Monday 15th June 2015, marked the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runnymede in 1215. Over the centuries Magna Carta has gained huge symbolic influence being, for many the foundation of their constitution and the basis of their rule of law. However, what is the relevance of Magna Carta today?
Magna Carta is a document that safeguarded basic freedoms, and placed limits on the power of the crown, establishing the principle that ‘to no one shall we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.’ It is both a document and a set of ideas. It has influenced the legal systems of multiple Commonwealth countries including Australia, India, Canada, the Bahamas and New Zealand. Whilst Magna Carta was withdrawn only months after its sealing by King John and Pope Innocent III it is the ideas that were embodied within it that endure. Its principles have been echoed in the United States Bill of Rights (1791), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) highlighting that Magna Carta is still very much at the heart of the rule of law.
It has led to the establishment of common legal systems, common rights, common responsibilities and common values. It is these core values which binds the Commonwealth together and have been reflected within the Charter of the Commonwealth (December 2013). The Commonwealth Charter is an example of the ongoing influence of Magna Carta. It emphasises the shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It acts very much like Magna Carta as a statement of aspiration. It aims to improve the lives of Commonwealth citizens and to protect their rights. Indeed Magna Carta’s lasting impact has come from its position in the popular imagination. It has historically acted as a rallying cry against the arbitrary use of power and injustice. Like Magna Carta the Commonwealth Charter has the potential to act as a platform which Commonwealth citizens can use to raise and address human rights abuses.
Today, Magna Carta acts as a reminder that there remain issues that need to be addressed. One of the projects launched last week was 1215.today, a virtual House of Culture which gives young people the chance to connect internationally, across borders, religion and race, to express their views on issues such as liberty, democracy and human rights. It addresses the relevance of Magna Carta today. Launched on the eve of the Great Charter the project will run for two years until the 800th anniversary of the eve of the Charter of the Forest (5 November 2017). It will culminate in the creation of a new Magna Carta bringing together the issues that are most important to the youth of today. The launch which took place in Lincoln Castle Prison stressed that for many their human rights are under threat. It ended with an international call to arms, a Time for Rights, asking everyone which human right was most important to them, to record and upload a six second video, on International Youth Day (12 August) as an act of solidarity.
It is through projects such as this that Magna Carta remains relevant today. It acts as a focal point encouraging people to think about what they want and what they value. Through its impact on documents such as the Commonwealth Charter, Magna Carta continues to exert its influence as an aspirational document and tool which can be used to redress injustices and discontent. It is the idea that everyone has the right to a free and fair trial that gives Magna Carta the importance and influence it continues to bear today. It exists today as a concept around which people can rally.