Archive for February, 2009

Not quite the first one… but a Great contender

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Detail of the Magna Carta

Detail of the Magna Carta

Frequently referred to as the first text that ever codified human rights, the Magna Carta was signed in June 1215, in Runnymede, near Windsor, England.

The Great Charter brought a temporary end to a long revolt against King John by his barons. A major reason for the revolt was the heavy taxes levied by the Crown, following the loss of the French territories which had drastically reduced the State income. After the barons had entered London by force, the King had to negotiate. Granting individual rights and liberties, and recognizing the right of the Church of England to freely elect its leaders, the Charter signalled the recognition of secular law by the Crown of England.

In addition to the revolt of the barons, a dispute over the right and privileges of the Roman Catholic Church had been ongoing in England. In 1206, the designation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church, became a major issue. While normally appointed by the King, the monks of Canterbury had decided they wanted to elect the Archbishop and sent their choice to Rome. The King responded by appointing his own candidate as Archbishop, John de Gray, Bishop of Norwich. In turn, Pope Innocent III designated a third choice, Cardinal Stephen Langton.

Originally from Lincolnshire, Langton had taught at the Paris Sorbonne University, with the Pope as one of his students. Like another Archbishop of Canterbury - Thomas Beckett, coincidentally (or maybe not) also a Pontigny two-year exilee -, Langton believed in the independence of the Church from the Crown.

King John refused to recognize the Pope’s choice, and for six years, from 1207 to 1213, in the Cistertian Abbey of Pontigny, in Burgundy, Langton waited for the King to let him into England as Archbishop. A series of retortion measures ensued from the Pope’s side, such as the interdiction of public services, including masses and marriages, and the excommunication of the King, until King John had no choice but to accept the Pope’s decision.

As head of the Church, Langton played a key role in the negotiation between the King and his barons, which led to the signature of the Charter. Because of his role, some sources have suggested that the Magna Carta was actually drafted in Pontigny during Langton’s exile, or that at least the ideas it contains were first conceived there. It is also suggested that it was Langton who knew of the Charter of Liberties issued by King Henry I when he ascended the throne in 1100. The wording of the 1215 text closely follows some articles of the earlier text, and similar rights are granted. It is the circumstances under which the texts were issued that differ majorly: the earlier text was proclaimed willingly by King Henry whereas the latter was imposed on King John by the barons.

Originally drafted in Latin, the Magna Carta was translated into English, and is today recognized as the first text codifying individual rights in England. In 1956, Sir Winston Churchill had this to say about the Charter:

Here is a law which is above the King and which even he must not break. This reaffirmation of a supreme law and its expression in a general charter is the great work of Magna Carta; and this alone justifies the respect in which men have held it.

Not surprisingly, the Magna Carta granted liberties to the Church first, including freedom of elections, and then to the freemen governed by the laws of England.

1. In the first place we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs for ever that the English church shall be free, and shall have her rights entire, and her liberties inviolate; and we will that it be thus observed; which is apparent from this that the freedom of elections, which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English church, we, of our pure and unconstrained will, did grant, and did by our charter confirm and did obtain the ratification of the same from our lord, Pope Innocent III, before the quarrel arose between us and our barons: and this we will observe, and our will is that it be observed in good faith by our heirs for ever. We have also granted to all freemen of our kingdom, for us and our heirs for ever, all the underwritten liberties, to be had and held by them and their heirs, of us and our heirs for ever.

Some of the articles are extremely specific, such as the article giving an actual figure for the fee earls, barons, or knights have to pay to the Crown before being able to receive their inheritance.

2. If any of our earls or barons, or others holding of us in chief by military service shall have died, and at the time of his death his heir shall be of full age and owe ” relief”  he shall have his inheritance on payment of the ancient relief, namely the heir or heirs of an earl, 100 pounds for a whole earl’s barony; the heir or heirs of a baron, 100 pounds for a whole barony; the heir or heirs of a knight, 100 shillings at most for a whole knight’s fee; and whoever owes less let him give less, according to the ancient custom of fiefs.

Sixty-three articles in total spell out the rights and liberties granted by King John, which include anti-corruption and fair trade clauses as well as the right for widows not to remarry against their will. Great attention was paid to address any potential issue of concern. As an example, in three  cases only can feudal taxes be imposed:

12. No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom, except for ransoming our person, for making our eldest son a knight, and for once marrying our eldest daughter; and for these there shall not be levied more than a reasonable aid.

Also worth noting is the order in which the various rights are listed. The essential rights to justice and to a fair trial are mentioned towards the end .

39. No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land..

40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice.

