13th Century – Magna Carta; 21st – a new “Great Charter”?


‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

Magna carta

On 15th June, 2015, Magna Carta will be commemorated. It will be 800 years since King John of England affixed his royal seal to the document at Runnymede – alongside the Thames in southern England. Magna Carta was an agreement between King John and English nobles that sought to overturn the singular rule by a despotic monarch and set the scene for the gradualist changes that resulted in democracy.

Magna Carta emphasized the rights of the individual over the state (even if those individuals in 1215 were just a few nobles).

That fight between the state (and those who want to capture the state for themselves) and the individual is unresolved 800 years later despite successive waves of change.

While in the West we consider the balance between the State and individuals to be rational and where the rights of individuals are upheld by rules such as The Human Rights Act, there is a perpetual seeking after new balances when threats appear or when certain groups capture more of the State. In the USA, for example, this balancing resulted in the splitting of responsibility between Executive, Legislature (itself into two parts) and Judges – which Fukuyama now calls a “vetocracy” which is more and more in the pay of key sectors that know how to manipulate decisions.

More widely, nations like China and Russia have never allowed significance to a balance between the state and individual rights. China, especially, has for 2000 years emphasized rule by law rather than rule of law – where the State (or those that consider themselves to be the State) is above the law. Xi Jinping’s recent attack on corruption appears to be but the latest attempt by one person and his clique to dominate the state.

More recently, like a laser beam to the head, the murders in France of journalists at Charlie Hebdo, of a Muslim policewoman close by and, later, at a Kosher deli, have highlighted that the individual and the rights of any individual are consistently challenged by states and those purporting to act on behalf of a state (or, in this case, an entity that stood before the state or that, in some cases, acts as a state – here, a religion).

The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia reminds us of the total submission of individual rights in that country beneath the rule of one family – under the aegis of the Wahhabi sect of Islam.

Individual Rights

The battle between the State (whether represented by an elite or an ideology headed by a group purportedly representing that ideology) and individuals is a battle that clearly still rages. The rights of the individual against such groups are key to the different mindsets that distinguish real freedom from all other forms of government and governance.

The spectrum is a wide one but State (with a wide definition of that word) “ownership” ranges from political or quasi-political (such as China) to dictatorial (Equitorial Guinea, Angola) to religious (ISIS) to monarchic / theocratic (Saudi Arabia) to such “democracies” where voting is rigged (such as Zimbabwe and Afghanistan) to enable elites to maintain themselves in power.

This is not a battle between different nations but one where the rights of individuals are challenged by state or state-like bodies.

Whereas we may not see the actions taken against journalists in Turkey by the Erdogan regime to be in any way similar to extreme violence as has just happened in France, it is on that spectrum. Between states that defend the rights of individuals and those which violently oppress them (and subsume them to the so-called state or a religion) lies many variations – but, all can slide in the wrong way to extremism.

The extremists who claimed to be Islamists are one extreme; Erdogan’s government is dangerously edging in that direction as freedom of the press is a crucial embodiment of individual freedom.

Corruption at the Heart

Sarah Chayes has just published “Thieves of State”. It is an extraordinary book that, through her own experiences as a journalist and then on the staff of various military commanders from the US and in places like Afghanistan, enables her to show clearly how corruption is at the heart of so many national and international upheavals. From Afghanistan to Egypt, from Tunisia to Nigeria, governance has been geared towards corruption and becomes the mechanism of government.

Sarah’s aim is to show how the corruption flow in those countries is not top-down, but bottom-up, where so-called “facilitation payments” lead up the chain to larger corruption at the top – whereby nations recast themselves as mafias but, now, emasculating nations.

She shows how Karzai was able to do this in Afghanistan; how the military do this in Egypt; why this was the norm in Tunisia.

Individualism and the right of individuals to have justice have no place in such states. The state is simply a mechanism to suck the benefits of society through corruption to a few at the top who become extremely wealthy and some further corrupt benefits to those further down to makes ends meet. The vast majority of society suffers through lack of funds and the thieving of funds meant for development – for policing, for security, for health services, for education and for the rest of what we in the West would call normality.

