Equality’s lasting appeal finds form in the Magna Carta

Caroline Wilson expects the Magna Carta’s tour in Hong Kong to reinforce the pledge of all enlightened societies to end discrimination of all forms

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 3:20pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 4:04pm

“Bad” King John, the villain of every Robin Hood tale, is an unlikely candidate for the creator of a document that has shaped our ideas of individual rights and freedoms for 800 years. And it’s true that when he pressed his royal seal onto the Magna Carta in 1215, he was not being driven by altruism; far from it, the charter was the only way he could preserve his rule.

Too many people around the world, including in Hong Kong, continue to suffer discrimination for reasons such as who they love

Despite this inauspicious beginning, buried within the dense text was a genuinely visionary thought. “To no one delay right or justice” – that is to say, everybody is equal before the law. Eight hundred years later, this concept is at the heart of modern society. It inspired the authors of the US constitution and underpinned the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But, for all this progress, too many people around the world, including in Hong Kong, continue to suffer discrimination for reasons such as who they love, where they come from, the colour of their skin, their gender or their religion. This is simply unacceptable.

WATCH: Magna Carta goes on display in Hong Kong

This is not some academic debate. It has real impact on people’s lives. It is not always an easy journey, but the UK has a good story to tell. As recently as 1991, being gay was still a bar to entry to Britain’s diplomatic service. No longer. Last year, the same-sex marriage act came into force in the UK.

Just last week, our prime minister announced that leading employers from across the public and private sectors had pledged to recruit on a “name blind” basis to address discrimination.

As Lieutenant General James Everard, commander of the UK land forces, said recently, “diverse teams, well led, give you a breadth of understanding and capability you don’t get in any other way”.

READ MORE: Magna Carta history can teach Hongkongers how to preserve the rule of law

Hong Kong is one of the world’s economic powerhouses, and a dynamic, global city. But it risks falling behind on diversity and equality – at a time when Hong Kong is trying to diversify its economy, attract global talent and become more creative. That is why we welcome the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission to study the feasibility of legislation against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status, and look forward to reading their report in the new year.

Seemingly entrenched cultural attitudes and intransigent authorities can appear formidable challenges. But we can win them over – Magna Carta proved that 800 years ago. Together, we can create a society in which people no longer have to face discrimination.

We are honoured to be hosting Magna Carta here in Hong Kong this week. It is a truly seminal document; a medieval peace treaty that changed the world. I urge all of you to go and see it for yourself at Sotheby’s Hong Kong gallery before it closes on November 14.

Caroline Wilson is British consul general to Hong Kong and Macau