Going beyond just rights, the Magna Carta also serves to promote standards, such as the standardization of weights and measures which comes as article 35, before the right to justice. This demonstrated a forward-looking vision compared to other parts of Europe. France for one only adopted similar measures with the Décret relatif aux poids et aux mesures during the revolution, on 18 germinal an 3 (7 April 1795).

35. Let there be one measure of wine throughout our whole realm; and one measure of ale; and one measure of corn, to wit, ” the London quarter;”  and one width of cloth (whether dyed, or russet, or “halberget” ), to wit, two ells within the selvages; of weights also let it be as of measures.

If the Charter brings an end to the conflict between the King and his barons, some are not forgiven and are individually named.

50. We will entirely remove from their bailiwicks, the relations of Gerard Athee (so that in future they shall have no bailiwick in England); namely, Engelard of Cigogne, Peter, Guy, and Andrew of Chanceaux, Guy of Cigogne, Geoffrey of Martigny with his brothers, Philip Mark with his brothers and his nephew Geoffrey, and the whole brood of the same.

Even though King John did not respect the Charter - he actually died one year after signing it-, the text was reissued in 1216, 1217, and 1225, then in 1297 and it became the source of other legal texts. With a total of 4,699 words, the Magna Carta not only provides a reference text as to the rights and freedoms of the English freemen of 1215, it also offers a fascinating picture of English society at the time.


Chesapeake, George Calvert and Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis, December 2008

Visiting Chesapeake recently was another opportunity to verify that discrimination based on religious belief has been a reality for many centuries.

As one reads up about the early days of American history, it quickly becomes very clear that a large number of the early discoverers and settlers wished to lead a life where they would be free to practice their religious beliefs.

The history of Maryland has been shaped by settlers and people who stood up for their rights. The similarities between two men who deeply influenced the future of the State - George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton - were a seredenpitous discovery. Thanks to a royal charter, the first Lord Baltimore - named after Baltimore, Ireland - basically created Maryland. By fighting on the side of independence from the British crown, Charles Carroll played a pivotal role in ensuring that Maryland became one of the 13 founding States. Both men were Catholic, and both men were subject to laws discriminating against Catholics.

This heritage may explain the Free to be Catholic sign which was on display on a religious building close to Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s house in Annapolis, in early December 2008.

Annapolis Church

Annapolis Church

George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, came to the New World in the hope of finding a refuge for English Catholics. After establishing Avalon, on the island of Newfoundland, he looked for a gentler climate and obtained a royal charter to settle the region that is now Maryland.

In England, Calvert’s family had had to suffer from two penal laws, enacted during the reign of Elizabeth I. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity of 1559 required that any citizen wishing to hold a high office would need to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The oath included a denial of the authority of the Pope over the church.

As a child, George was subjected to many forms of interference in the religious life of the Calvert family: they were compelled to attend church, one of his tutors having been denounced as popish, he and his brother were sent to a Protestant tutor. Catholic servants were banned, and the family was forced to purchase and display an English Bible. In 1593, his mother Grace was committed to the custody of an official responsible for prosecuting Catholics, a “pursuivant.”

After graduating from Oxford, Calvert occupied several positions that led him to becoming one of the two principal Secretaries of State of King James in 1619. As a member of a commission, Calvert in 1613 had to recommend for Catholic schools to be suppressed in Ireland.

Early on, Calvert demonstrated interest in the exploration of the New World, and he invested money in the Virginia Company and the East India Company. When he obtained the position of Commissioner of the Treasury, with rights on the duties collected on imported raw silk, his fortune was secured. In 1620, Calvert purchased a tract of land in Newfoundland.

In 1625, shortly after he resigned his Secretariat position, his conversion to Catholicism became public knowledge. He had retained his place on the Privy Council, a position he had to also abandon when King Charles I required all privy councilors to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance.

After having moved to Ireland, Calvert decided to pursue his interest in Avalon, the colony he had established in Newfoundland  where he promoted free religious worship, allowing  Catholics to worship in one part of his house and the Protestants in another.

One winter in Avalon was enough to convince him that the rigorous climate was not suited for his colony, and he moved to Jamestown in Virginia, where he knew tobacco could be grown. Upon his refusing to sign the oaths of supremacy and allegiance there, he had to leave and go back to England where he fought for a charter granting him rights over a piece of land on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. The charter was finally granted on 20 June 1632, five weeks after his death, and Maryland became a refuge for British Catholics, who emigrated to settle tobacco plantations.

