James Cusick

Our human rights don’t just begin with Magna Carta, Mr Prime Minister

Cameron’s historical selectivity would be dismissable were it not for his party’s hard-line view on the European Convention on Human Rights

Share

On the second floor of the United Nations in New York, between the Security Council and Economic Council chambers, there’s an acknowledgement, in the shape of a baked-clay cylinder, that before the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were written, other civilisations had grappled with similar ideas.

The object is a copy of the original Cyrus the Great Cylinder kept in the British Museum. The words carved on it in Akkadian cuneiform script describe a political system that favours racial, linguistic and religious rights and equality, where all slaves are  given freedom; and respect for humanity and the promotion of tolerance is demanded.

In the flag-waving “small island” passage of David Cameron’s conference speech, where “Jerusalem” should have been used to fire up the faithful, the PM said: “When the world wanted rights, who wrote Magna Carta?”

Now I’ve no idea if Cameron has ever visited the British Museum. But one of his many advisers might have pointed out that Magna Carta in 1215, wasn’t the world’s first rights charter. Cameron was out by some 1,754 years. Cyrus was the first king of ancient Persia, who conquered Babylon in 539 BC, and although the British Museum describes the Cyrus Cylinder as “an instrument of propaganda”, the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, says that while it might not technically be the first declaration of human rights, in respect of the modern concept “it has come to embody the hopes and aspirations of many.” Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776 and a leading influence on France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen some 13 years later, is said to have noted Cyrus as a key figure.

So do we put it down to Cameron getting carried away? Hyperbole, poetic licence in lining up great British firsts? Because obviously it would be ludicrous to suggest, as Cameron did, that while the Magna Carta was being written, Genghis Khan was deeply concerned about events in Runnymede and how all this rights business might impact the Mongols’ capture of Beijing.

Cameron’s historical selectivity would be easier to dismiss as conference nonsense were it not for his party’s hardline view that the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is incompatible with UK law. He might have conveniently edged out Cyrus the Great to big up the barons and bishops who signed Magna Carta, but his ongoing dismissal of the ECHR and the European Court as somehow unBritish, belies its origins at the very heart of English and Scottish legal tradition. It built on the Universal Declaration, just as the UN built on Thomas Payne’s Rights of Man and it built on what Jefferson, Magna Carta and Cyrus had advocated.

Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, a Tory politician and leading lawyer, chaired the committee that drafted the ECHR, eventually signed in 1950 in Rome. And just as Cameron forgot about Cyrus, he forgets about Maxwell-Fyfe and the reality that English, French and American legal traditions now form a system of human rights that the Conservatives have decided, wrongly, is foreign. And that Britain has “had enough” of it.

So I’d be vigilant about whatever legal history a Conservative leader offers up when the referendum on Europe eventually arrives. Think about it: when we need a Jefferson, who do we have? Sadly, Chris Grayling. Our first Lord Chancellor with no legal background at all.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - West Yorkshire - Ashdown Group - FTC 2017

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car allowance (£5.5k)+ benefits: Ashdown Group: Ma...

Opilio Recruitment: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£15k - 18k per year + Benefits & OTE: Opilio Recruitment: Digital Media, Mob...

Recruitment Genius: Sales People & Team Managers - UK Wide

£67200 - £96000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Self-employed Sales People and ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - IT Outsourcing - £70,000 OTE

£30000 - £40000 per annum + £70,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Reading , Sou...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Tony Blair speaks on stage at the 2nd Annual Save The Children Illumination Gala  

Tony Blair's award from Save the Children raises an important question: are they joking?

Chris Maume
 

Lee Rigby report: What’s the use of spotting terrorist activity if you don’t tell anyone?

Jane Merrick
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

24-Hour party person

Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

A taste for rebellion

US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

Colouring books for adults

How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

Call me Ed Mozart

Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
10 best stocking fillers for foodies

Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

'I am a paedophile'

Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

From a lost deposit to victory

Green Party on the march in Bristol
Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

Winter blunderlands

Putting the grot into grotto
'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital