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LAHORE: As the Pakistani legislators gear up to alter the country’s 1973 Constitution for the 21st time in 41 years in order to pave way for military courts against terrorists, a heated debate is currently underway in nearly all sections of the society about the need for this amendment in a country that has been ruled by military dictators for a good part of its 67-year old history.
A research conducted by the Jang Group and Geo Television Network about amendments and key features of global constitutions reveals that many nations have had multiple charters since inception.
There is no doubt that most world constitutions were framed and designed to change only in exceptional circumstances, but the pro-alteration experts view that amendments in texts of these charters are necessary to resolve the issues left outstanding or unaddressed.
Sometimes, unique issues and challenges crop up and traditional politics does not offer any remedy to fix them up, so people look towards a constitutional amendment as a solution.
Former US President Thomas Jefferson had once opined that every generation has “a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness.”
On the other hand, the anti-amendment legal wizards assert that a constitution should certainly retain a special status and not be altered too easily, since it defines the fundamental structure of a nation. Consequently, every word should be well considered, they argue.
At times, constitutional amendments in various world charters tend to appear in clusters, which reflect the characteristic quandaries of their historical moments and tough times.
For example, 12 of the 33 amendments in US Constitution were ratified by 1804 or within just 15 years of the adoption of the 1789 Constitution itself.
While a good number of constitutions are flexible and hence altered often, others are quite rigid.
The best example of rigidity is the Japanese charter
(enacted on May 3, 1947), which has never witnessed a modification till date in over 67 years.
This charter was brought into force under the occupying US forces.
However, ever since Japan returned to independence in 1952 and especially when the Japanese Self-Defence Forces were established in 1954, it has been discussed often if some parts of the constitution can be tampered with.
Experts are of the view that despite favourable conditions for a constitutional change in Japan’s security environment plus the apparently strong determination of the current political leader, no formal attempt for constitutional reform has taken place.
The issue of constitutional amendment did flare up again in Japanese political discourse in August 2013, a few months after the Premier Shinzo Abe-led ruling coalition had publicised its intentions to reform the country’s charter.
Although the ruling coalition had accomplished two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives (Lower House of Parliament) by winning 326 of the 475 seats during the December 2012 polls, it still doesn’t hold the desired degree of sway in the House of Councillors (Upper House) to call shots and modify the charter.
To change the Japanese constitution, a sitting government must have a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament and should win majority public support in a referendum.
By May 3, 2014, Premier Abe had moved closer to realising the first-ever amendments to the supreme law of the land by changing Article 9 that renounces war as a sovereign right of the nation.
The Centre for Research on Globalisation, an independent research and media organisation based in Montreal (Canada) notes: “Pacifism has long been the main pillar of Japanese post-war democracy, both abroad and at home. However, successive right wing governments, and in particular the current Abe government, have been remarkably successful at advancing a right wing agenda that, collectively, could lead to an end to pacifist Japan as we know it.”
In his December 20, 2014 article appearing in the “China Daily,” the deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences had questioned if Premier Shinzo Abe would keep on trying to amend the peace Constitution to enable Japan to fully exercise the right of collective self-defence.
(Reference: The March 26, 2014 edition of the Japan Times)
The Constitution of India, enacted in 1950, is the longest written constitution of any sovereign country in the world with 117,369 words in its English language translation, and is studded with 448 articles in 25 parts, 12 schedules, 5 appendices and 99 amendments, making it one of the most frequently amended charters in the world.
However, 120 Amendment Bills have been moved in the parliament of the world’s largest democracy.
On the other hand, the American Constitution of March 4, 1789 is the shortest and the oldest written constitution, with 7 articles and 33 amendments, with 4,543 words.
It has till date undergone 33 changes, while approximately 11,539 proposals to amend the Constitution have been introduced in Congress since 1789. The Constitution was “penned” by Jacob Shallus, a Pennsylvania General Assembly clerk, for $30 ($726 today).
Interestingly, the word “democracy” does not appear once in the Constitution.
Since 1952, the Constitution has been on display in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. Currently, all four pages are displayed behind protective glass framed with titanium. To preserve the parchment’s quality, the cases contain argon gas and are kept at 67 degrees Fahrenheit with a relative humidity of 40 percent.
The Constitution does not set forth requirements for the right to vote. As a result, at the outset of the Union, only male property-owners could vote. African Americans were not considered citizens, and women were excluded from the electoral process. Native Americans were not given the right to vote until 1924.
