The marginalisation of dissent

OurKingdom Ourkingdom
18 July 2009
Dissent, its cultivation and articulation, is crucial for a healthy democratic society. Yet, as highlighted by the work of the Carnegie UK Trust Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, dissent is being marginalised both at a domestic level and globally.

Kumi Naidoo

The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.
Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 1787

Since the 9/11 terror attacks in the USA and the subsequent ill-conceived and ill-named War on Terror we have witnessed an erosion of democracy, human rights and civil liberties. In long-standing democracies as well as newer and emerging democracies there has been a growing marginalisation, suppression and in some cases repression of dissenting voices. This has manifested itself in many different ways. The hardest to measure are the levels of self-suppression in a climate of fear.

In democracy-promoting countries such as the UK and USA we have witnessed a tacit legitimisation of torture, detention without trial, restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association, the undermining of the rule of law, habeas corpus and international human rights conventions, including such brutal forms of human rights abuses as occurred in high profile cases to Guantanamo Bay detainees, or the inmates of the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. In countries with weaker democratic traditions and weaker human rights records, the actions of countries like the USA and UK have in effect issued a blank cheque for several governments from Burma to Zimbabwe, to reverse the trend towards democratization, often claiming that these are special times that need special measures. The attempts by the UK government to pass a 42 day detention without trial law, for example, were not lost on the Robert Mugabe government who have proclaimed that they have a shorter detention without trial period.

Civil society organisations have been particularly affected by this climate of shrinking civic space. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, has produced a monthly electronic newsletter, Civil Society Watch Bulletin, that has tracked, over the last four years, more than seventy countries around the world where there have been legislative attempts, most of them successful, to curtail the freedom of association, assembly and expression.

Given the central roles countries such as the UK and USA still play in influencing the nature of democracy and civil society in less developed countries, civil society associations in the North have a critical role to play in defending global civil society.

The recent Convention on Modern Liberty shone a light on people's concerns about threats to their civil liberties., including the marginalisation of dissent, particularly as it affects the relationship between people and the state.

For example, with the rise of the surveillance state alongside the refusal to embrace diverse conventions and covenants on human rights, civil society associations can find themselves in a dilemma. Should they criticize the government, and disqualify themselves from the social partnership models on offer? This situation quickly leads to the self-suppression of dissent as has been noticed recently in the Republic of Ireland.

But many other factors inhibit dissent in the UK and Ireland. Inequalities in social and economic power can often mean that dissent does not surface in the public sphere. As noted in his book on civil society, Michael Edwards states:

‘..expecting people on the breadline to share, participate and cooperate as equals is unreasonable unless efforts are also made to create the conditions in which this is the safe and rational thing for them to do. Arguing about politics, and holding power to account, takes both energy and courage, especially with no ‘insurance' - legal, social and financial - exists to support you when power fights back'.

Unless structural inequalities in wealth and life-chances are addressed, dissent and voice on the part of the most vulnerable in society will continue to be marginalised.

There is also the question of the media. Given the concentration of ownership of the media and their predominantly commercial status, it is near impossible for dissenting voices to surface in mainstream media. While the decreasing costs of technology and the internet have provided a platform for more views to be conveyed, it is critical that dissenting voices are not confined to blogs and social networking sites but that they permeate the wider consciousness, connecting with individuals through all forms of mass media empowering citizens to dissent.

Thomas Jefferson's realisation in 1787 is just as relevant today, if not more so. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall we have seen a rampant form of capitalism with no competing ideology to keep this in check. The drive to create a neo-liberal world order with its mantra of freedom, democracy and laissez-faire - state activity has increased rather than been rolled back. The time has now come where dissent can no longer be pushed to the margins and ordinary citizens need to reclaim their democratic right to resist.


Kumi Naidoo will be speaking at an event Civil society; Enabling dissent in London on 28 July 2009 hosted by the Carnegie UK Trust and Open Democracy. Other speakers will include: Anthony Barnett (OpenDemocracy, Co-Chair, Real Change) and Sunny Hundal (Liberal Conspiracy). To reserve a place at this free event please [email protected] (please note that spaces are limited and we would therefore recommend you reserve a place as soon as possible).

To find out more about the Carnegie UK Trust Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland go to http://www.futuresforcivilsociety.org/

The Inquiry has hosted a number events on this theme in Dublin and Glasgow, the findings of which are available on the Inquiry website. The Inquiry has also set up a survey on the question of the marginalisation of dissent. Please visit the site to complete the survey.

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