SCT’s International Programme

This page outlines the rationale for SCT’s international programme.

Why Speakers’ Corners?

Freedom of expression and the right of assembly lie at the heart of all civil liberties. They are the aspiration of those who struggle for freedom and the prize of those who have achieved it.

They are the freedoms which democratic societies most cherish and oppressive regimes most fear. They provide the basis for relations among citizens and between them and their governments. Through the rights to diversity, dissent and debate which they guarantee, they are the means by which societies develop and progress.

Almost 150 years after it was established in London, the original Speakers’ Corner and the rights it represents are largely taken for granted in Britain. But well beyond the UK it remains a hugely potent symbol and a place of pilgrimage both for those who aspire to freedoms which are denied them and to those who are already building democratic institutions of their own.

SCT believes that Speakers’ Corners could play a significant role in embedding key civil rights in developing democracies and in providing a forum for the public debate which is vital to the health and progress of their societies.

SCT seeks through its international programme to work with civil society, public authorities and the private sector in carefully selected candidate countries to

  • secure and underpin a sustainable commitment from Governments to the principles of free speech and public assembly
  • create a new landmark in national and/or regional capitals as a focus for and symbol of the country’s developing democracy
  • promote freedom of speech and grass-roots democratic values and rights among citizens
  • facilitate open debate as a means of strengthening civil society
  • encourage active citizenship and public participation in governance.

While there is considerable scope for interplay between the project and the internet, it is a central feature of the Speakers’ Corner initiative that the debate which it promotes should be unmediated and face-to-face.

The internet provides unparalleled access to information and communication. It can educate, enlighten and enfranchise – and, particularly in societies in which freedom of expression and assembly are suppressed, it can be a powerful liberating force. But it has limitations too. As well as engaging people in genuine interaction, it can also detach them from it. It can offer a wide diversity of information and opinion but cannot guarantee that we will seek or find it.

It can provide the opportunity for debate but the anonymity of email can also undermine the accountability which is essential to genuine dialogue. It may make citizens feel that they have engaged with the democratic process but in fact their activity may have been a substitute for it.

SCT believes it is vital to bring people into contact with each other to express, test and develop their opinions and those of their neighbours and the opinion formers and decision takers among them in real places, in real time and with a real prospect of enhancing the understanding, tolerance and capacity for consensus which underpin vibrant communities and successful societies.

The Prague Prototype

SCT’s international programme has its origins in the successful development in Prague in 2004 of the first Speakers’ Corner on mainland Europe.

Its inauguration, which marked the fifteenth anniversary of the start of the Velvet Revolution, drew representatives from the whole of Czech civil society including Government Ministers (and the UK’s Europe Minister), former dissidents and political prisoners, writers, artists, jurists, journalists and over 1,000 members of the public.

Their presence reflected a consensus about the symbolic importance of the new Speakers’ Corner in the development of democracy in the Czech Republic:

  • “the fact that such a thing can spring up here is a step forward for Czech democracy” – Vlasta Chramastova, civil rights campaigner
  • “a new generation of Czechs is growing up, and we are ready for a Speakers’ Corner” – Jakub Patocka, chair of the Green Party
  • “the biggest danger to democracy is indifference and those who want to restrict it count on this. Prague Speakers’ Corner is proof that people are not indifferent” Cyril Svoboda, Czech Foreign Minister
  • “Czech society requires a Speakers’ Corner. People should be able to express themselves and learn to listen to each other” – Peter Uhl, Czech Human Rights Commissioner and former Communist era dissident
  • “there is hardly a more symbolic moment and a more appropriate time to open the Prague Speakers’ Corner than the day of the fifteenth anniversary of the November revolution when we jointly fought for our freedom and democracy” Pavel Bem, Mayor of Prague.

It is that shared sense of achievement in the development of democratic institutions, that formal and very public commitment to civil liberties on the part of the national and civic authorities, that embracing of the opportunity for diversity, debate and civic engagement and that spirit of optimism which SCT seeks to replicate elsewhere.

