Curious Facts about the Constitutions of Different Countries
The European Union
On October 20th, 2004, an agreement to introduce a uniform constitution for the whole of Europe was signed in Rome. After three years of hard work, the final version of the constitution was approved at an extraordinary EU summit in June 2004. On October 29th, 2004, the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was signed in Rome by the twenty-five Heads of State and Government. This document is unique because it has been compiled and translated in twenty languages; it is the most voluminous and all-embracing constitution in the world. According to its authors’ design, the European Constitution was destined to facilitate the emergence of a pan-European sense of identity and the creation of a new world order. However, the constitution never was either adopted, or enacted, for it failed to receive sufficient support from the Member States.
Although the Israeli Declaration of Independence contains clear instructions on adopting a Constitution no later than on October 1st, 1948, endless controversy and numerous contradictions generated around Israeli ecclesiastic and secular laws were too unsurpassable to be comprised in one document. Hence a uniform constitution never did appear. Moreover, during a special meeting devoted to constitutional drafting, David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, in office at the time said that all activities should be suspended until the bulk of Jews returned to their historic homeland. Today Israel is guided by a body of Basic Laws, comprising fourteen Laws, adopted since 1958 with eleven of them still in effect, The Knesset (1958), The Government (2001), The Military (1976), Jerusalem, Capital of Israel (1980), Human Dignity and Liberty (1992) among them.
The official name of the French Constitution is the Constitution of the 4th of October 1958 (Constitution Du 4 Octobre 1958) or the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. It came into effect on the day reflected in its title to become the country’s fourteenth constitution since 1791. The necessity of its drafting arose after the Algerian War of Independence and an anti-French insurgence in the local French expeditionary corps, when the Executive Power of the Republic required more authority. Some historians believe this constitution had been tailored for Charles de Gaulle who was elected president after its adoption. Unlike most other constitutions, its eighty-nine articles do not contain a section on rights and liberties. However, the Preamble says that the French people solemnly proclaim their attachment to the rights of man and the principles of national sovereignty as defined by the Declaration of 1789, confirmed and complemented by the Preamble to the Constitution of 1946. Thus, the French people reserve their “right for resistance to oppression” and “equality of all French people in bearing the burden resulting from national calamities”.
The Spanish Constitution (Spanish: Constitución Española) was adopted on December 6th, 1978. It was approved and accepted by the better part of the Spanish nation. The fundamental law of Spain is quite similar to other constitutions; it stipulates basic human rights, public liberties, separation of powers and national sovereignty. Spain is “established as a social and democratic State, subject to the rule of law”. “The political form of the Spanish State is the Parliamentary Monarchy.”
The Spanish Constitution of 1978 gave more powers to self-governing communities.
The Constitution of the Republic of Italy that came into effect on January 1st, 1948 is one of the most democratic fundamental laws in the contemporary world. One third of it is dedicated to establishing a wide range of rights and liberties, far exceeding the traditional set. Fifty-four out of one hundred and thirty-nine articles establish the rights, liberties, and responsibilities of Italian citizens. The basic provisions are complemented by ideological colouring. Thus, Article 1 says, "Italy is a Democratic Republic, founded on work", and Article 2 adds that "The Republic recognizes and guarantees the inviolable rights of the person, as an individual and in social groups where human personality is expressed.
The Republic expects that the fundamental duties of political, economic and social solidarity be fulfilled." One of the most original institutions established by the Constitution is a popular referendum that can abrogate an enacted law (Article 75). The voting of such referendum takes place if "requested by five hundred thousand voters or five Regional Councils" in order to abrogate, totally or partially, a law or a measure having the force of law (e.g. decrees, acts of delegated legislative power). The voting of a popular referendum is not limited to any time period from the act’s effective date. However, such voting is “not admissible in the case of tax, budget, amnesty, and pardon laws, or laws authorizing the ratification of international treaties”. Thus, the popular referendum acting under Article 75 of the Constitution of the Republic of Italy is a unique form of nationwide voting in international practice. Such “people’s vetoes” hit the country in 1974, 1978, 1981, 1985 to turn down over twenty laws.
