The legacy of the Magna Carta

THE Magna Carta, or Great Charter, was a failure as a peace treaty, torn up just eight weeks after it was signed in June 1215. But its 800th anniversary this year is feted rightly for what it represents: the fight for civil liberties and democracy in England and many parts of the world through the centuries.

The charter was signed to stop a civil war between the English King John and rebel barons disgruntled with the extortionate taxes imposed on them to finance his wars with France. The barons were also unhappy with the huge powers of the monarchy. A good part of the document - more than a third - limited the king's powers, particularly his ability to impose unlimited taxes, and granted certain rights to the people. Under the charter, no one, including the king, was above the law, a nod to the concept of the rule of law. But it applied only to a small group of people, the barons, and was quickly nullified by the Pope. It was to be many centuries from the signing of the Magna Carta before Britain developed the suite of freedoms its people enjoy today.

The Magna Carta's influence went beyond Britain's shores, inspiring the revolution - and the revolutionaries' slogan of "no taxation without representation" - that led to the establishment of the United States. Most of all, it is seen as a precursor to universal human rights and an inspiration to people struggling for justice and freedom throughout the world. Its influence can be seen in the US Bill of Rights that guarantees certain personal freedoms and restricts the government's powers, and in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, described as an "international Magna Carta for all mankind". It has been invoked by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

Of course, with freedoms come responsibilities. There are, and should be, legal restrictions and ethical and moral constraints on the exercise of freedom to the extent that it hurts others. In several European countries, for example, it is illegal to deny the Holocaust and, in Germany, this comes under the law against incitement of hatred that carries prison terms as punishment. In Singapore, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act prohibits attacks on any religion and the authorities may issue a restraining order or prosecute those who violate the law.

In celebrating the Magna Carta, it cannot be forgotten that there are countries where people still do not enjoy the range of civil rights that they should. There is also a need to safeguard hard-won rights from erosion, whether through extremist ideologies or through the exclusion or marginalisation of minorities. The Magna Carta remains a beacon of hope.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'The legacy of the Magna Carta'. Print Edition | Subscribe