The Magna Carta Anniversary: An Occasion to Take Stock of Our Progress Towards Realising Rights and Equality

With attention focused on the very beginning of fundamental rights protection as well as the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals, 2015 is an opportunity to refocus and reinvigorate our efforts towards achieving equality of rights for all.

2015 is a special year for anniversaries. 200 years from Waterloo, 600 years from Agincourt but perhaps the most significant is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Its importance to the development of our democracy and recognition of fundamental rights is huge. The anniversary is an occasion to take stock of our progress towards realising rights and equality, and to reflect on what more needs to be done.

Passing through Westminster Hall, any visitor to Parliament this year will see an exhibition of banners entitled 'The Beginnings of that Freedome'. This explores significant moments in the journey towards the rights and representation that we have today - taking in freedom of speech, the Bill of Rights, women's suffrage and equality, the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 amongst others. For Parliamentarians, the exhibition resonates as so many of these successes involved courageous and effective MPs and peers taking up causes and marshalling them through Parliament into legislation. It is a constant reminder and inspiration that we, as mandated representatives of all citizens, have an opportunity to advance and protect the rights of all individuals and groups in society and often in the face of strong popular prejudice.

Despite the great progress evidenced in these banners, there is still much to be done, not least in other parts of the world where the concept of universal human rights is far from established. On 5 February, I shall join Jonathan Cooper of the Human Dignity Trust , Frans Viljoen of the Pretoria Centre for Human Rights and Valerie Vaz MP addressing forty MPs from Commonwealth countries. They will be at Westminster for a conference organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK exploring the international legacy of Magna Carta and the current state of human rights in the Commonwealth. Attendees will represent countries that vary hugely and reflect the splendid diversity of the Commonwealth including Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Jamaica, Cameroon, Kenya and Samoa, seeking a solution to the eternally difficult question of how to balance consideration for cultural traditions with absolutely upholding the human rights their countries have signed up to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Protection of minorities' human rights, both globally and specifically in Commonwealth countries, is desperately in need of improvement. For example, female genital mutilation is prevalent in eight Commonwealth countries and practiced widely in immigrant communities in many more, including the UK . Early and forced marriage and the associated barriers to girls' education affect an estimated eight million girls per year ; ethnic and religious minorities experience discrimination almost across the board, and the caste system in India institutionalises social discrimination against Dalits, in spite of legal protection. The poverty rate among disabled people in the UK alone is twice as high as for non-disabled; and 41 Commonwealth countries continue to criminalise same-sex relationships, a finding highlighted in a Kaleidoscope Trust report to which I contributed.

For the individuals on the receiving end of these policies and their consequences, the problems are huge. They clearly conflict with international and often national human rights frameworks from the Universal Declaration onwards. However, they also speak to cultural traditions that are central to societies' values and very much represent public opinion. In the words of a former UK Home Office minister, Mike O'Brien, discussing forced marriage, "multicultural sensitivity is no excuse for moral blindness". It is here that the role of parliamentarians is to act against the prejudices of the majority and to seek to shape public opinion so that it equally values the rights of the marginalised, a duty they owe not only to the specific group but to all their constituents.

The universal moral purpose of the protection of the rights of minorities should be clear, but it can have hard value too. For instance, the World Bank estimates that the Indian economy loses between $1.9 and $30.8billion each year through the lost labour and increased health spending that results from discrimination and victimisation of LGBTI individuals; meanwhile the Global Foundation to End Domestic Violence puts the cost of domestic abuse to the UK at £23billion annually, through lost work days, health care costs and damage to people and property. It will increasingly affect the willingness of multinational donors and other investors to engage with a country's development as well as the bilateral and multilateral donors being exposed to criticism through association with human rights violations.

With attention focused on the very beginning of fundamental rights protection as well as the successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals, 2015 is an opportunity to refocus and reinvigorate our efforts towards achieving equality of rights for all. Holding government to account on behalf of the people as well as being the legislature, parliamentarians are vital actors in the process, and should not avoid their opportunity, and indeed responsibility, to be champions of the most vulnerable.


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