According to the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, the country is defined collectively as a republic, a secular democratic state with supremacy of law, in line with the reforms and principles and the concept of nationalism introduced by Atatürk; a state where human rights are observed and respected. These are the country’s fundamental principles whereas it is specified that under the constitution Turkey is to be governed by representative democracy.
The country’s current legal system is rooted in the Political Constitution of the United Mexican States as of 1917, permeated with anticlericalism, etatism, and solidarity. The Constitution of Mexico was the pioneer as compared to the first world capitalist states in acknowledging the workers’ essential rights (See Article 123) by establishing eight-hour working days, special conditions for women and minors, at least one day of rest within a working week, annual leaves of absence, maternity leave for women, etc. It was the first instances of official acknowledgement of the workers’ right to establish trade unions and to go on strike. The constitution allowed the state to expropriate private ownership for the nation’s good as well as to influence the economic and social life of the country, thus laying legal grounds for latifundium system elimination. This voluminous constitution contains the basics of all branches of Mexican Law.
The current Constitution of India was adopted by the Constituent Assembly in 1950. It is the largest corpus of fundamental law in the world incorporating British legal customs and some provisions from the constitutions of the USA, Ireland, Canada, Australia, the USSR, Japan, the Weimar Republic, and some other states. Since its adoption, the Constitution of India saw around five hundred changes and amendments. The document contains a multitude of legal norms with various degrees of significance and guarantee appertaining not only to constitutional, but also to other branches of legislation. Some provisions might appear immaterial (e.g. one of the guidelines of proper statehood prohibits “the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle” (Article 48)), but if we take national religious beliefs and customs into account, such rules do acquire importance. Although the Constitution of India is overloaded with details and particulars, its essential articles define significant aspects of social and political order and the legal status of an individual.
Some individuals think the Constitution of the United States was the first constitution in the world, whereas in fact Poland was the first past the post. However, because it was granted by the monarch and not elaborated by the people, many historians overlook it. The first Constitution of Poland is the oldest fundamental law in Europe, for it was adopted on May 3rd, 1791, half a year earlier than the French one. In compliance with the new Supreme Law, Poland was proclaimed a constitutional monarchy with a parliament to be reelected every two years. A year later, Poland was divided among Prussia, Russia, and Austria and thus ceased to be a sovereign state until 1918, when the country regained its integrity and independence. The 3rd of May became an official holiday. However, the peace of sovereignty lasted only for twenty years and then the next invasion and division befell Poland. The socialist government opposed the Constitution Day but the patriotic Poles continued to secretly celebrate it. In 1990, the 3rd May Constitution Day was reinstated as a national holiday featuring thanksgiving church services in Catholic cathedrals all across the country, patriotic concert hall and open-air performances, paying homage at cultural and historical sites.
The Constitution of Japan was promulgated on November 3rd, 1946 and came into effect on May 3rd, 1947, resulting from Japan’s defeat in the Second World War and suffering not a single change or amendment throughout its existence.
The Japanese constitution rests on three core principles: sovereignty of the people, respect of basic human rights, pacifism (renunciation of war as a sovereign right of the nation). These principles are clearly stated in the Preamble: “Sovereign power resides with the people... Government is a sacred trust of the people, the authority for which is derived from the people, the powers of which are exercised by the representatives of the people...” The Emperor has no real political power and acts a symbol of statehood and people’s unity. The principle of respect of human rights was stipulated in the old constitution as well, but it could be limited by other laws for it was granted by the Emperor. The principle of pacifism is the most distinctive and the most controversial feature of the present Constitution of Japan. Chapter II Article 9 stipulates, “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes”. Then the article also says, “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained” in Japan. “The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” Such total renunciation of war is unprecedented in the history of international treaties and of other countries’ constitutions.
The United Kingdom
Unlike many other nations, the UK has no single constitutional document. This is sometimes expressed by stating that it has an uncodified or "unwritten" constitution.