A century and a half later, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. The son of a wealthy plantation owner of Irish descent, he was born in 1737 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

At the age of eight, he was sent to France where he studied at a college run by English Jesuits in Saint-Omer, and then in Paris, at Louis le Grand. Having started to study law in Bourges and Paris, in 1757, he moved to London to complete his legal education and returned to Maryland in 1765.

Under laws of the British Colonies - similar to those that forced Calvert to resign his Cabinet position - as a Roman Catholic, Carroll was deprived of political rights, including the right to vote.

After the passage of the Stamp Act, and the exorbitant taxes imposed by Maryland Governor Eden, Carroll  became actively involved politically and started writing in the Maryland Gazette, under the name The First Citizen, defending the colonies rights to control their own taxation, and arguing for a return to natural law.

A member of the Annapolis Convention, in early 1776, he was sent to Canada by the Continental Congress along with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase. Their mission was to persuade the Canadian colonies to relinquish their allegiance to the British crown, and join the American colonies in their fight for independence.  Although the mission to Canada failed, Carroll became instrumental in convincing a reserved Maryland Convention to vote for independence.

On July 4, 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress, and while he was too late to vote for it, he signed the Declaration of Independence, which was officially signed by all members of Congress on an engrossed on parchment version, on August, 2, 1776.

Signing the Declaration entailed a risk for all the signers - as they exposed themselves to confiscation of their properties - but maybe more so for Charles Carroll, considered to be the colonies’ wealthiest individual. Recognizing this, he made sure to add of Carrollton to his signature to ensure that he would be properly identified.

Carroll died at 95 in 1832, two centuries after Calvert, and at the time of his death, as the longest living signer of the Declaration, was regarded with veneration by the American people.

Initial Hearing in the First case of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia - February 17, 2009

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Photographs of victims at S-21, Pnomh Penh

Photographs of victims at S-21, Pnomh Penh

More than the piled up and/or systematically arranged skulls one can see at the Choeung Ek extermination Centre - now a memorial to the people who were killed there -  it is the high quality photographs of the victims on display at S-21 that to me evokes the real horror of a genocide.

Three of us visited these two sombre reminders of Cambodia’s history under the Khmer Rouge regime. S-21 (short for Security Prison 21) , a former high school, was used as a prison and interrogation centre. Of an estimated 17,000 people who were sent to S-21, there are only 12 known survivors. Many of the prisoners were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination centre, the best known of the killing fields. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered there after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

At S-21,  we just could not talk. Having started the visit together, we gradually separated and went our separate way, needing to be alone to silently take in what we were seeing.

Several rooms still displayed the iron beds and some of the torture equipment that had been used there, but what made the most impression were the seemingly endless displays of large photographs portraying all those who came to S-21.

Skulls on display at Choeng Ek Memorial

Skulls on display at Choeung Ek Memorial

I only realized today that by showing real people, alive and systematically arranged by gender, or age group, the photographs made the reality of the genocide a much more vivid one. I don’t think we fully understood at the time the meticulous care with which the victims had been so systematically documented. It is only later that one remembered the quality of the photographs. Sophisticated equipment had been used to ensure the best possible definition.

Even though similar preciseness is displayed in the systematic arrangement of the skulls at Choeung Ek - Male Kampuchean, 30-40 year old, Juvenile Female Kampuchean, from 15 to 20 year old - showing the scale of the elimination, the skulls do not have the same immediacy as the photographs.

The skulls have been arranged to honour and remember the anonymous victims - anonymous in as much as they cannot be readily identified.

The pictures show real people - who sometimes even smiled at the camera and the jail photographer - the very people, with a name, a face, an identity, who the Khmer Rouge regime had identified as those they needed to eliminate. The pictures attest to the cold determination of the Khmer Rouge doctrine, looking to create a new Cambodia, Year One, and eliminating anyone likely to oppose this doctrine. This systematic process of elimination of the opponents falls under the definition of genocide.

Pieces of fabric, teeth and bones at Choeng Ek Memorial, Cambodia

Pieces of fabric, teeth and bones at Choeung Ek Memorial, Cambodia

While the official memorial, the skull tower, at Choeung Ek is therefore maybe less evocative than S-21, there are still some really morbid details in the killing field. As one walks around the memorial grounds, on paths linking mass graves, it is difficult not to step over pieces of bones, teeth or fragments of fabric that have surfaced up.  These may just have resurfaced, after the rain: the burial process was rather hasty. And from these fragments on the ground, or from the collection of clothes that have been found when the mass graves were dug up - which are also on display at Choeung Ek - you may be able to recognize a fabric pattern that you would have noticed in one of the photographs at S-21. It is easy enough to recognize, few of the victims were wearing distinctive clothes, most of them wore uniforms. Recognizing these specific fabric patterns makes the reality of the genocide even more vivid because it is likely you will remember the features of the victims.

