In an article published by Civil Society, Bob Kerslake, former chief of the Home Civil Service stated, “You have to stand apart and have an independent voice. In my experience in government they respect those who stand up and challenge, even if they don’t like it. The worst thing you can be seen to do is cower in front of government because, eventually, they will get you.”
Maintaining independence as an organisation is crucial no matter which field you are working in, but it is particularly true for those organisations which come up against or have dealings with the government. Organisations which seek to assist their community should take note of the following principles, and should maintain their independence despite popular opinion. It is also important to have the courage of conviction in challenging the status quo.
Through the work CAGE does, we’ve learnt 6 things in speaking truth to power:
i) Be the first. Don’t wait for others to make the move…
Through the years CAGE has been at the forefront of challenging the status quo. Whilst most of the world (including “human rights” organisations) deemed those detained in Guantanamo Bay “the worst of the worst” and people would claim there is, “no smoke without fire” when it came to detainees, CAGE was one of the first organisations to list the 775 men who were being illegally held there. We were one of the first to openly campaign in seeking their release, and one of the first to document the horrific abuses that took place there. Fast forward 15 years and today it’s a “popular” cause taken on by human rights organisations – and even President Obama has spoken out against it.
Similarly, CAGE spoke out against the harmful effects of PREVENT well before it became mainstream that PREVENT was “toxic”. For this we have been maligned and labelled, but we have maintained our arguments. This has resulted in even government ministers speaking out against PREVENT.
ii) Realise there will be a backlash…but it will not last forever…
It should not be forgotten that it was CAGE who spoke out before anyone else would on violations of the rule of law in many contexts in the War on Terror. We did this, even if it meant sustaining slanderous attacks in the media – because the importance of speaking out against injustice supersedes any other priority.
CAGE was vilified in the media by senior politicians. In just 4 days CAGE was attacked in 8 papers across 28 headlines. Fundamentally, we are subject to ad hominem attacks in response to our work – which holds merit on its own. However, through upholding the principles of due process and the rule of law, we have found allies in the media and elsewhere that we didn’t expect. Our work goes far beyond these attacks and we have continued in our efforts of speaking truth to power.
iii) Make sure you have a real, genuine connection to the communities you serve….
CAGE is a grassroots organisation. Our greatest assets are our client base, those we seek to assist, and the community. We have built a great level of trust with individuals and the community, as we provide a voice to the voiceless and we speak out against the establishment fearlessly. Maintaining this connection to the community enables us to remain authentic and helps us to have empathy in humanising those that the War on Terror affects most. This is in keeping with our purpose, and without this connection we would cease to function effectively as an organisation.
iv) Changing the status quo takes time and discipline. Don’t go for short term wins…
Interests within a western democracy are entrenched. Though a democracy is meant to be open to scrutiny and debate, the reality is very different. Relationships are built over many years and the status quo isn’t broken so easily. It takes confidence to seek to change the current order with the support of the community. It can be tempting for any organisation to focus their time and resources having public meetings with politicians, to show progress is being made – but will that be sufficient to shake up the internal established status quo? Though meetings with Parliamentarians might look good on the surface, they aren’t likely to result in much action.
Parliamentarians act upon populist pressure and demands and not necessarily what is right; it’s important not to let popular opinion sway an organisation from pursuing a principled stance.
v) Stay independent of political power and you will be respected…
Despite the public attacks, the establishment and most importantly the community recognises us as a credible voice; this comes from the support we get from our clients and those we seek to empower, but it also comes from remaining principled and firm in our stance. Our viewpoint is both ethical and moral and it is shared by those who do not share our faith – or even like us. This means the establishment is unable to ignore us.
Our work has influenced opening parliamentary debates and inquiries, though we often don’t get acknowledgement. One year after CAGE questioned the UK’s complicity in torture of Michael Adebolajo in Kenya – on the same day we raised questions about the possibility of Emwazi’s ill treatment by the hands of the security services – the then Prime Minister David Cameron launched an inquiry into the treatment of Adebolajo and the security services involvement in his case.
CAGE were invited to speak before the Home Affairs Select Committee and The Intelligence and Security Committee invited CAGE to attend a meeting with them. We are recognised despite them essentially not liking what we have to say. CAGE’s mission impacts the community at large and so it is important to maintain political independence. We call for a return to the rule of law and due process despite gender, creed, race or political viewpoints.
vi) Always remain committed to ethics and morality as much as you are able…
It is a betrayal of principles to compromise on morals in the interest of appearing ‘popular’ and ‘acceptable’. Successes are about securing the moral victories even at the cost of material loss. After we published our first report on the harmful realities of PREVENT, our Outreach Director was arrested and our Bank accounts were closed and are still closed to this day. We remain ostracised by the so-called “respectable” human rights industry who have eventually ended up taking positions and places that were once the subject of their criticism. Despite these setbacks, CAGE continues to speak the truth without fear of the consequences.
First and foremost, CAGE’s work and its successes are in Allah’s hands. He alone allows change to take place, however we must remember that it is a duty upon each one of us to speak out against injustice.
We must hold those in power to account, otherwise the powerful become dictatorial and authoritarian. Policy makers do not respect those who are unprincipled and merely seek to criticise so that they themselves can get an even bigger slice of the cake, which is the case with those who see human rights as a career choice and fashionable enterprise.
Communities should realise that the true power is in the hands of the masses as the government is accountable to its people. It will take time for the boundaries of accepted political debate to shift (look up Overton window) – but when it does, you want to ensure you are on the right side of history. There is an old saying from a well-known scholar about questioning the sincerity of those seen at the gates of the ruler. History remembers those who seek to bring justice to the world, not those who seek to appropriate the levers of injustice into their own hands.
(CC image courtesy Leo Reynolds on Flickr)
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)