As a principle, the protection of basic human rights is accepted widely: It is embodied in written constitutions throughout the world as well as in the Charter of the United Nations and in such international agreements as the Helsinki Final Act (the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe--CSCE).
Distinguishing among different categories of rights is another matter. In recent times, there has been a tendency, especially among international organizations, to expand the list of basic human rights. To fundamental freedoms of speech and equal treatment before the law, these groups have added rights to employment, to education, to one's own culture or nationality, and to adequate standards of living.
These are all worthwhile undertakings, but when such entitlements proliferate as rights, they tend to devalue the meaning of basic civic and human rights. Furthermore, they blur the distinction between rights that all individuals possess and goals toward which individuals, organizations, and governments may reasonably be expected to strive.
Governments protect inalienable rights, such as freedom of speech, through restraint, by limiting their own actions. Funding education, providing health care, or guaranteeing employment demand the opposite: the active involvement of government in promoting certain policies and programs. Adequate health care and educational opportunities should be the birthright of every child. The sad fact is that they are not, and the ability of societies to achieve such goals will vary widely from country to country. By transforming every human aspiration into a right, however, governments run the risk of increasing cynicism and inviting a disregard of all human rights.
BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS
• Freedom of speech, expression, and the press.
• Freedom of religion.
• Freedom of assembly and association.
• Right to equal protection of the law.
• Right to due process and fair trial.
Magna Carta (Latin for "the Great Charter"), also called Magna Carta Libertatum (Latin for "the Great Charter of the Liberties"), is a charter agreed by King John of England at Runnymede, near Windsor, on 15 June 1215.[a] First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury to make peace between the unpopular King and a group of rebel barons, it promised the protection of church rights, protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limitations on feudal payments to the Crown, to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. Neither side stood behind their commitments, and the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons' War. After John's death, the regency government of his young son, Henry III, reissued the document in 1216, stripped of some of its more radical content, in an unsuccessful bid to build political support for their cause. At the end of the war in 1217, it formed part of the peace treaty agreed at Lambeth, where the document acquired the name Magna Carta, to distinguish it from the smaller Charter of the Forest which was issued at the same time. Short of funds, Henry reissued the charter again in 1225 in exchange for a grant of new taxes; his son, Edward I, repeated the exercise in 1297, this time confirming it as part of England's statute law.
The charter became part of English political life and was typically renewed by each monarch in turn, although as time went by and the fledgling English Parliament passed new laws, it lost some of its practical significance. At the end of the 16th century there was an upsurge in interest in Magna Carta. Lawyers and historians at the time believed that there was an ancient English constitution, going back to the days of the Anglo-Saxons, that protected individual English freedoms. They argued that the Norman invasion of 1066 had overthrown these rights, and that Magna Carta had been a popular attempt to restore them, making the charter an essential foundation for the contemporary powers of Parliament and legal principles such as habeas corpus. Although this historical account was badly flawed, jurists such as Sir Edward Coke used Magna Carta extensively in the early 17th century, arguing against the divine right of kings propounded by the Stuart monarchs. Both James I and his son Charles I attempted to suppress the discussion of Magna Carta, until the issue was curtailed by the English Civil War of the 1640s and the execution of Charles.
The political myth of Magna Carta and its protection of ancient personal liberties persisted after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until well into the 19th century. It influenced the early American colonists in the Thirteen Colonies and the formation of the American Constitution in 1787, which became the supreme law of the land in the new republic of the United States.[b] Research by Victorian historians showed that the original 1215 charter had concerned the medieval relationship between the monarch and the barons, rather than the rights of ordinary people, but the charter remained a powerful, iconic document, even after almost all of its content was repealed from the statute books in the 19th and 20th centuries. Magna Carta still forms an important symbol of liberty today, often cited by politicians and campaigners, and is held in great respect by the British and American legal communities, Lord Denning describing it as "the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot".
In the 21st century, four exemplifications of the original 1215 charter remain in existence, held by the British Library and the cathedrals of Lincoln and Salisbury. There are also a handful of the subsequent charters in public and private ownership, including copies of the 1297 charter in both the United States and Australia. The original charters were written on parchment sheets using quill pens, in heavily abbreviated medieval Latin, which was the convention for legal documents at that time. Each was sealed with the royal great seal (made of beeswax and resin sealing wax): very few of the seals have survived. Although scholars refer to the 63 numbered "clauses" of Magna Carta, this is a modern system of numbering, introduced by Sir William Blackstone in 1759; the original charter formed a single, long unbroken text. The four original 1215 charters were displayed together at the British Library for one day, 3 February 2015, to mark the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta
In every society throughout history, Frank points out, those who administer the criminal justice system hold power with the potential for abuse and tyranny. In the name of the state, individuals have been imprisoned, had their property seized, and been tortured, exiled and executed without legal justification--and often without any formal charges ever being brought. No democratic society can tolerate such abuses.
