Baroness Buscombe is a former Conservative front bench spokesman in the Lords. Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.
As we draw towards the end of a year during which we have celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, it is worth reminding ourselves of the significance of that document – and the values it establishes – not only for Britain, but universally.
Earlier this month, we both addressed the inaugural Seoul Dialogue for Human Rights, an initiative of South Korea’s Ambassador for Human Rights, Lee Jung-hoon and his Yonsei University Center for Human Liberty, together with Christian Solidarity Worldwide and others. The theme for the conference was: “Celebrating the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta: In Search of Liberty and Human Rights in North Korea”.
Making a link between the Magna Carta of 1215 and North Korea of 2015 seems at first glance quite a stretch. Indeed, North Korea is perhaps the world’s most closed country ruled by its most repressive regime. It has no hint of Magna Carta principles. But that is precisely the point. The values set out in Magna Carta are what are so strikingly absent from North Korea today – and so urgently and desperately needed.
For what, after all, did Magna Carta do? It sowed the seeds that form the foundations of the principles of liberty and rule of law which we cherish today. “In this country we now take for granted that law should not be handed down by government diktat and that the community should be involved in its creation; that those in authority are subject to the rule of law and that the rights of the citizen should be protected by the efficient administration of justice,” write Anthony Arlidge and Lord Judge, the former Lord Chief Justice, in their excellent book Magna Carta Uncovered.
“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 …. except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land,” it says in Magna Carta’s Clause 39. This is followed in Clause 40 by: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
Lord Denning, the former Master of the Rolls, described the Magna Carta as: “The foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.” And it was Eleanor Roosevelt who labelled the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “the international Magna Carta”.
So it should in fact be no surprise that we focused on the principles of Magna Carta in Seoul, as we remember the 800th anniversary and as we confront the challenges of tyranny today. What is interesting is that apart from ourselves and the British Ambassador to South Korea, Charles Hay, there were no other British speakers or key participants. Instead, we heard from the former President of East Timor, Nobel Laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, whose remarks are worth studying, as well as Martin Lee, the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party; the former Chairman of the UN Commission of Inquiry; Michael Kirby, an Australian judge; the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in North Korea; Marzuki Darusman, formerly Indonesia’s Attorney-General, and the US Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea, Ambassador Robert King, among others. In short, the global respect for Magna Carta symbolises not just a gift to Britain living under a tyrannical King in the thirteenth century; it is an enduring gift to the whole world.
King John and Kim Jong-Un are not, in fact, so very different. Lord Judge and Anthony Arlidge write that: “The most chilling example of John’s capacity for ruthless cruelty was the execution in 1212 of 28 boy hostages.” The North Korean regime today executes people, including children, on a regular basis. If you show anything other than absolute, total, unquestionable loyalty to the ruling Kim dynasty, you will end up in one of the notorious prison camps documented in the UN Commission of Inquiry Report published last year. If you have an alternative political opinion, display any form of dissent – even if unintended – or if you have a religious belief, you run the risk of execution.
King John also caused the disappearance and murder of his nephew – and of course, at the beginning of last year, Kim Jong-Un had his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, executed. Historian David Starkey quotes a source saying of King John: “There was no one who did not obey his nod”. The same could be said of North Korea today.
But a conference discussing these similarities and spotlighting the awful plight of North Korea is one thing. Putting the principles of Magna Carta into action for North Korea today is another. The UN Commission of Inquiry concluded that the regime in North Korea is committing crimes against humanity. It proposed a range of measures to address the long overlooked human rights crisis in the country. It is vital that their excellent report should not sit on the shelf, for academic study, but instead that it be regarded as a manifesto for action – a ‘Magna Carta’ for North Korea.
Its key recommendation is for a case to be brought against the North Korean regime at the International Criminal Court. The reality is this will take time, because the only way it can happen is through referral by the UN Security Council – and China and Russia will likely veto this at the moment. But that should not be an excuse for inaction. Our Government and others should work pro-actively to build up international consensus until it reaches a level of support that would make it uncomfortable for China and Russia to veto. And in the meantime, there are other things that can be done.
First, the UN Security Council has already put the issue of North Korea’s human rights crisis on its agenda – and it is possible for any member to trigger a discussion at any point. The United Kingdom currently has the presidency until the end of this month, and the United States takes it next month. Either one should ensure that there is a Security Council discussion of North Korea’s human rights violations before the end of the year.
The recent Strategic Defence Review announcement to invest in extending the reach of the BBC World Service and increase access to news and information enables the BBC Director General to act on his agreement in principle to begin broadcasting in North Korea. Breaking the regime’s information blockade, countering its propaganda and spreading information to the North Korean people will be as important to opening up North Korea as it was a lifeline to the people of Burma and across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during their worst days of repression. Perhaps the first programme the BBC could broadcast into North Korea could be a documentary about King John, and the everlasting values of Magna Carta?
The appalling attacks in Paris came just two days after our conference in Seoul. They were an attack not only on the French people, but on the principles of Magna Carta. In their wake, we must redouble our efforts not only to defeat the terrorists militarily, but to challenge tyrants everywhere and promote the values of Magna Carta. The enduring legacy of the barons in 1215 should never be forgotten.