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The Cyrus Cylinder, the FCO, human rights and irony

The Cyrus Cylinder is often proclaimed by many as the world’s first charter of human rights. Various false translations circulate online, adding further credibility to these assertions. Even Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s Director described it as “The cylinder, often referred to as the first bill of human rights”. According to the British Museum’s own website, The reality [1] is that although it does describe some human rights, it is not unique, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms. The fact that this might be the first such declaration that survives does not make it the first declaration.

Whether or not it is a declaration of human rights could be a never-ending debate, but the fact is that many perceive it as such and as a result, ascribe all sorts of proclamations to it that are not present in any of the official translations. It should be noted that this is by no means unique to the Cyrus Cylinder – the Magna Carta has long suffered a similar fate. These documents may or may not be the foundations of later declarations, but some of what they are claimed to contain is patently untrue.

Notwithstanding the above, the area of Human Rights is an ever shifting canvas. To my mind, one important right should be that of a people to have access to their own cultural heritage. It is afterall what gives them and their nation its identity, as well as being something that they can be proud of. It could be seen as a the provenance of a culture.

The Cyrus Cylinder, though acquired legitimately, was like the Parthenon Marbles, taken with authorisation from the Ottoman Empire, from a location within Modern Iraq, but has a clear association with Cyrus The Great, a ruler associated with The area known today as Iran. Currently it is housed in the British Museum, but Iran has at various times disputed its ownership [2], although when it has been loaned to them, no attempts have ever been made [3] to break the terms of the loan agreement. Many, particularly within Iran, would continue to argue that it is a part of their heritage and such they have a right of easier access to this key element of their past.

To me, all the above makes the following statement on the Foreign and Commonwealth’s office particularly muddled.

Essentially, they are using the Cyrus Cylinder (under its premise as an early declaration of human rights), as an introduction to criticising the current human rights record of a variety of countries. We are annoyed that these countries do not play by our rules, but at the same time, we are happy to wrong many of them, by continuing to ignore the disputes surrounding our own possession of their cultural property. Various countries on their list (of concerns about human rights violations) are also on the list of original owners of disputed artefacts. Just at a quick glance, Egypt continues to request the return of the Rosetta Stone, Nigeria the Benin Bronzes and Ethiopia the Magdala Treasure.

I am not saying that the human rights records of any of these countries is remotely acceptable, or criticising the FCO’s methodology in compiling their list. Surely though, using an item of disputed cultural property to introduce this is not the best way to do it? while we are pointing fingers, we must not forget that our credibility is being judged by these same nations on other issues, issues that remain very real and important to them as part of their quest to maintain their own cultural identity.

The Cyrus Cylinder, currently housed in the British Museum [4]

The Cyrus Cylinder, currently housed in the British Museum

Foreign and Commonwealth Office [5]

Human Rights and the Cyrus Cylinder
March 3, 2015

Next week the Foreign Office will release its annual report on Human Rights and Democracy. It will showcase some of the work the UK has been doing to promote human rights around the world over the course of our current parliament (ie. the last five years), paying special attention to the value we place on civil society. It will also look in detail at 27 “countries of concern”, in which we consider there to be the most serious violations and abuses of human rights, and 10 “case study countries”, where the focus is on one particular ‘theme’.

Human Rights are sometimes portrayed as a “Western” concept or invention (usually most vociferously by those committing the most serious violations). This is, in fact, a misreading of centuries of history which led up to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Way back in 539 B.C., the armies of Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia (modern day Iran), conquered the city of Babylon. In doing so, and as he prepared to govern his new territory, he declared that slaves would be free, people had the right to choose their own religion, and that different races living in the city would be treated equally. He recorded all of this on a baked-clay cylinder (known today as the Cyrus Cylinder and resident in the British Museum) – an ancient record that has been recognised by many as the world’s first charter of human rights. It is translated into all six official languages of the United Nations and its provisions mirror the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration.

Cyrus’ ideas, which played an important role in developing the concept that human rights are not limited to one cultural tradition, would be built upon by other great civilisations in the coming centuries. The Edicts of Ashoka, 33 inscriptions recording laws set down by the Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Empire between 273 and 232 BC, can be found across modern-day Bangladesh, Nepal, India and Pakistan. He is credited with promoting tolerance and understanding between religious communities, humanitarian ideals in warfare and the right to a fair trial. Some centuries later, the Prophet Muhammad would draft the Charter of Medina (c.622), which some academics have argued was the first constitution to enshrine a set of basic human rights.

Western countries would play an important role too, but later: the Magna Carta (1215) in England (we will shortly be celebrating its 800th anniversary), the US Constitution (1787) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789) are all widely acknowledged to have played an important role in shaping the Universal Declaration. That declaration would, for the first time, enshrine a set of basic rights which the governments of UN Member States were expected to ensure were granted to all their citizens. International bodies, treaties and organisations were tasked with upholding these, and individual countries were able to hold each other account; for the first time against a set of commonly agreed principles.

The report is one way in which the UK seeks to do this. Disappointingly, Ethiopia will once again this year again feature as a “country case study” – together with five other African countries: Egypt, Nigeria, The Gambia, Burundi and Rwanda. This is because Ethiopia’s impressive record on economic growth and development in recent years has not been matched by progress on civil and political rights. We continue to be concerned by the overly broad use of the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation; a lack of political space in the run up to the election; the behaviour, in some instances, of the security forces, and restrictions on media freedom – which this year’s report will look at in more detail. This assessment is shared by the African Good Governance Index, which uses African and global indexes to rank countries across a range of economic, social, civil and political rights. Ethiopia’s strong gains on issues such as gender and health rights are in stark contrast to its position, languishing at the bottom of continental league tables, on political participation and freedom of assembly and expression.

Most importantly though, these issues matter to more and more Ethiopians. It would be wonderful if next year we could see Ethiopia not included in the list of countries covered in our human rights report. More competitive elections than in 2010, narrower use of the ATP and better accountability for security forces would go a long way towards this. It would mean the country would have another good story to tell, as it already does on development and the role it plays on the regional and international stage.