Magna Carta at 800: A Promise Unfulfilled
As the world marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, Michael Ratner says the promised guarantees of liberty are unfulfilled as our elected leaders continue to flout the law through indefinite detentions in Guantanamo, illegal wars and imprisonment of millions.
JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
The Magna Carta, or Great Charter, turns the ripe old age of 800 on Monday, June 15th. It’s considered a seminal building block of democracy because simply put, it established that everyone is subject to the rule of law. King John of England was forced to sign it in 1215 to appease a growing rebellion. The Magna Carta states, quote: “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land.
Now joining us to discuss this is someone who knows a little bit about the rule of law and how it’s applied today, Michael Ratner. Michael is the President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, and the U.S. attorney for Julian Assange. He’s also a board member for The Real News Network.
Thanks so much for joining us, Michael.
MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Good to be with you, Jaisal.
NOOR: So Michael, the Magna Carta is 800 years old now. What is its significance today?
RATNER: You know, when you did the introduction, Jaisal, you talked about it as the product of really essentially a people’s struggle, rebellion really, or something. But it actually took place between King John and the barons. And in some sense it was a political document that divided power between the barons and the king, and the barons were asserting more power against the king. And in that sense, they were trying to rule the limit of authority and rule the, and limit the king.
It also of course as you said is the foundation of many of what we consider to be fundamental human rights and constitutional rights. Particularly the right of habeus corpus, which is the right to test your detention, the right to be free essentially from executive detention. You have a right to go to court, the king can’t just send you into a prison, or the president can’t without taking you to a court. The prohibition on torture came out of it. Really fundamental rights. That’s not what it said when it began, but it again eventually developed into that.
I want to talk about it today particularly for two reasons. One is, is let’s look at those rights and see how they’ve come down and whether there’s more than lip service being paid to them. And also because when people talk about the Magna Carta they forget about another charter of liberty that occurred at roughly the same time and was considered equally important at the time, and that’s called the Charter of he Forest. The forest was the economic resource of people in the United Kingdom at that time, or in England. And the charter, the Magna Carta gave what we call political and judicial rights. The Charter of the Forest actually gave economic rights. And it’s ignored of course n this country, the United States, particularly because this is a country that doesn’t believe in economic rights.
In any case we’re coming up on the 800th anniversary as you said, or June 15th, 2015 is the 800th anniversary when King John was forced to sign it at Runnymede in the United Kingdom in England. As I said, it’s widely celebrated. You’ll see flag flying, you’ll see courts having special kind of meetings, you’ll see all kinds of–the President I’m sure will say something, because this is very, a very important document. But the question is for me, how real are the promises of the Magna Carta, and what is being left out? And of course, I said the Charter of the Forest is of course left out.
I became very familiar with the Magna Carta not only as every schoolchild in America does, but because the Center for Constitutional Rights and I represent the Guantanamo detainees. And of course as people may know, in 2001 President George Bush said that he could pick up any person in the world and hold them indefinitely without a trial. And what does that sound like? That sounds like indefinite detention. We went to court, and we eventually made it to the Supreme Court in 2004 in a case called Rasul v Bush, Guantanamo detainees against George Bush, saying essentially we have a right to habeas corpus, a right to test our detention in court, and that the president has no right to simply pick up people by the neck and thrust them into some dank prison, in this case offshore Guantanamo, and not let them go to court.
Amazingly, and surprisingly to me at the time, 6-3 the Supreme Court in 2004 agreed with us. And they did this incredible quote, the author of that opinion, said executive imprisonment has been considered oppressive and lawless since John at Runnymede, that’s 800 years ago, pledged that no free man should be imprisoned, disposed of, outlawed, or exiled save by the judgment of his peers or the law of the land. So a very important decision, adhering to the Magna Carta, giving rights to the people at Guantanamo.
And yet, let’s look at whether those words have actual meaning. Yes we went to court, we got hearings on a lot of our clients. But today as we speak, 122 people remain at Guantanamo despite this right to a hearing, despite that over 50 of them have actually been cleared for release by the government or the courts. And the courts sit there right now and they basically do this. They twiddle their thumbs. They don’t do anything. So here we have a right, a right to go to court, a right to get a remedy, and the courts do nothing.
So yes, I say to our viewers, let’s celebrate the Magna Carta, but understand that we have to fight to make its liberties have meaning. At these kind of moments I always recall the famous words of the abolitionist, former slave Frederick Douglass in the 1850s. He was asked to address a 4th of July celebration. And of course, people in the United States are enslaved at that point. Millions of slaves. And what does he say about it? He says, your 4th of July is a sham, your boasted liberty, an unholy license for enslaving blacks. Your shouts of liberty and equality a hollow mockery. And I say, could not the tortured and those who remained in prison at Guantanamo, could not the over 2 million imprisoned by the United States, could not those murdered by drones, by police, and killed in unlawful wars, and countless others oppressed by the United States say similarly, as Douglass said, what to us is this Magna Carta? What is your–what your Magna Carta is is a sham. Your boasted liberty an unholy license for the millions murdered and tortured, and your shouts of liberty and equality a hollow mockery.
So that’s how we have to think about the Magna Carta. Yes its rights are there for some people. Its rights are not there for most people. And even when they’re given lip service, that’s all they’re given.
As I said, one aspect that’s always forgotten in the U.S. about the Magna Carta is that while that concerned primarily political and judicial rights the other important charter, the Charter of the Forest, which was proclaimed at roughly the same time, guaranteed economic rights. The right of people to what was called the commons, then. The right to the forest. So imagine a small village, there’s a forest. The people were given the right to chop that wood, use that wood to build their houses, and to take parts of the forest as, against the king would one time claim all that forest. They were allowed to take honey. They were allowed to have the rights to economic survival.
And then what happened is the enclosures laws happened in England and Europe and the people got taken away the right to commons and the right to the forest. The right to the forest you could analogize really to the right to natural resources today, whether that be oil or other resources. And of course, those are now all privatized. So that charter, the right to the forest, is to me as critical if not more critical than the Magna Carta.
And today if we recognize that in this country and perhaps in much of the world we’re at the beginning of a struggle about what I would call the Charter of the Forest. The right to economic rights. Let’s not forget those rights, particularly at a time when we’re celebrating judicial protections and judicial rights. Both those sets of rights badly need reinvigoration.
Finally, and I want to end on this. The American Bar Association, which is the major bar association for lawyers in the United States, huge number of members. They put up a plinth, or a marble column, at Runnymede in England. And they engraved these words on it: Freedom Under Law.
And I want our viewers to think about that. Freedom Under Law. It was the same period as the United States established law day instead of a labor day. All of these, Freedom Under Law, Law Day, you have to look at as a way to control people’s struggles by saying they need to obey a law. But that’s not what the Magna Carta stands for. The Magna Carta, as I said when I opened, is about the struggle against the barons, against the authority of the king. Against authority. Let’s remember that. So what that plinth should have said, should have said, was Authority Under Law. In other words, that the president, the congress, the judiciary, those who seek to dictate to us, those people should be the people under law.
And as we have less and less democracy in this country, we need to go back to that principle, authority under law, and we have to stop making a mockery of the Charter of the Forest that guaranteed economic wellbeing and subsistence to human beings all over.
NOOR: Michael Ratner, thank you so much for joining us.
RATNER: Thank you for having me on The Real News.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.