James Madison is acknowledged as the “the father of the US Constitution.” When the Constitution was signed, the United States’ population was only four million. George Washington and James Madison were the only presidents who signed the Constitution.
It is pertinent to note that the Alabama state Constitution (having over 172,000 words) has been amended more than 800 times since 1901.
(References/sources: Congressional Research Service and a book “The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation” by Johnny Killian and George Costello)
While every country on the world map follows a set of written fundamental principles or established precedents according to which it is governed, it is generally accepted that there are only three nations; the United Kingdom, Israel, and New Zealand that have un-codified or unwritten constitutions where the fundamental rules of government take the form of customs, usage, precedent and a variety of statutes and legal instruments.
However, many constitutional experts insist that even Canada doesn’t have a properly written constitution. They assert that the Constitution of Canada, one of the oldest working charters in the world, is an amalgamation of the Acts of Parliament, un-codified traditions and conventions.
There is no entrenched law that forms the un-codified New Zealand constitution, which is also basically a collection of statutes (Acts of Parliament), past decisions of the courts and unwritten conventions/traditions.
Many constitutional wizards even place Saudi Arabia in the same category. The constitution of Saudi Arabia is the Holy Quran and the Sunnah (traditions) of Allah’s last prophet Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH). But the, Saudi Basic Law (the Law of governance, rights and duties) contains many characteristics of what might be called a constitution in other countries.
About the British constitution, the Japan Times states: “The United Kingdom is famous for having an “unwritten constitution.” In reality the constitution is written, just in a lot of places: the bits of Magna Carta that still mean something, 16th-century case law confirming the monarch’s ownership of English swans, later cases prohibiting the punishment of juries and general warrants, the Human Rights Act of 1998, and so forth. Of course, the British Constitution is considered “unwritten” because it is not compiled into a single identifiable charter with “Constitution” written at the top and sold in poster form at museum gift shops.”
The Magna Carta was signed in June 1215 between the barons of Medieval England and King John. “Magna Carta” is Latin and means “Great Charter.”
The 1993 Constitution of Russia had a few amendments in 2008, and gone on to extend the terms of the Russian President and Parliament (Duma) from four to six and five years, respectively
Written five times in 1849, 1866, 1915, 1920 and 1953, no Danish Constitution has ever been amended. Each time, a new constitution had replaced the existing constitution.
The Norwegian Constitution of May 1814 has been amended more than 400 times in 200 years.
The Dutch Constitution of 1814 was amended 19 times between 1814 and 2002.
The 1979 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran was amended on July 28, 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a decree convening an assembly for revising the charter.
The decree had led to several changes in the constitution, whereby eliminating the need for the leader to be chosen by popular acclaim.
Luxembourg has had a few constitutions too. While the 1841 charter was amended in 1848 and 1856, the 1868 Constitution of Luxembourg has been modified over three dozen times since 1919.
The 1997 Constitution of South Africa, which had replaced the 1993 interim charter, was amended at least 17 times till August 2013.
The current version of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China was enacted on December 4, 1982, with further revisions in 1988, 1993, 1999, and 2004.
Three previous state constitutions—those of 1945, 1975 and 1978—were hence superseded in turn.
The 1982 Chinese Constitution has at least been amended four times in 32 years as rapidly changing socio-economic and political scenarios have led to significant modifications in the structure of Chinese government.
The Constitution was especially amended on March 14, 2004 to include guarantees regarding private property and human rights because the booming Chinese economy had created a wealthy new middle class who wanted protection of their own assets and wealth.
The latest Chinese charter is a lengthy, hybrid document with 138 articles.
The November 1982 Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, had replaced the country’s 1961 charter. It has been modified many times to keep up with global and regional geopolitical conjunctures. It was last amended in 2010.
Since its founding, the modern Turkish state has thus been governed under four such documents, coming into force in 1921, 1924, 1961 and 1982. The Australian Constitution has been amended 8 times. The current French Constitution was adopted on October 4, 1958. It is typically called the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, and replaced the 1946 Fourth Republic charter. Since its inception, the French constitution has been altered at least 18 times.
The German Constitution of May 1949 has undergone about 60 amendments during 65 years.
The Constitution of the Italian Republic was enacted in December 1947. Its text has since been amended 15 times.
The Constitution of Belgium dates back to 1831. It has been amended 29 times since.
