Last night, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) UK’s conference ‘Magna Carta to Commonwealth Charter: Human Rights in the Modern Day Commonwealth’ opened with a lecture delivered by Rt Hon. John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons and Rt Hon. Baroness Scotland of Asthal, former Attorney-General on the modern legacy of Magna Carta. Mr Speaker took the opportunity to urge his Commonwealth parliamentary colleagues in attendance to take inspiration from the spirit of the authors of Magna Carta and continue to develop and distil the principles of democracy it outlines. Baroness Scotland then asserted that the Commonwealth is bound together by rule of law and the other common values defined by Magna Carta, in their modern-day manifestations of the Harare Principles and the Commonwealth Charter. She identified it as a statement of aspiration for any good government, 1215 or 2015.
The main conference programme began this morning with an exploration of rights, democracy and the rule of law. Chairing, constitutional expert Lord Norton of Louth singled out democracy and the rule of law as the twin pillars of a functioning democratic society, but acknowledged that upholding both pillars can lead to conflicts between the legislature and the judiciary. He urged courts and parliaments to recognise that each has a vital role in protecting both elements, and to cooperate as far as possible. Sir Edward Garnier QC MP then gave his perspective as a parliamentarian and lawyer, and identified three factors critical to protecting rule of law: an independent judiciary, an executive that acts with respect for citizens’ rights and a free and open press. He encouraged the parliamentarians participating to be vigilant to ensure their governments were not allowed to abuse the rule of law in the name of national security.
Finally, Professor Vernon Bogdanor, leading constitutional historian, discussed the link between Magna Carta and modern constitutions. He pinpointed three purposes of constitutions in modern democracies: the first, to give citizens a sense of purpose, a rallying cry for the system; the second, to provide an organisational chart for government; and thirdly and most importantly, to protect individuals and minorities from the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ He briefly discussed the relative merits of the UK’s unwritten common law constitution and those of a written constitution, concluding that individually each nation must decide its best-suited constitutional system.
In the next session, discussing parliamentary strengthening, Rt Hon. Sir Malcolm Bruce MP highlighted the findings of the International Development Select Committee’s report on parliamentary strengthening, particularly the importance of parliamentarians and parliamentary staff sharing knowledge on an international level. He drew attention to the fact that the international community spends twice as much on promoting elections as it does on subsequent support to the parliament once elected. Alina Rocha Menocal of the Overseas Development Institute echoed this, suggesting that international actors often mistakenly approach parliaments as technocratic rather than political institutions. Closing the morning’s programme, Hon. Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury MP, Speaker of the Parliament of Bangladesh, explored parliamentary democracy and the legislative, representative and oversight roles of parliamentarians. She suggested that parliaments should constantly develop, in particular seeking to address the challenges created by globalisation such as sustainability and protection for the environment.
This afternoon began with a session on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights chaired by Virendra Sharma MP. Sir Nigel Rodley, Chair of the UN Human Rights Committee, quoted Eleanor Roosavelt in defining the Declaration as ‘a Magna Carta for all mankind,’ with the rule of law as a clear line from 1215 to 1948. He explored the development in states’ attitudes towards the rights outlined in the Declaration, with increased weight given in recent decades. Dr Corinne Lennox of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies focused on one area in which the UNDHR is not explicit, that of minority rights, and demonstrated ways in which it could be used to support these rights. Finally, Baroness O’Neill discussed the relationship between parliamentary democracy and human rights. She defined three prerequisites for democracy, namely order, the rule of law and the elementary rights of the person, arguing that democracy cannot exist without respect for these rights.
In the final session of the day, a panel led by Baroness Berridge explored the relationship between national and international law, as well as the role played by international organisations. She reminded participants that respect for national sovereignty is a principle of international law, but so is respect for human rights, and they must be taken together. David Hobbs, Secretary General of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, expanded on this, discussing the role played by NATO in conflicts from the Cold War to date, including in challenging situations where the UN has not supported action. Concluding the first day’s programme with a harrowing and very personal account was Ruth Mumbi, an Amnesty International Human Rights Defender. Her experience of harassment, trumped-up charges and abuse during a peaceful demonstration for maternal healthcare gave a very real example of the difference between the theory of human rights and the rule of law and its practice.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.