Is the Magna Carta Still Relevant in the 21st Century?

  By The Editorial Board     T he Morningside Post proudly presents this Special Edition double issue to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Car­ta. On June 15, 1215, a group of 13th-century barons signed the first ver­sion of the historic Magna Carta doc­ument in their last attempt to resolve the ongoing conflict with King John. The Magna Carta has subsequently been repealed, reinstated, modified and amended to the degree that to­day, less than 5 of its original 63 clauses still remain in force. Though the document failed to avert civil war in England, the docu­ment represents a critical juncture in human history. For the first time, the feudal system was condemned and democratic aspirations were codi­fied. Eight-hundred years later, is the Magna Carta still relevant in the 21st century? Throughout the Spring 2015 semes­ter, The Morningside Post partnered with the SIPA Debate & Diplomacy Society. This collaboration culminated in an epic debate series: the “Clash of Concentrations.” In the Series Finale, International Security Policy (ISP) and International Financial and Economic Policy (IFEP) concentrators debated the question: “Does the 21st century need a new Magna Carta?” Within this Special Edition, you will find in-depth analysis of the de­bates that evaluate the relevancy of the Magna Carta. While it’s true that the Magna Carta started out as a legal instrument, in es­sence, it was the embodiment of an idea. The idea that rulers are not above the law, that all free men should have access to jus­tice, that taxation cannot be arbitrary and unjust and that a head of state has a duty to perform in exchange for the right to de­mand his subjects’ allegiance. The original document was also a political instrument designed to quell the rebellion of the barons, which still left a large portion of the demog­raphy, including the peasants, dis­enfranchised. But the document has evolved since then, as people expand­ed their thinking to encompass the universality of humanity. In fact, it was the Magna Carta that influenced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the newly formed United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Today, this historical document is not so much an instrument of law as it is a symbol of justice, democra­cy and equality. Though there have been leaps and bounds in our collec­tive journey towards fully realizing the potential of these principles, our destination is still a long way off. The Magna Carta was written to pro­tect the rights of the people against a tyrannical king by ensuring that the king himself was subject to the law for the first time. Broadly speaking, un­less heads of state are subject to a con­stitutional authority, they’re more ty­rants that leaders. When not checked by the rule of law and political insti­tutions, even a democracy is reduced to a tyranny of the majority, or to the tyranny of those who control the use of force. What we would be left with, without an instrument like the Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights, is the subju­gation of minority populations, largely disenfranchised, within larger govern­ing units. As President Franklin Delano Roos­evelt stated in his 1941 inaugural ad­dress, “The democratic aspiration is no mere recent phase in human history . . . It was written in Magna Carta.” Un­fortunately, the struggle between the powerful and the powerless remains steadfast. Disenfranchisement and in­equality have paved the way for a se­ries of violent rebellions and civil wars. And as the old adage goes, history re­peats itself. Today, all around the world, major­ity fundamentalism is far from being on the decline in nascent democracies. The Islamic State military group was formed as a coalition of disenfranchised Sunni Muslims in Iraq who decided to fight tyranny using brutal force. Dis­enfranchised Houthis, a group of Zaidi Shia Muslims in Yemen, have mobilized a rebel movement against the belea­guered President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. The ethnic cleavages between the Hutu and the Tutsi tribes in Rwanda, Burundi and other parts of East Africa are another recent example. Years of colonial rule systemically denied equal rights and representation to the Hutus majority population. On gaining inde­pendence, this majority tribe easily won the democratic elections and in the ab­sence of checks and balances to their power, failed to protect the rights and lives of the minority Tutsi population. In the United States, deep-seated prejudice and systemic failures has resulted in widespread discrimination against mi­nority groups. Even in the world’s largest democ­racy, those in power have begun to chip away the rights of the less pow­erful. The newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party in India has banned the sale of beef in states where they hold power, in spite of the fact that it is only the pedantic Hindu minority that consider it a religious duty to abstain from consuming beef. Again, we see the less powerful in society fighting for their rights and equality. Nations around the world have yet to fully realize the goals of the Magna Carta, and this makes it the docu­ment even more important today. The precedent has been set, now it is time to move from words to actions. Until every human being is treated as a free citizen, with individual rights and access to institutional redressal when these rights are denied, the Magna Car­ta will continue to be central to political and social discourse. This story first ran in the print edition of The Morningside Post on April 20, 2015. 

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