International Law

The Cyrus Cylinder, International Human Rights Day and the Rule of Law

Cyrus CylinderAs many celebrate International Human Rights Day today (December 10th), a 2500-year-old inscribed stone, the Cyrus Cylinder reminds us that human rights are a complex issue with which humankind has struggled with throughout history. In 2013, the British Museum will lend the clay cylinder for a tour of five major United States museums in the District of Columbia, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. 

To some, the cylinder represents the perennial and seemingly inherent desire and longing for human rights and a truly civilly organized society, a desire reflected in the efforts of Hammurabi, Cyrus, Ashoka, Septimus Severus/Ulpian, Justinian, Napoleon, the impact of Confucius' teaching in ancient China, all underlining the yearning for the protection of human rights through the rule of law throughout the ages and the perennial difficulty of protecting them.

Indeed, this view is consistent with that promoted by Iran's Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi during his reign. It is not without some irony that the Shah would promote the cylinder as an early human rights charter while at the same time abusing the rule of law to violate rights to a degree that ignited a successful revolution against his regime. In other words, the Shah's promotion of the cylinder's contents had more to do with symbolic political power than human rights substance. 

Whether Achaemenid King Cyrus intended to set forth human rights protections on this clay cylinder is debated by those interpreting the cuneiform script of a dead language. Regardless, the cylinder has in modern times stood for one of the earliest legislative statements illustrating a ruler's acts in upholding the protection of human rights.

Sadly, in the millennia that have passed, history offers little evidence of the rule of law protecting fundamental human rights in what is now modern day Iran and Iraq. Words, whether written on a clay cylinder or with digital ink, do little to shield individuals from those who would ignore such words and oppress individuals or particular groups on behalf of ideological, political, or religious belief, or for particular financial gain. 

Slavery, human trafficking, and the like pervade the former Persian Empire and many other parts of the globe. Oppression based on ethnicity or religious belief persists in nations around the globe, even in the developed world.  The protection of human rights through the rule of law requires constant vigilance by all people and each nation.  Intolerance is a pervasive inherent desire.  The whims and immoral characters of ever-changing rulers, elites, and their dependant regimes are the primary source of the perennial and daily threats to adherence to the rule of law and its related respect for and protection of human rights.

On this International Human Rights Day, and as the Cyrus Cylinder is exhibited in U.S. museums next year, we should remember that after 2,500 years, humanity still struggles to protect fundamental human rights through the rule of law in an apparently uphill battle.  However, the perennial desire and quest for human rights continues to inspire us to strive for what is best, that is, what we as humans inherently agree should be.  The Cyrus Cylinder should be a symbol for us today of what remains to be done to establish firmly and to protect human rights in the 21st Century, and the role that the rule of law should play in helping to achieve that goal. 

Recommended Reading

VIDEO - Cyrus Cylinder: Ancient treasure to help Iran-US relations, BBC News (Nov. 27, 2012)

British Museum lends ancient 'bill of rights' cylinder to US, BBC News (Nov. 27, 2012)

Cyrus Cylinder coming to Getty Villa in 2013 as part of U.S. tour, LA Times (Nov. 28, 2012)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights 

Photo Credit

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