Activists who use civil disobedience as part of a nonviolent campaign openly and consciously break a law in order to prevent a bigger crime. Covert forms of illegal action are justifiable in a number of contexts, for example when they save lives, and are part of the repertoire of nonviolent action. However, the concept of civil disobedience is something more specific. We present civil disobedience as fulfilling the following criteria:
- breaks a law or violates a norm
- is carried out nonviolently, without harming any living beings.
- is done ‘openly’ in the sense that, while activists can keep the action secret before it happens, afterwards they take full responsibility for it and are ready to defend it in court.
- is a method for activists with a deep commitment to improve society, not just to benefit themselves.
During the centuries, civil disobedience has been crucial in developing democratic rights and freedoms. Civil disobedience has been important for securing freedom of religion and freedom of expression in democracies. Struggles for the right to conscientious objection and women’s right to vote were characterised by civil disobedience campaigns. Many struggles for protecting the environment and for peace and equal opportunity involve civil disobedience.