When the Magna Carta (Great Charter) was signed by King John and the feudal barons of England at Runnymede, near Windsor Castle, in June 1215, after the King’s defeat in the battle of Bouvines in northern France in 1214, very few people, at that time, visualised that it would become a source of inspiration and motivation for other countries.
To have their demand of preventing the King from abusing his power accepted in a mediaeval era is considered a landmark in the annals of world history. It was the Magna Carta, after all, that became the basis for the democratic renaissance in Western culture.
How a piece of document signed in 1215 has radically influenced the way the world is governed and has formed the legal basis for human rights
What the Magna Carta has meant for human rights in the West
Prior to the movement of the Renaissance, geographical discoveries and the age of enlightenment, the Magna Carta reflected the steady process of social change and development and resulted in the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the first Bill of Rights (passed in 1689) in England as well as the US Bill of Rights, 1791 in North America.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the European Convention on Human Rights, 1950 also contain some of the fundamental principles enshrined in the Magna Carta.
It is true that the Magna Carta lost its originality when its revised versions were issued in 1216, 1217 and 1225; some of its clauses were retained and became part of the English law, but it played a fundamental role in evolving the process of democratic renaissance in an era of absolutism.
The Carta also failed to provide emancipation to the entire population of England because those who were not ‘free’ citizens, such as peasants, remained under the absolute rule of the monarchy. But that was the usual practice during the mediaeval era and the Carta was termed as a deviation from established norms determining the despotic monarchical culture.
The Magna Carta was not directed for political pluralism or seeking popular mandate for the monarch, but it was able to ensure accountability of the highest seat of power before his subjects. Furthermore, in a mediaeval era where absolutism was at its zenith, the landmark document certainly paved the way for the erosion of an unaccountable authoritarian political culture.
The Magna Carta’s significance today
The 63 clauses of Magna Carta, signed by the then King of England and the non-conformist barons in June 1215, became a source of inspiration for the American and French revolutions. But it is still considered as a symbol of freedom from oppression? It is time to revisit the Magna Carta and examine its relevance, if any, in today’s world, including Pakistan.
First, the document became the basis of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. The English monarch, like other monarchs in that era, who enjoyed absolute power to govern his subjects, was required to take the interests of a segment of population into consideration. By forcing King John to be just and fair to his subjects, the Magna Carta set long-lasting traditions of governing people by a popular consent.
The Magna Carta was not directed for political pluralism or seeking popular mandate for the monarch, but it was able to ensure accountability of the highest seat of power before his subjects. Furthermore, in a mediaeval era where absolutism was at its zenith, the landmark document certainly paved the way for the erosion of an unaccountable authoritarian political culture and encouraged the democracy renaissance.
It took another couple of centuries to transform England from an absolute to a constitutional democracy. Secondly, the Magna Carta not only questioned the absolute power of the monarch in England, it also influenced those forces in Europe and America which were aspiring for a mode of governance based on social justice and the rule of law.
Thirdly, the relevance of Magna Carta today cannot be undermined because it provided a basic structure to the principles of accountability of the ruler before people; basic security and the rule of law as fundamental tenets in the mode of governance.
Yet, even if the Magna Carta provides a sustained effort, since its proclamation in 1215 till today, for better governance and accountability of the authority in power, one can observe a consistent pattern of violating human rights, imposing one’s way of life on others and a general indifference to the plight of common people. Even in so-called Western democracies, numerous examples of denying some people their legitimate rights prove how contradictory the models of democracy are in today’s world.
The United States, which claims to be the oldest democracy, is blamed for repressive and cruel acts particularly in a post-9/11 era under the cover of ‘war on terror’. The Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq speak of countless human rights violations against those who were imprisoned there without a trial.
Even President Barack Obama who, before assuming power in January 2009, pledged to close the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison, failed to do so because of strong resistance from powerful sections of the establishment and the ultra conservative groups. Henceforth, when it comes to practice, Magna Carta or any other declaration of human rights is not in the interest of those who want to pursue the policy of denying fundamental rights to people.
Is it not a bitter fact that women were granted voting rights in the US in the 1920s and African-Americans in the mid-1960s? Despite repealing apartheid type laws during the Johnson administration, acts of racism against non-whites are still common in different US states.
Would it have been possible to unleash the process of constitution-making without the Magna Carta? How do constitutional democracies derive their strength from Magna Carta? Why is such a historic document still considered a symbol of authoritative or quasi democracy and a protector of individual liberties?
It is argued by critics that Magna Carta is wrongly termed as a landmark document in the process of democracy and constitution-making, and that there exists a myth about the pioneering contribution of that document for weakening the despots of England. The original Magna Carta, proclaimed in 1215, was not implemented by the successors of King John as it was reissued in 1225 and 1297 — and the Pope also nullified the Magna Carta.
Yet, notwithstanding the perceptions of those who reject its legacy, there is no parallel to that document. The Magna Carta has had a deep impact on the history of nations, and has strengthened the process of the rule of law, governance and accountability.
Pakistan and the Magna Carta
The Magna Carta, despite its imperfections and the future versions of what is called the ‘great charter’ by monarchs succeeding King John, is still considered a major source of inspiration and reference particularly in the former British colonies.
The Magna Carta cannot be called a perfect document in the realm of constitutional and legal practices, yet, it was a landmark achievement and a great contribution made during the mediaeval era. The shift from medieval times to the modern era in the arena of political statecraft and constitution-making also caused remarkable transformation in the non-Western world where democracy and political pluralism were non-existent to a large extent. If the struggle for the rule of law and equal rights got an impetus with the proclamation of Magna Carta, the benefits of making monarchs accountable before his subjects were also reaped in non-English societies.
In India and Pakistan, too, the significance of the Magna Carta cannot be ignored. The 1950 Constitution of India and 1973 Constitution of Pakistan are perceived to be influenced by the Magna Carta. The constitutions of both countries contain the principles of democracy, liberty and equality which are perceived to be enshrined in the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights of 1688.
On March 12, 1949, when the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan adopted the ‘Objectives Resolution’, the then Prime Minister of the country Liaquat Ali Khan termed it as the ‘Magna Carta of Pakistan’. It’s another story that the 1956 and 1962 constitutions were revoked by the Martial Law of 1958 and 1969, and the 1973 Constitution remained under suspension during the military rule of Gen Ziaul Haq from July 5, 1977 till Dec 31, 1985. Therefore, the relevance of Magna Carta needs to be debated.
Ideal democracy may be a vision of many people but ground realities should also be taken into account when it comes to the feudal and tribal culture prevailing in Pakistan and the high level of intolerance which has permeated society augmenting anger, antagonism leading to extremism, violence and terrorism.
From any standpoint, there is no relevance between Magna Carta or the ‘Objectives Resolution’ or different constitutions of Pakistan, including that of 1973. What England was during the 13th century in terms of its feudal structure in the shape of barons is to some extent found in today’s Pakistan as the country has been unable to marginalise the influence of landed aristocracy in politics and in the mode of governance.
Furthermore, if the Magna Carta paved the way for reforming England’s state and society by agreeing on constitutional monarchy, in the case of Pakistan, periodic military interventions has weakened the process of political pluralism and enabled the military to exert its pressure on civilian regimes.
Consequently, the Magna Carta needs to be revisited; we need to learn from the experiences of mediaeval-era England and study how the transformation of Western societies followed a qualitative change in the behaviour of people and society.
Democratic renaissance is the need of the hour in many developing countries including Pakistan, and one can learn from the process of rule of law and accountability which was unleashed in the post-Magna Carta period.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Karachi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 15th, 2016