The emergence of a human rights legal culture: A quick tour through 800 years of Western history.

Author:Bowal, Peter

The river of refugees from Syria reminds us that human history is full of examples of how states have abused their unlimited sovereign power against their citizens. They may have denied them basic rights to express themselves or to vote for their political leaders. People may have been tried and punished without a reasonable opportunity to defend themselves. Adherents to certain religions may have been persecuted only because of their particular honestly-held religious beliefs. Others of certain races in the society may have been denied access to education or to hold good jobs and own land. The worst used state power to capture, imprison, torture and kill their own. Almost all countries have denied basic human rights in some way to their people at times during their history.

Magna Carta

In early 13th century England, the rich barons rebelled against the King. This was due to the King's demand for overseas service that they felt was not owed, from his practices of intimidation to ensure personal loyalties, and from domestic policies, especially, increased taxes. The barons sought to restore the good old days of the Norman kings, but instead got pragmatic reforms. Magna Carta, a form of Charter of Rights, attempted to reform specified abuses raised by the rebels.

Magna Carta specified liberties for all free men so that all might be insulated from royal whim. Certain taxes were not to be levied without the common consent of the kingdom, whose representatives' decisions were binding on all (forerunner of "no taxation without representation"). Churches were set free. Legal reforms and procedural rights required proper trials and judgments to occur before sentences were carried out.

Many of Magna Carta's 63 clauses dealt with feudal privileges of benefit only to the barons. Moreover, Magna Carta was soon violated by the King, bringing a resumption of civil war. The next King reissued the Carta, and by 1225, when it received its final form, it was accepted by all parties. It was the first statement of rights against absolute power of the state, in favour of the people--something we mostly take for granted today.

The English Bill of Rights

In the 1600s, human rights were synonymous with political rights. The Bill of Rights (1688) in England ensured that Parliament was finally and effectively sovereign over the monarch. The king had governed by an inherent Royal Prerogative which dated to the Middle Ages. Now the king could not interfere with...

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