Unit 1 (Defending rights)

The rights’ journey- a brief history

Task- Please introduce yourself in the classroom/course-forum and tell us what you’d personally hope to expect at the end of this course. (Try to be very open-minded and respond to posts from other learners).

Unit 1 Introduction.

“I announce that I will respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them while I am alive. From now on…, I never let anyone oppress any others, and if it occurs, I will take his or her right back and penalize the oppressor.”


“I will never let anyone take possession of movable and landed properties of the others by force or without compensation. While I am alive, I prevent unpaid, forced labour. Today, I announce that everyone is free to choose a religion. People are free to live in all regions and take up a job provided that they never violate other’s rights.”


The above is a portion of texts inscribed on the famous Cyrus cylinder around 2,500 years ago, which many scholars have identified as the earliest known charter of human rights. Thousands of years ago, people barely had rights as a result of membership of a societal group. Slavery had existed for far long and was widely embraced across different peoples. It is believed that after Cyrus’s deceleration (inscribed in his famous cylinder), the notion of human rights spread through India, Greece and eventually, Rome.

More particularly, the idea of human rights as traceable from the Cyrus cylinder is still very much debated by some scholars who argue that Cyrus was more concerned about appeasing the gods because the cylinder’s text was in a tone that portrayed the Persian king as seeking favour for his deeds. These critics argue that Cyrus’s motive was not really humanist in intent but in expectation of kind response from the Gods, upon his rule and that of his lineage. A broader category/group of scholars agree that the most important historical document which sets out a meaningful declaration on human rights is the “magna carta”.

The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta is widely regarded as a fundamental part of the foundation of Western civilization. Historically, the origin of the Magna carta is traced to a 13th century feud between King John and his disgruntled barons. Prior to the drafting of this famous document, king John of England was in dire need to raise money for his expedition to reclaim Normandy and join the Roman Catholic crusade. The English king was infamous for his atrocities, ranging from burdensome scutage (tax paid by a knight in lieu of military service), selling of women (the king was a regular trafficker of wards, underage maids and widows), and forest stealing, and taking children hostage for ransom. In 1208, the pope placed King John under interdict (a papal order that the rites and services of the church are banished from having validity in certain territories for a limited or extended period) and had him and his kingdom excommunicated for rejecting the papacy’s choice of archbishop of Canterbury. Out of grace with the pope, short on funds and having suffered a fresh defeat at the battle of Bouvines in France, the king’s barons found a perfect time to withdraw their homage and fealty. In a final compromise to protect their interests, the feudal lords, sometime in the middle of June, 1215, on a meadow, along the River Thames, pledged an oath with the king, to be faithful to one another along the lines of 63 chapters of agreement in what is famously known as the “Magna Carta”. The document protected the interests of the Church, the feudal aristocracy, the merchants, and most importantly, it acknowledged the lives of the commoners.

Among the most important establishments of the Magna Carta were the right of the church to be free from governmental interference, the rights of all free citizens to own and inherit property and to be protected from excessive taxes. The charter also established the right of widows who owned property to choose not to remarry, and established principles of due process and equality before the law. It also contained provisions forbidding bribery and official misconduct.

The most important chapters (clauses) of the Magna Carta (7, 8, 28, 39 and 40) are highlighted below, and served as precedents for human rights, rule of law and equality till date.

Clause 7

“After the death of her husband a widow is to have her marriage portion and inheritance immediately and without difficulty, nor is she to give anything for her dower, or for her marriage portion, or for the inheritance which she and her husband held on the day of his death, and she may remain in her husband’s house for forty days after his death, during which she is to be assigned her dower.

Clause 8

“No widow is to be distrained to marry while she wishes to live without a husband, as long as she gives security that she will not marry without our consent, if she holds of us, or without the consent of her lord of whom she holds, if she holds of someone else.

Clauses 7 and 8 sets precedents for equality and the emancipation of women.

Clause 28

“No constable or other bailiff of ours is to take anyone’s corn or other chattels, unless he pays cash for them immediately, or obtains respite of payment with the consent of the seller.

Clause 28 sets precedents against law enforcement rascality and brutality.

Clause 39

“No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

Clause 40

“We will not sell, or deny, or delay right or justice to anyone.

Classes 39 and 40 are most important because they contain the foundations for criminalization of torture, habeas corpus and fundamental basis for the rule of law.


Please download and read through the content of the attached PDF(s)

(British Library treasures in full: Magna Carta – English translation)


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