Magna Carta, Human Rights and the Rule of Law

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on December 10, 1948, by the UN General Assembly in Paris. It signaled a new era of hope for humanitarian rights, and a new extension of rights based in the western tradition, as ideals across the world. A strong force behind the creation of the document was Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee and was active before and after in human rights advocacy. Although not a treaty, a number of its provisions are often viewed as international customary law, having normative force to regulate the actions of nations with respect to their populations.

Several provisions of the Declaration echo principles found in Magna Carta and its subsequent interpretation in the Anglo-American tradition. The first article of the Declaration holds that all individuals are free and equal in dignity and rights; the third, that every person has the right to life, liberty, and the security of person; and the seventeenth adds security of property. The seventh article states that all are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the laws, while the ninth assures all individuals of immunity from arbitrary arrest or detention. Provisions for proportional penalties, freedom of movement within a country and the right to leave also have early roots in Magna Carta.

Subsequent UN resolutions and documents have strengthened the standing of the Universal Declaration, and reinforced and augmented its rights. Foremost among these is the International Bill of Human Rights, which includes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and its optional protocol, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966). The two covenants went into effect after ratification in 1976. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes the right to a fair, public, and speedy trial, and forbids arbitrary arrest and slavery, as non-derogable rights.

Such treaties are promoted by UN bodies and NGOs, and have found expression in national legislation. Although the implementation of human rights laws faces challenges, adoption through domestic legislation has been a mark of influence. In the United States, for example, legislation concerning refugees has borrowed principles and some language from UN protocols. In Europe, human rights laws based on UN treaties have become part of domestic law. While the post-WWII period brought remarkable consensus about the importance of human rights, the 21st century calls for continued and innovative stewardship of these laws, as the world faces new and complex challenges.