18th June 2015 Beirut, Lebanon
Magna Carta and the ‘Mother of Laws’
This week is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. This was celebrated in the UK as the moment when the barons imposed on the monarch an agreement for greater liberties and rights, a milestone on the way to many of the freedoms we enjoy today. That journey reached a high point with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, still one of the most beautiful and powerful documents ever written.
Of course, the journey didn’t start with the Magna Carta. While we in Britain were in a Game of Thrones phase, Beirut was known as the “mother of laws”, and two of its professors – Dorotheus and Anatolius – were helping to compile the legal code for the Roman Empire.
Talking to Lebanese students and lawyers this week about the Magna Carta has been a reminder that the Middle East’s subsequent journey is as challenging as ever. There are plenty of unaccountable tyrants clinging on. Lebanon has not been able to elect a President or hold parliamentary elections. Students I met at Notre Dame University reminded us that the Magna Carta should apply to badly treated migrant workers – “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned … nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.” Lawyers at the Beirut Bar Association spoke about their daily efforts to counter torture and mistreatment. We’re proud that many of those who have studied in the UK under the Chevening Scholarships programme are at the forefront of this work.
Like the Magna Carta barons or the Beiruti lawyers before and after them, we still need to contest where authority begins and ends; what issues fall under the rule of law; and how to balance the rights of individuals and communities. As I’ve blogged here these questions on liberty and security will become even more acute in the internet age. From what I heard from them, Lebanese civil society is well placed to come up with the next set of answers.