800th anniversary of the Magna Carta: Protecting rights in conflicts and natural disasters

Mathieu Nsanzugwimo, Burundi

Credit: Chris de Bode/Panos/The IRC/EU-ECHO

The lesson of Magna Carta is that ‘rights’ are not freely given, they have to be demanded. Eight hundred years on this is still the case and is the reason why the International Rescue Committee provides legal support to people displaced by conflict and natural disaster.

The values enshrined in this ‘great charter’ remain central to the way legal rights are understood and protected in the world today. It established that everyone, from king to commoner, must be bound by a single set of laws. No one should be above the law and no one should be without its protection.

The IRC uses the law as a tool of protection for everyone we work with and to ensure that no matter their sex, age, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity, anyone displaced from their homes has access to the institutions and laws of the country where they find themselves. It is vital to look at the needs of all people and not assume any specific group may be more or less in need of support to guarantee their rights.

The need for legal support and protection during a humanitarian disaster is encapsulated in the story of Layla*. Along with her children, the 35-year-old mother of three fled northern Iraq in July 2014 after her husband was kidnapped. Layla lost her ID card during the journey to a camp in Karbala, central Iraq, and consequently was unable to register for emergency food rations. Replacing her ID card was a bureaucratic nightmare as all the documents Layla needed were in her husband’s name and she didn’t have any way to prove that he had been kidnapped. Thankfully, an IRC lawyer took on her case and intervened to have her card reissued in her own name ensuring that she and her children received their food rations and other benefits.

The IRC also helps resolve legal disputes over common issues like divorce, child support, rent and inheritance. In Burundi, refugees who fled civil war to Tanzania are returning home after decades in exile to find that their land is now occupied, leaving them without shelter or land to farm and feed themselves. In some cases, the land has been occupied for over 30 years giving the current a residents a legitimate sense of ownership.

Understandably, life can be particularly tough for Burundians lucky enough to return home. Mathieu lived in Tanzania for 37 years before returning to his family farm, only to find it occupied by his neighbour. Mathieu was attacked with a machete following a dispute over the land and needed to spend a year in hospital. It is in this climate of severe tension that the IRC provides essential legal information and assistance to help returning refugees access welfare and claims for justice.

The IRC’s focus on legal protection is vital because there is almost nothing harder, scarier and as dangerous as being displaced from home. And a bad situation is made worse by the erosion of rights experienced by many once they have fled their home.

Having a piece of paper or someone to help resolve a legal dispute might not immediately seem as vital as the more obvious essentials of food, water and shelter, yet as the cases of Layla and Mathieu show, and the writers of Magna Carta understood, access to legal documentation and representation can be a matter of life and death.

Rebecca Gang, International Rescue Committee’s Technical Advisor — Protection and Rule of Law