This year marked the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta.  This anniversary created an explosion of interest in what the Magna Carta means (or does not mean), alongside an interesting, and sometimes amusing, variety of approaches to marking the occasion.  However, beneath all the reverence, there is an inescapable irony.  We risk spending the first half of 2015 celebrating Magna Carta and the role it has played in cementing the concept of the rule of law and the role of rights against government power, whilst during the second half of the year, we stand on the precipice of a moment that may adversely change the very nature of human rights and democracy in this country.

In England, we take great pride in inventing human rights through the Magna Carta.  The Magna Carta has been lauded as the foundation of democracy and the cornerstone of human rights.  However, the idea of a control on unlimited power is not an English phenomenon which was first declared in 1215.  Indeed, since time immemorial, when human beings acquired the power of communication, we have worried about our role in the universe and our relationships with each other and with those who have power over us.  Similarly, to proclaim that the Magna Carta marked the start of 800 years of liberty or freedom is arguably a fantasy.  If one were fortunate enough to time travel back in time to 1215 and observe the barons and King John, they would see a scene which more resembles something from ‘Game of Thrones’ than a Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, and as Lord Neuberger rightly pointed out, here in the UK, ‘in 1618 we were still burning witches’, (and) it is less than 150 years ago that homosexuality became a non-capital offence.’  The events at Runnymede in 1215 were not the start of the journey, but they were a significant milestone. 

It was in the aftermath of the horrors of World War Two that we finally saw a united international effort to protect human rights and civil liberties, and a common standard for all mankind which was enforceable by law.  The seminal document of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, realigned the relationship between the citizen and the state.  The idea was no longer about governments not interfering with citizens civil liberties (i.e. having negative obligations).  This contemporary conception of rights was centred on responsibility – and the positive obligations of living together and recognising our differences.  It was centred on the sanctity of humanity.  Eleanor Roosevelt, who led the drafting committee, stated that she hoped that the Declaration would become the ‘international Magna Carta for all men everywhere’.

This conception was furthered by the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, which developed the idea of human rights, transforming them from the abstract ethics in the Declaration to legally enforceable, real entities. The Convention built upon the principles of the Declaration and demonstrated the commitment of European states to protecting human rights and the rule of law throughout Europe.  The overarching theme was one of ‘never again’; never again would a democratically elected government be able to so flagrantly ignore the rights of its people.  Winston Churchill spoke about deriving strength from “our sense of common spiritual values”, and the Convention being “guarded by freedom and sustained by law”, ensuring that “people owned the government, and not the government the people”.  Here in the UK, the Human Rights Act (HRA) made universal human rights law applicable by “bringing home” the 16 freedoms that we helped draft in the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, in the UK, the home of the Magna Carta, we now risk undoing almost 70 years of progress in protecting universal human rights.

What is happening now directly affects all of us individually and equallyfor we all share a common humanity. Despite their differences, the original Magna Carta and the Human Rights Act share the fundamental idea that the protection of basic freedoms is not a luxury for times of peace, but a necessity to prevent tyranny and conflict.  However, when we talk about human rights today, of even greater significance is universality; the simple but profound idea that everyone has human rights, irrespective of colour or creed.  In order for human rights systems to function effectively, human rights must be secured for all persons without discrimination, even in perilous and uncertain times.  The proposed alternative goes against the very nature of the Magna Carta, and the legacy it has left behind.  In fact, it risks reversing this country’s much vaunted leadership on human rights, and also risks placing us as a global leader in very much the wrong direction, undermining the very laws which we fought so hard to put in place.