The Speakers’ Corner Models

SCT seeks in its international programme to establish landmark public spaces in major cities at which the right to free speech and assembly is guaranteed.

In some settings, mobile Speakers’ Corners may provide a more appropriate vehicle. However, whether or not a space is designated, the initiative will feature a rolling schedule of events determined, within guidelines, by steering committees (Speakers’ Corner Committees ) made up of leading representatives of civil society (please see below), working with but independent of both public authorities and other sectors and interests.

The Educational Programme

SCT, in collaboration with Stephen Coleman, Professor of Political Communication at the University of Leeds, and supported by the BAFTA-winning creative agency Bold Creative is working on an exciting new project to develop innovative, web-based resources to support citizenship learning and teaching.

Expressing Citizenship, generously funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, will develop attractive and accessible educational resources to help young people improve their speaking and listening skills and overcome the lack of experience and confidence which prevents so many from expressing their ideas and opinions and engaging with community and civic life.

Two sets of resources – a web-based animation aimed principally at young people and a related series of written guides for teachers and youth leaders – will focus on three core needs among young people:

  • Expression – how to identify issues, organise thoughts, express themselves in public and influence others
  • Common Cause – how to relate to and learn from the needs, interests and opinions of others, develop consensus and build support and cooperation for shared agendas
  • Influence – how to engage effectively within their community, in a range of settings including work and with the decision-making process.

It will be undertaken over nine months, probably starting in September 2011, and based on work with four groups of young people in West Yorkshire to

  • gain insights into their knowledge and experience of the democratic system and the issues which matter to them
  • support them in acquiring skills in speaking and listening (as outlined above)
  • design the educational resources, with the young people’s input, for use both within and beyond school settings.

It is hoped that, in due course, it might be possible to adapt the resources for use outside the UK.

SCT/UoL’s proposals are set out in more detail in  Expressing Citizenship – A Project Summary.

Speakers’ Corner as a Public Place

It is intended that Speakers’ Corners in major cities should be formally designated as public spaces, both as landmark symbols of citizens’ rights and freedoms and as actual forums for debate and exchange.

They should be established in prominent and accessible locations where speakers can be heard and seen, where they can attract and engage their fellow citizens as they go about the daily lives and where people can gather safely without infringing the rights and interests of others.

They should also be protected by law (as was the case in Prague). The Government’s and/or civic authority’s statutory guarantee of the legal and civic status of a Speakers’ Corner will itself represent an important public commitment to citizens’ rights.

Creating such civic spaces will be important in other ways. In some places they could become a powerful focus not only for citizens’ rights, but also of civic identity and pride. Moreover, they will provide platforms for the purest and most spontaneous expression of the right to speak freely, within the law, and to attract and engage an audience of fellow citizens.

Speakers’ Corner as a Public Programme

However, the designation of a public space will not in itself deliver the project’s objectives. Speakers’ Corners, after an initial flurry of interest and activity, would quickly fall into disuse if not misuse.

In all cases, a sustained schedule of events supported by a programme of civic education will constitute a key feature of the project.

The Speakers’ Corner Committees will draw up rolling programmes of events at the Speakers’ Corner itself and in range of other public meeting places such as town halls and community centres or schools and places of work or worship, designed to reach as many sectors of society as available resources allow.

Events might include, for example,

  • discussions, with or without speakers, on any topic of interest to local people
  • debates between politicians or the representatives of opposing interest groups, or between individuals with strong or informative views on a range of issues from the global or national to the local or cultural
  • presentations or discussions in which the public would be encouraged to participate, led, for example, by academics or others with expert knowledge or insights
  • interactive entertainments.

They could also serve a number of different functions, for example for

  • government departments, local authorities, parish councils and other public service providers, such as NHS trusts and police authorities, seeking to consult, inform opinion or stimulate debate on issues of policy or questions of public priority
  • politicians seeking to consult the public or test their own opinion on current or local affairs
  • practitioners, such as faith leaders or health workers, seeking to raise and discuss ethical issues
  • campaign groups promoting their views or engaging in debate with others on all manner of local, national or global causes
  • individual or membership organisations sharing their enthusiasms with a wider public
  • academics and others seeking to broaden the appeal of their subject
  • people simply wishing to explore ideas and exchange opinions for their own enlightenment, enjoyment or entertainment.

The central uniting principle in all these events is that they are accessible to all, strictly non-adversarial and non-partisan, welcome diversity and seek to engage, inform and enrich opinion.

Speakers’ Corners Committees

The success of individual Speakers’ Corners will depend to a large extent on their local ownership and stewardship.

SCT will help to establish and, subject to the availability of local sponsorship, part-fund each national Speakers’ Corner Committee which will take responsibility for

  • maintaining a membership representative of the local community
  • developing the Speakers’ Corner format most appropriate to its own circumstances
  • promoting the principles of freedom of expression, open debate and diversity of opinion within its society
  • designing, organising and sustaining a balanced programme of accessible events
  • where possible, creating localised sub committees
  • coordinating and supporting local networks for debate among existing organisations
  • sustaining levels of activity and the numbers and diversity of those involved
  • monitoring and reporting activity and events in its area and, in particular, the measurable contribution of Speakers’ Corner events – for example to decision-making or as a feature of local or national consultation programmes.

Each national Speakers’ Corner Committee, which might typically include representatives of the civic authority, local universities, schools and colleges, faith groups, the media, the legal professions, the political parties and the business and voluntary sectors, would work with SCT to establish its own initiative and, having done so, take overall responsibility for its programme. Over time, it is hoped that founding national Committees will be able to establish and coordinate networks of Speakers’ Corners in cities and towns beyond the capital, each run by a local committee.

The committee would also be responsible for providing moderators of debates and for overseeing the rules of engagement, the Speakers’ Corner Principles .

Joined Up Debate

As suggested above, the Speakers’ Corner project is intended to complement rather than compete with the internet. Indeed, the web could have an important role to play in stimulating face to face debate and then encouraging and enabling participants to pursue the issues raised across the internet.

SCT’s website

  • provides guidance on the running of Speakers’ Corners
  • will showcase best practice and local innovation
  • will link the international network of Speakers’ Corners
  • will host online discussions and debates on issues related to its objectives

National Speakers’ Corner Committees will be encouraged to establish their own websites which might typically

  • propose topics for debate and provide balanced briefings on them
  • carry news of national and local Speakers’ Corner events
  • provide an archive of summaries of the principal issues raised or consensus reached in debates
  • feature audio or audio-visual recordings of debates
  • provide a register of speakers prepared to lead or facilitate debate.

It might also offer opportunities for third parties, including public authorities or services as well as political, faith and interest groups, to facilitate debates and consultations and provide resources and links for participants both before and after a Speakers’ Corner event has taken place.

Speakers’ Corner Principles

It will be important to allow as much autonomy as possible to local Speakers’ Corner Committees. However, SCT’s model set rules of engagement provide guidance on the conduct of debates according to a set of core principles, namely that they should

  • be promoted and organised to ensure that they are accessible and attractive to all
  • encourage the participation and contribution of political parties, faith and ethnic communities and interest groups, but be independent of all of them
  • afford equal rights to all those expressing an opinion, so long as it is lawful
  • be conducted at all times calmly and without personal rancour or abuse
  • seek common ground and compromise rather than confrontation
  • celebrate diversity rather than conformity.

Guidance is also designed to ensure that all those wishing to participate in a debate have a fair opportunity to do so, including advice on

  • the length of formal speeches and contributions from the floor
  • the way in which interventions should be made and accepted
  • circumstances in which votes should be taken and/or resolutions proposed or adopted.
Identifying Candidate Countries

The success of SCT’s international programme will depend on the careful identification of candidate countries.

SCT takes advice from UK Government departments and representatives overseas, from the network of NGOs and think tanks with which it has formed a consultative relationship and with organisations and individuals in the countries themselves.