It was altered once in 1996, three times in 1997, four times in 1998, twice in 1999 and in 2000, once in 2001, twice in 2002 and in 2004, and three times in 2005 and in 2007, once in 2008 and five times in 2012. The most recent change to the Constitution took place on July 9, 2012.
The Swiss Constitution of 1848 was partly revised in 1866, and wholly revised in 1874. The latest 1999 Swiss Constitution had replaced the prior federal constitution of 1874, but the substance was not changed. It was only updated in line with needs and requirements of the modern era.
The August 1965 Constitution of the Republic of Singapore has been heavily amended since separation from Malaysia.
The 1841 Constitution of Luxembourg was amended in 1842, 1848 and 1856.
The modern charter was enacted in 1868. It has been altered about three dozen times since.
The text of the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh has also been changed some 15 times.
The 1978 Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka has been formally amended about 20 times. This is country’s third constitution since the country’s independence (as Ceylon) in 1948.
The 1999 Federal Constitution of Switzerland is the third and current charter of this Alpine country, ideally establishing a confederation of 26 cantons that display an ideal model of governance.
The Federal Constitution of Malaysia, which came into force in 1957, has been amended at least 42 times. However, as several amendments were made each time, the exact number of individual amendments comes to a mind-boggling figure of around 650.
With more than 60,000 words, the Malaysian Constitution is more than 12 times longer than the US constitution. This is so because the Malaysian Constitution lays downs very detailed provisions governing micro issues such as revenue from shops, the number of High Court judges and the amount of federal grants to states.
The Constitution of Denmark has been written five times, in 1849, 1866, 1915, 1920 and 1953. No Danish constitution has ever been amended.
Each time, a new constitution replaced the existing constitution.
(Reference: The CIA World Fact Book)
Austria has been governed by multiple Constitutions since 1848. Its charters have been heavily modified and amended since then.
However, the modifications enacted in 1929 essentially remained effective for over eight decades. The updated text of the Austrian charter comprises 152 Articles.
Egypt has been governed by several charters in last 135 years or so. It has had constitutions in 1879, 1882, 1923, 1935, 1956, 1958, 1963, 1971, 2011, 2012 and January 2014.
The current Constitution of Poland was adopted in April 1997. Poland has had numerous previous constitutional acts during its history. Historically, the most significant is probably the one adopted in May 1791.
It was the first constitution of its kind in Europe and hence stands as the second oldest world charter, after the 1789 US constitution.
The Constitution of Bulgaria was adopted in July 1991. It has been amended four times (in 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2007) and is chronologically the fourth constitution of Bulgaria since 1879.
Cuba has had four constitutions since attaining its independence from Spain. The current constitution was drafted in 1976 and has since been amended.
The 1901 Constitution was Cuba’s first as an independent state. It had allowed the United States to intervene in Cuba’s affairs to protect its independence.
The first Constitution of Finland was enacted in 1919, soon after the country had declared its independence in 1917. However, the current Constitution had come into force in March 2000.
The Constitution of Greece came into force in 1975. It has been revised three times since, most significantly in 1986, and also in 2001 and in 2008. The constitutional history of Greece dates back to its War of Independence period (1821-1832), during which the first three revolutionary Greek constitutions were adopted. The Constitution consists of 120 articles and it is set out in 4 parts.
However, military dictatorship in the country had imposed the Constitutions of 1968 and 1973.
The Fundamental Law of Hungary was enacted in 2011. In March 2013, Parliament had amended the constitution for the fourth time.
The 1949 Constitution was Hungary’s first permanent written constitution.
The Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan was approved in 1995. The Constitution of the Kingdom of Jordan was adopted on January 11, 1952 and has been amended many times. Prior to that, an Organic Law was promulgated in April 1928 for use under the British mandate. It remained in full force till the country had gained full independence in May 1946.
The Constitution of Kuwait was created by the Constitutional Assembly in 1961-1962 and signed into law in November 1962.
The Kuwaiti Constitution comprises of 183 articles divided into five chapters. It remained inactive on two occasions when the parliament had been suspended by the head of the state or the Emir.
Venezuela has had 26 constitutions. The current charter was adopted in December 1999, replacing the 1961 Constitution.
The 1999 charter has been altered twice in 15 years.
The 1999 Venezuela Constitution, with 350 articles, is among the world’s longest, most complicated, and most comprehensive constitutions.
It focuses on free quality health care, access to a clean environment, right of minorities (especially indigenous peoples) to uphold their own traditional cultures, religions and languages.