Every state must have the power to maintain order and punish criminal acts, but the rules and procedures by which the state enforces its laws must be public and explicit, not secret, arbitrary, or subject to political manipulation by the state.
What are the essential requirements of due process of law in a democracy?
• No one's home can be broken into and searched by the police without a court order showing that there is good cause for such a search. The midnight knock of the secret police has no place in a democracy.
• No person shall be held under arrest without explicit, written charges that specify the alleged violation. Not only are persons entitled to know the exact nature of the charge against them, they also must be released immediately, under the doctrine known as habeas corpus, if the court finds that the charge is without justification or the arrest is invalid.
• Persons charged with crimes should not be held for protracted periods in prison. They are entitled to a speedy and public trial, and to confront and question their accusers.
• The authorities are required to grant bail, or conditional release, to the accused pending trial if there is little likelihood that the suspect will flee or commit other crimes. "Cruel and unusual" punishment, as determined by the traditions and laws of the society, is prohibited.
• Persons cannot be compelled to be witnesses against themselves. This prohibition against involuntary self- incrimination must be absolute. As a corollary, the police may not use torture or physical or psychological abuse against suspects under any circumstances. A legal system that bans forced confessions immediately reduces the incentives of the police to use torture, threats, or other forms of abuse to obtain information, since the court will not allow such information to be placed into evidence at the time of trial.
• Persons shall not be subject to double jeopardy; that is, they cannot be charged with the same crime twice. Any person tried by a court and found not guilty can never be charged with that same crime again.
• Because of their potential for abuse by the authorities, so-called ex post facto laws are also proscribed. These are laws made after the fact so that someone can be charged with a crime even though the act was not illegal at the time it occurred.
• Defendants may possess additional protections against coercive acts by the state. In the United States, for example, the accused have a right to a lawyer who represents them in all stages of a criminal proceeding, even if they cannot pay for such legal representation themselves. The police must also inform suspects of their rights at the time of their arrest, including the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent (to avoid self- incrimination).
A common tactic of tyranny is to charge opponents of the government with treason. For this reason, the crime of treason must be carefully limited in definition so that it cannot be used as a weapon to stifle criticism of the government.
None of these restrictions means that the state lacks the necessary power to enforce the law and punish offenders. On the contrary, the criminal justice system in a democratic society will be effective to the degree that its administration is judged by the population to be fair and protective of individual rights, as well as of the public interest.
Judges may be either appointed or elected to office, and hold office for specified terms or for life. However they are chosen, it is vital that they be independent of the nation's political authority to ensure their impartiality. Judges cannot be removed for trivial or merely political reasons, but only for serious crimes or misdeeds--and then only through a formal procedure, such as impeachment (the bringing of charges) and trial in the legislature.
The rock upon which a democratic government rests is its constitution--the formal statement of its fundamental obligations, limitations, procedures, and institutions. The constitution of the country is the supreme law of the land, and all citizens, prime ministers to peasants alike, are subject to its provisions. At a minimum, the constitution, which is usually codified in a single written document, establishes the authority of the national government, provides guarantees for fundamental human rights, and sets forth the government's basic operating procedures.
Despite their enduring, monumental qualities, constitutions must be capable of change and adaptation if they are to be more than admirable fossils. The world's oldest written constitution, that of the United States, consists of seven brief articles and 27 amendments. This written document, however, is only the foundation for a vast structure of judicial decisions, statutes, presidential actions, and traditional practices that has been erected over the past 200 years--and kept the U.S. Constitution alive and relevant.
This pattern of constitutional evolution takes place in every democracy. In general, there are two schools of thought about the process of amending, or changing, a nation's constitution. One is to adopt a difficult procedure, requiring many steps and large majorities. As a result, the constitution is changed infrequently, and then only for compelling reasons that receive substantial public support. This is the model of the United States, whose Constitution is a brief statement of the general principles, powers, and limits of government, together with a more specific listing of duties, procedures, and, in the Bill of Rights, the fundamental rights of individual citizens.
A much simpler method of amendment, which many nations use, is to provide that any amendment may be adopted by approval of the legislature and passed by the voters at the next election. Constitutions able to be changed in this fashion can be quite lengthy, with specific provisions that differ little from the general body of legislation.
No constitution like America's, written in the 18th century, could have survived unchanged into the late 20th century. Similarly, no constitution in force today will survive into the next century without the capacity for change--while still holding fast to principles of individual rights, due process, and government through the consent of the governed.