Сonstitutional experts point to a number of treaties, laws and conventions (another word for 'habits') which together make up the constitution. These include:
Acts of Parliament
Works of authority
This means it requires a considerable amount of study and probably a degree in politics or law to fully understand how Britain is governed. It is one of the least intelligible, least democratic and least accountable constitutions in the democratic world.
Since the Glorious Revolution, the bedrock of the British constitution has traditionally been the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, according to which the statutes passed by Parliament are the UK's supreme and final source of law. It follows that Parliament can change the constitution simply by passing new Acts of Parliament. There is some debate about whether this principle remains valid, particularly in the light of the UK's membership in the European Union.
According to the Constitution of the Kingdom of Iraq as of 1925, Islam is proclaimed the official religion of the State (Article 13). However, all other religious groups were accorded freedom of belief and nothing was mentioned concerning Sharia Law supremacy. All disputes were to be settled by common civil court, “with the exception of actions and matters coming within the jurisdiction of the religious or special courts”. Moreover, the Constitution was silent on the country’s federal structure.
Unlike other monarchies of the world, Norway’s national holiday is not the birthday of the reigning monarch but the Day of the Constitution adoption (May 17th, 1814, signed at Eidsvoll). The Constitution of the Kingdom of Norway (with a few amendments) is Europe’s oldest fundamental law.
In 1977, Libya saw a declaration that announced the Holy Koran to be the Constitution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Thus Muammar Gaddafi’s Green Book became a spiritual set of guidelines for the whole nation, proclaiming religion and traditions to be the true law of the land, political parties to be dictator’s tools, and elections to be one of democracy’s tricks. Among other things, the Green Book enacts direct popular self-government, the Jamahiriya denouncing all traditional governmental bodies as fake.
The Constitution of Greece incorporates four parts made of one hundred and twenty articles; it was changed twice: in 1986 (limiting presidential authority) and in 2001 (around eighty amendments to the main text). The constitution’s distinctive feature is a detailed account of relations of Church and State. According to Article 3, “the prevailing religion in Greece is that of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Christ.” A separate chapter is dedicated to the status of Mount Athos, “Spiritually, Aghion Oros shall come under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate”.
The current constitution of Kyrgyzstan was passed by referendum on June 27th, 2010, replacing the previous constitution adopted on May 5th, 1993. The constitution registered a shift in the country’s politics away from a presidential system and toward a parliamentary system, reducing the power of the historically strong president.
Under the new constitution, the president serves a single six-year term and cannot be re-elected. Although the president is weaker in the new system than previously, the presidency is not a figurehead position as in many parliamentary systems. The president has veto power and the ability to appoint heads of state bodies.
The document gives significant mention to human rights in Kyrgyzstan, particularly Section Two. It declares men and women to be equal and prohibits discrimination in Article 16. The rights of prisoners are outlined is Article 20, including a ban on the death penalty and torture.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea
The Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was compiled from those of other communist states; hence, it defines a centralized system of political and social control, proclaiming rigid relations of citizen, society and state. The current North Korean Constitution is a blend of Romano-German and Socialist Law. The frame of the North Korean fundamental law resembles any given contemporary constitution for it is a single codified set of laws. One of its most peculiar distinctive features is the dominant and elevated Chuch’e Idea and Marxism-Leninism. After the revision of the previous 1992 Constitution, “the design of a grand hydroelectric power station under Mt. Paektu, the sacred mountain of the revolution” was designated as the nation’s emblem. Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong-il’s orders and decrees have traditionally been considered as Supreme Law that can overrule even constitutional provisions or decrees of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Article 11 of the Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea stipulates that the republic “conducts all activities under the leadership of the Workers' Party of Korea”. In its turn, the Preamble of the Party’s Charter affirms that the Workers' Party of Korea conducts its activities in compliance with the Chuch’e Idea, created and implemented by the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. According to the constitution, the country’s judicial power is based on the Nazi notion of the judiciary. The fundamental law of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea adheres to constitutions with broad interpretation of constitutional regulatory functions, including social and economic structure, political system, and ideology issues.