However, it is important to recognise both the scope and the limits of the Speakers’ Corner initiative. SCT is not a campaigning organisation in the mould of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It is not its role to press for rights where there they are denied or where there is little prospect of their being made available or sustainable.

SCT will not therefore seek to promote a Speakers’ Corner where

  • there is no universal right to free expression and assembly
  • it is likely to be subverted or suppressed by the Government or appropriated by sectional interests
  • it is likely to be exploited by the Governments as evidence of a commitment to human rights and civil liberties which its record cannot justify
  • citizens are likely to become the subject of surveillance by the state
  • citizens in exercising their rights are likely to be placed at significant risk either from public authorities or from sectarian organisations
  • it is likely to become the catalyst for serious or sustained civil unrest.

On the other hand, while SCT can see value in promoting projects in mature democracies, they will not constitute a principal target. Rather, SCT will seek to work in countries where it can play a role in advancing or consolidating the development of citizens’ rights and democratic institutions.

SCT’s priority is to develop Speakers’ Corners where they can

  • support the development of civil societies in which rights are established but perhaps not fully realised
  • encourage Governments to embed civil liberties further in statute and institutional practice
  • promote diversity, tolerance and moderation
  • enable citizens to participate more actively in their own governance
  • be respected, nurtured and sustained.
The Importance of Risk

However, SCT recognises that, if its work is not accompanied by at least an element of risk, it is unlikely to make a worthwhile impact.

Indeed, it will normally be a prerequisite of the success of each Speakers’ Corner that there is acceptance by

  • Governments, that they will become a focus for dissent as well as debate and that the public commitment they make to them cannot easily be renounced
  • democrats, that they will prove attractive platforms for radical and even extremist opinion and that, if it is lawfully expressed, they will have a duty both to tolerate and to contest it
  • all that free expression can provoke unpredictable and sometimes undesirable consequences but that the alternative is the general abridgement of civil liberties.

In considering candidate countries, negotiating with public authorities and designing its projects, SCT will do all it can to minimise these risks. But SCT is also conscious that opportunities for progress are inevitably accompanied by risks. The key issue for SCT will be whether the prospect for advancing democratic rights and participation outweighs them.

SCT’s Role

SCT’s role is to

  • seek support for the Speakers’ Corner concept in the candidate country among both democracy campaigners and Governments
  • so far as possible, identify and recruit the core of the national Speakers’ Corner Committee
  • enlist and coordinate support for the Committee and its activities from British interests (and others) in the candidate country
  • provide guidance on how to establish and sustain the initiative
  • where possible provide a locally adapted educational programme
  • provide links to the existing network of Speakers’ Corners.

The reputation, integrity, commitment and resourcefulness of the national Committees which steer the development of individual Speakers’ Corners will be crucial to their success.

They must be able to

  • represent and command the confidence of a wide cross section of the local community
  • develop and sustain support and cooperation among a range of key stakeholders, including the media, political parties, faith groups and others
  • forge close and constructive working relations with the Government and other public authorities but remain and be seen to be independent of them
  • reach and implement decisions.

A vital task for SCT will be the recruitment of the key advocate around whom the committee can coalesce. He/she must be a widely respected individual with a reputation for impartiality, the capacity to unite different and often competing interests and access to and influence with key decision takers.

SCT must be able to identify, guide and support such an individual in promoting the Speakers’ Corner initiative, in recruiting other suitable candidates to the organising committee and in attracting the support of potential private sector sponsors.

Wherever possible, SCT will seek the advice and active involvement of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and NGOs as well as Embassies or High Commissions and British Council offices in the relevant countries in the planning of any national initiative.

SCT has undertaken a highly successful consultation which has revealed widespread and enthusiastic support for the Speakers’ Corner concept.

There is a strong consensus that engagement, exchange and debate between citizens is a civilising, moderating and enriching experience and one which is essential to the resolving of differences, the building of consensus and the development and maintenance of vibrant and healthy civil societies.

That is what the Speakers’ Corner project seeks to achieve.

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