On Februrary 17, 2009, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia held the initial hearing in its first case: Kaing Guek Eav, known as “Duch”, the former S-21 prison chief, faces charges of crimes against humanity.

Happy 200th birthday, Mr. President

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Februrary 12, 2009, last week, marked the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, but Presidents’ Day 2009 is celebrated today. A good time to put a quick post together.

Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation, Jose Maria Sert, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Lincoln reads the Emancipation Proclamation, Jose Maria Sert, Palais des Nations, Geneva

Even the Liberia President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been asked by The New York Times to contribute an op-ed about how Liberia remembers Lincoln.

Established in 1847 by freed American slaves, Liberia adopted a red, white and blue flag and named its new capital, Monrovia, after James Monroe.

But it was 15 years before an American administration recognized Liberia as a sovereign nation. As president, Lincoln did what his predecessors had refused to do for fear of offending Southern States…

Whether or not they were inspired by the personal example of Lincoln, it was the belief he embodied - that the greatest challenges cannot be left to future generations - that empowered our people.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln becomes the Great Emancipator. The fight for the abolition of slavery in the United States had been a long one and was still going to continue until the end of the Civil War. Slavery is abolished by the 13th amendment in December 1865.

Lincoln had long been advocating for the abolition. In July 1854, in a famous argument, he demonstrated the weakness of the justifications for slavery.

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. — why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?- You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?–You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own. But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

The same year, in an inspired speech delivered at Peoria, on October 16, Lincoln affirmed the rights of the black man to natural rights.

If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that `all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another. (

And with two executive orders, Abraham Lincoln becomes the Great Emancipator. The first order is issued on September 22, 1862, granting freedom to slaves from the Confederated States.  The January 1, 1863 order named the specific states where the order applied, and is known as the Emancipation Proclamation.

In the Palais des Nations in Geneva, a mural by Spanish artist José Maria Sert shows Abraham Lincoln reading the Emancipation Proclamation. The decoration of the room, donated by the Spanish Government in 1936, is dedicated to the ideas advocated by Francisco de Vitoria, the Spanish Dominican who, in the 16th Century, invented international law, and fought for the rights of indigenous Indians in the Spanish colonies.

The painting, entitled Social Progress, represents Abraham Lincoln with his back to us, and coming out through huge gates the newly liberated slaves. The four totems represents the state of being slave to superstition.

Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Jose Maria Sert's mural

Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Jose Maria Sert

Adding the time dimension to the human rights debate

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Historical Account of Guinea by Anthony Benezet (London, 1788)

Historical Account of Guinea by Anthony Benezet (London, 1788)

Once I started looking at whether human rights were recognized in different parts of the world, the next question that came up was: had the perception of human rights evolved over the centuries?

In the same way, the Amnesty International campaign was questioning the perception of what constitutes a human rights violation in differents parts of the world, I was intrigued at how the modern concept of basic human rights had been perceived at different periods in time, and how this may be reflected today.

A good example was the 1999 movie Mansfield Park, an adaptation of the 19th century novel by Jane Austen. As was the case in most recent adaptations of the famous writer’s novels, a great attention had been paid to period details, with intensive research being done to ensure accuracy of sets, costumes, and dialogues.

The Canadian director, Patricia Rozema, decided to go beyond the actual text of the novel, and updated the plot to make it more relevant to a late 20th century audience. The novel takes place in 1806, and while references to an Antigua plantation are made, nowhere in the novel is the theme of slavery mentioned. In her adaptation, Rozema makes it a recurrent theme and one of the plot’s determining moments. As a child, on her way to a new home, a long sequence shows Fanny Price looking at a slave ship, while as a young woman, her discovery of a sketchbook describing with lurid details the fate of slaves employed by her uncle becomes a pivotal moment in the plot.

Rozema’s decision to modernize the novel created quite a bit of debate and controversy among Jane Austen’s many followers. Was she right to introduce a dimension that may have been likely, but was certainly not even suggested as a main point of the novel. While the slave trade was abolished in England in 1807, following an almost twenty-year  battle led among others by William Wilberforce, political developments are seldom mentioned in Austen’s works.

One wonders then whether the director - rather than being period-accurate - was not trying to be 20th century-PC. By making slavery such a leit-motiv of the movie, and endowing Fanny with strong abolitionist convictions, she made a similar type of transposition - in time - as that used by Amnesty international. With this PC approach, Fanny Price and the movie were becoming more interesting to Rozema’s modern audience, in the same way as Vanity Fair’s readership would be more likely to react to Protestant American victims.