2015 gives us an opportunity to develop 'a Magna Carta for the Earth'

13 February 2015

by Dr Helen McDermott

Helen McDermott is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Law Faculty, University of Oxford. As part of the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations, Helen is undertaking research on law and armed conflict. Helen was admitted to...

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2015 marks the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta. The “Great Charter” professed certain rights for “free men” including the right to justice and a fair trial. The covenant, which was imposed by the barons on King John in 1215, chartered the way for the principle of habeas corpus and laid the foundation for democratic systems in the UK and abroad. Its renowned legacy is that the power of the sovereign is not absolute; those who govern must abide by the law and the governed should have access to justice.

The influence of Magna Carta on the formulation of the English Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration on the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), and the US Constitution and Bill of Rights (1791) is apparent. Notwithstanding disagreement over the weight of its contribution to the development of international human rights law, it is the most direct ancestor of the language of the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The correlation between Magna Carta and the human rights system is further reflected in their shared purpose; limiting state interference with the lives of individuals, and the conferral of obligations upon governments to protect and ensure the most basic needs of their populations. The anniversary of Magna Carta is a time to reflect upon these traditions and in the interests of future generations, to realign national and international policies with them.

The world is quite different now than it was when Magna Carta was signed. 800 years ago, the predominant concern amongst states was the waging of war and the maintenance of stability within territorial borders. Today, armed conflict related issues remain a priority but they are joined by a number of other pressing challenges, including poverty and environmental change. With a new global pact on climate change expected to be signed in Paris later this year and the anticipated adoption of a post-2015 development agenda at a Summit on sustainable development in September, the international community is presented with an opportunity to develop what has been referred to as “a Magna Carta for the Earth.” The post-2015 development agenda is expected to address critical global issues including poverty and hunger, armed conflict, health and education, climate change and the protection of oceans and forests.

The close of 2014 saw the entry into force of the landmark Arms Trade Treaty. 2015 presents a further order of decisions that will impact the human rights and fundamental freedoms of every member of the international community, both past and present. Let us hope that like the legacy of Magna Carta, what is achieved this year is remembered and celebrated for years to come.