This is why the Arab Spring promised so much but gave so little. Only in Tunisia has the promise started to be met. The strength of people in such a country is to be applauded and the recent election of Beji Caid Essebsi in a free and open election to be warmly welcomed.

Similarly, the people of Sri Lanka made a momentous decision at the ballot box by throwing out President Rajapaska and electing Maithripala Sirisena – a man dedicated to fighting corruption and nepotism.

Yet, as Sarah Chayes has shown, outside of these countries, either corrupt states remain ruled by corrupt kleptocrats or the fight back is via religion. Boko Haram and ISIS claim to be against the ways of the West as they see it – the corruption that is embedded in Nigeria or Iraq. At this extreme, even education is seen as the mechanism by which individuals grab the capability to enter into the corrupt system. Chayes views the connivance of the USA in that corruption (she mentions the suitcases of cash that the CIA provided to Karzai as but one example) as leading to the success of terrorist organisations in gaining credibility amongst many people in countries like Iraq because they see this as the only way out of the corruption that wrecks their lives.

Working on the disease

Yet, it is 800 years since Magna Carta – an agreement between a king that believed in his own divinely-given rights as usurping all others and a group of wealthy noblemen that wished to garner some rights to themselves. From that time, many of us have progressed to where individual rights are now enshrined in law and also in practice.

Yet, as recently as the 17th Century, England was riven with corruption – it was endemic. Samuel Pepys, the renowned diarist of that time, spent six years to work corruption out of the Royal Navy – which was crumbling under the weight of bribery and nepotism – notably, the sale of position and procurement. Although Pepys was not innocent of corruption himself, as his biographer, Claire Tomalin has written, his own honesty went some way to right some wrongs. England gradually, through the 18th and 19th Centuries, eroded corruption from its core but it was not an overnight demolition. Chayes’ example of Singapore and its ability to eradicate corruption almost overnight is a good case of a small nation challenging itself and succeeding. Elsewhere, it takes longer

Chayes focuses sensibly on the role of not just organizations like the military within corrupt nations but organisations outside like the CIA in understanding the drivers against the halting the disease of corruption and the complete erosion of justice. However, as the West (via organisations like the OECD and the US FCPA) progressed after World War II to a consensus on governance and how governance would become part of the stated requirement for development assistance, this has, more recently, been unsettled by the rise of China – which has appeared to care little for such governance considerations – notably in its dealings with African states.

This unsettling of the post-WWII consensus (despite Xi Jingping’s drive to eradicate the disease in China – which many suggest is more politically motivated than anything else) is a major challenge that can be added to Sarah Chaye’s list of issues to be assessed when developing an anti-corruption programme.

A “Great Charter” for the 21st Century

Sarah Chaye’s book puts corruption at the heart of the problem that besets the world.

  • While climate change (with its own problems of solution and understanding) has been seen as a world-wide challenge that has to be resolved;
  • while health concerns are the subject of huge technological research and financial resolve;
  • while economic prosperity is the subject for everyone at all times;
  • while nature conservation and the future of human life on this planet is a central consideration of all;
  • while terrorism is dislocating masses, murdering thousands, displacing millions – often through the guise of extreme forms of religion – and requires regular government action;
  • corruption plays a role in all the world’s key areas of collapse but has far less formal acknoweldgment.

From small-scale facilitation payments to large scale national strangulation, corruption inhibits and destroys.

The world now needs a charter for the 21st Century that marries the rights of individuals and justice (started with the Magna Carta in 1215) to the rights of individuals and communities to be unhindered by corruption. We now need a formal acknowledgement of its central corrosive ability that destroys nations, destroys security and completely disallows individual and community justice to take place.

“To no one will we sell what is not ours to sell”

“From no one will we take what is not ours to take”

 

‘to no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice’.

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