, imprisoning, and disappearing members of the opposition they may only have a limited capacity to do so. The second reason is that it may be much easier for a decision maker to clearly convey a positive signal that communicates conciliation to opposition groups in an effort to manage protest. These signals may be symbolic, like speeches made by key leaders or articles in print describing new relationships with the groups in question. These signals may also be substantive in improving the civil and political rights of these groups like: passing legislation which ameliorates some or all of the demands of the opposition groups, giving equal status to a minority language, devolvement of central government power to the regions, changing the rules on how agents of the state interact with these groups, or even breaking ground on the building of new schools, clinics or other public services. For these reasons leaders may think these types of positive changes are more efficacious in managing protest.

To better understand the link between protest and the repression choice of leaders, we utilized an analysis of 194 independent nation states, with a population of at least 500,000 that covers the entire period from 1981 to 2011 reflecting the limits of current data. To get at if a government decides to use more ‘violent repression’ and but less ‘political repression’ in a given year we create a measure which is a ‘1’ for each year when a government uses more violence but less political repression in comparison to the previous year and a ‘0’ otherwise. Our violent repression component is the annual change in a physical integrity rights index of extra judicial killing, forced disappearances, torture, and political imprisonment. Our ‘political repression’ component also comes from the CIRI (2014) database and is the annual change in a modified form of their civil liberties index of freedom of foreign movement and travel, freedom of domestic movement, freedom of speech and press, freedom of religion, electoral self-determination, and worker rights.

We account for other factors that affect the likelihood of governments using repression against their citizens. Those countries that are wealthier, enjoy growing economies, trade more, have more independent judiciaries, are more democratic, and those with more non-governmental organizations tend to respect physical integrity rights more. Countries with relatively large populations tend to respect those same rights less. Finally governments can make it difficult for opposition groups to protest by restricting freedom of assembly and association and the prospect of repression will make some people less likely to engage in protest which we also account for in our analysis.

We find that governments respond to general strikes, civil war incidence and civil war onset by both using more violent repression against their opponents while also improving their record on civil and political rights, using the chair in our analogy to the theatrics of Clyde Beatty, to keep the tigers and lions at bay. For example in 2009 we see that while the Rwandan government eased restrictions on its citizens foreign travel, it utilised more extra judicial killing against its opponents as it faced an upsurge in anti-government violence at home. In Sri-Lanka also in 2009 we see that the Sri-Lankan government improved their (very poor) record on freedom of domestic movement and electoral self-determination, while more frequently employing political imprisonment against its opponents when faced with an upsurge in anti-government violence at home.

Our approach nuances previous argument about ‘the law of coercive responsiveness’ which is that leaders respond to protest with repression. We argue and find that when faced with peaceful protest and violent protest leaders respond not only with more violence but also make conciliatory moves towards their opposition by improving the civil and political rights conditions in their country.

The argument and results for this article stem from work co-authored with Dr Susan Aaronson at George Washington University and Dr Susan Gaines, University of Leeds and with generous support by, or in part by, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U. S. Army Research Office under grant number W911NF-14-1-0485.

This article originally appeared in The Policy Space.