The Basic Law of Saudi Arabia is a constitution-like charter divided into nine chapters, consisting of eighty-three articles. Article 1 stipulates that, “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic state with Islam as its religion; God's Book and the Sunnah of His Prophet, God's prayers and peace be upon him, are its constitution.” Among other things, the Basic Law obliges the State to establish and equip the Armed Forces for the defence of the Islamic religion, the Two Holy Places in Mecca and Medina (Article 33) as well as to provide security and care for those who come to perform the pilgrimage and minor pilgrimage in them through the provision of facilities and peace (Article 24). “The citizens are to pay allegiance to the King in accordance with the holy Koran and the tradition of the Prophet, in submission and obedience, in times of ease and difficulty, fortune and adversity” (Article 6). The declared human rights and liberties include the right to life.
The Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam incorporates a preamble and one hundred and forty-seven articles. The Preamble proclaims that the underlying principles of Vietnamese socialism are “Marxism-Leninism and Ho Chi Minh's thought”. The foundation of the republic is “the alliance between the working class and the peasantry and the intelligentsia”. The Communist Party is proclaimed “the force assuming leadership of the State and society”. Citizens’ interests are represented by the Vietnam Fatherland Front that “fosters the tradition of national unity, strengthens political and moral cohesion among the people”. “The State adopts consistent policies on development of a socialist-oriented market economy”. As far as private ownership is concerned, the definitions are vague, though “the legal property of individual or organisations shall not be nationalised”.
The Constitution of Cape Verde stipulates that the state has special relations with the countries that provide its emigrants with work. A separate article is dedicated to computer technology, e.g. “the utilization of computerized means for registration and treatment of data that are individually identifiable, relative to political, philosophical and ideological convictions or to religious faith, party or trade union affiliation and private life, shall be prohibited”. Another curious rule says, “In no circumstance shall there be a sole national number ascribed to Capeverdean citizens”.
The Legislative Statute of the Republic of San Marino (Leges Statutae Republicae Sancti Marini) adopted on October 8th, 1600 and the Declaration of Citizen Rights adopted on July 8th, 1974 comprise the Constitution of San Marino. Leges Statutae Republicae Sancti Marini is the oldest code of law used by an independent state. It was written in Latin in six books. Book One contains sixty-two articles regulating councils, courts, and various executive bodies. The other five books deal with Civil and Criminal Law, legal procedure, and judicial measures. This 1600 document, which is still in force, is based on the 1300 Statuti Comunali (the Town Statute), which, in its turn, originates in Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis.
The Constitution of Ukraine was adopted at the 5th session of the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine on June 28th, 1996. The constitution was passed with 315 ayes out of 450 votes possible (300 ayes minimum). Until June 8th, 1995, Ukraine's supreme law was the Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Ukrainian SSR (adopted in 1978, with numerous later amendments). On June 8th, 1995, President Leonid Kuchma and Speaker Aleksandr Moroz (acting on behalf of the parliament) signed the Constitutional Agreement for the period until a new constitution could be drafted.
The first constitution since independence was adopted during an overnight parliamentary session of June 27th-28th, 1996, unofficially known as "the Constitutional Night of 1996." Law No. 254/96-BP ratifying the constitution, nullifying previous constitutions and the Constitutional Agreement was ceremonially signed and promulgated in mid-July 1996. However, according to a ruling of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine, the constitution came into force at the moment when the results of the parliamentary vote were announced on June 28th, 1996 at approx. 9 a.m. Kiev local time.
The structure and substance of the Constitution of Belarus were heavily influenced by constitutions of Western powers and by Belarus' experiences during the Soviet era. While much of the Constitution establishes the government's functions and powers, an entire section details rights and freedoms granted to citizens and residents. The Constitution of Belarus was amended twice since the original adoption, in 1996 and in 2004. Two referendums that were disputed by independent observers and government opposition leaders increased the power of the presidency over the government and eliminated the term limits for the presidency. Before the vote, the President was only allowed to serve two terms before the Constitution required him to step down. The voter turnout for the referendum was nearly 90%, with 77.3% of the voters agreeing to eliminate term limits. Foreign observers also note inconsistency between the Constitution and national laws and decrees that, nonetheless, remain in force.
The Constitution of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay consists of nineteen sections, three hundred and thirty-two articles and transitional provisions. One of the articles is dedicated to protection of water as a vital natural resource. The right to pure drinking water is proclaimed among other human rights. Water supply and purification are to be controlled exclusively by the government. The Supreme Court exercises constitutional control whereas the amendments are passed by a referendum.
The Vatican City State has no codified constitution. The Basic Law consists of the Fundamental Law of Vatican City State as of 2001 and laws promulgated by Pope’s decrees after the Lateran Treaty: the Law on the Sources of Law, stipulating Codex Juris Canonic and the Apostolic Constitutions as well as Acts and Decrees, issued by the Pope or by his delegated power as Vatican’s primary sources of law; the Law on the Right to Citizenship and to Residence; the Law on Administrative Arrangement; the Law on Economic, Commercial and Professional Arrangement, establishing Vatican’s own currency; the Law on National Security. The Lateran Treaty and the Lateran Accords made in 1929 between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See as well as the Codex Juris Canonic also have constitutional power as far as the foundations and bodies of the Roman-Catholic Church that also govern the Vatican are concerned. The new Fundamental Law of Vatican City State was edited and promulgated by Pope John Paul II on November 26, 2000. It obtained the force of law of February 22, 2001 and replaced in its entirety the Fundamental Law of Vatican City promulgated by Pope Pius XI on June 7th, 1929. According to the new Code of Law, all norms in force in Vatican City State, which are not in agreement with the new law, are to be abrogated. However, the Pope reserves the right to introduce changes to the Fundamental Law or replace it with a new one if he finds it necessary.
The Constitution of Malta proclaims the country “a neutral state actively pursuing peace, security and social progress among all nations by adhering to a policy of non-alignment and refusing to participate in any military alliance.” No foreign military forces or personnel can be deployed or stationed on Malta. The country’s shipyards may be used, “within reasonable limits of time and quantity, for the repair of military vessels which have been put in a state of non-combat or for the construction of vessels; and in accordance with the principles of non-alignment the said shipyards will be denied to the military vessels of the two superpowers”. (These “superpowers” are not specified). The constitution also mentions the George Cross awarded to Malta by His Majesty King George the Sixth on April 15th, 1942 for a heroic struggle with fascism.
The Constitution of Cuba proclaims the Communist Party as “the highest leading force of society and of the state” and the State as built on socialism, anti-imperialism, and proletarian internationalism. The constitution accords a wide range of rights and liberties to the Cubans. However, there is a certain stipulation, which says that “none of the freedoms which are recognized for citizens can be exercised contrary to what is ... contrary to the existence and objectives of the socialist state, or contrary to the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism”. Constitutional control is effectuated by the National Assembly of People’s Power, the supreme body of state power, which can introduce amendments to be approved by two thirds of votes. Changes were introduced in 1978, 1992 and 2002. The last changes stipulated that Cuba’s socialistic system was permanent and irrevocable.
The current constitution of the state designates its official name as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (previously it was simply called Sri Lanka or the Island of Ceylon) and secured transition from presidential to parliamentary rule. Buddhism is proclaimed the official religion of the State. Constitutional amendments are passed by two thirds of the Supreme Court; the most important changes are discussed at a referendum.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
The Constitution of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines contains detailed information on the territory and its borders, for it is a sea-locked state on an archipelago. Thus big islands are listed by name and the smaller ones and the reefs by coordinates. Natural calamities are quite common for the area; therefore, the constitution is very specific about what is to be considered sufficient reasons to declare a state of emergency. Apart from war, such reasons include volcano eruption, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, fires and epidemics.
Tuvalu is one of the world’s smallest states so its constitution gives exact location coordinates. The Supreme Law is very voluminous and detailed, containing, apart from traditional provisions, a glossary of notions used in the constitution, such as “year” (any period of twelve months), “writing” (any method of visually reproducing words), “public officer” (a member of the Public Service), etc. Many of the one hundred and seventy-three articles are subdivided into items and sub items. Thus, the right to life has five exceptions and the right to personal liberty has thirteen exceptions.