Ukraine, Scotland, Myanmar consider constitutional reform

The Ukrainian parliament

The Ukrainian parliament

Governments around the world are considering significant changes to their national constitutions, including rules determining officeholder eligibility, protection for foreign languages—even the creation of a new constitution from scratch.

Stealing the headlines in recent months has been Ukraine, facing immense diplomatic pressure from neighboring Russia to institute constitutional reforms.

On Tuesday, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a “Memorandum of Peace and Consent,” in which the body endorsed greater decentralization of state power and recognition of “the rights of minority language,” namely, the Russian language. The document also empowers Ukraine to join any international unions—think NATO or the EU—only if membership is approved in a national referendum.

For its part, the Russian government welcomed the development, calling it “the first public and distinct, though late, step” toward honoring a mutual agreement signed in Geneva on April 17. This praise followed sharp criticism of the process just a day before, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov lamenting that constitutional reform was proceeding “privately and non-transparently.”

At the opposite end of the European continent, Scotland is looking ahead to a landmark referendum slated for September that could set the course for independence from the United Kingdom.

The politics and logistics of separation aside, the Scottish government is planning for a constitutional convention to follow the projected Independence Day of March 24, 2016, and national elections just two months later.

Independence, it says, “provides an opportunity to modernize Scottish democracy on the basis of a written constitution setting out the way the country is governed and the rights of its citizens.” That document would likely include principles such as “equality of opportunity and the right to live free of discrimination and prejudice, a constitutional ban on nuclear weapons being based in Scotland, and certain social and economic rights, such as the right to education, the right to healthcare and protections for children.”

Unlike most other nations with a constitutional tradition, the United Kingdom relies on an enormous body of common law, including court precedent and documents like the Magna Carta, for the articulation of government powers and individual rights.

Some citizens are calling on the Scottish government to begin debate about a constitution, whether or not voters ultimately approve independence.

“[W]hat we want is to make a first step, and an irreversible step, in the right direction—for the empowerment of people—such as has never been conceded by any government of the UK for the entire length of our history,” says Angus Reid, the lead petitioner.

David Marquand, a British academic and former Member of Parliament, says the dissolution of the United Kingdom is “inevitable” unless a constitutional convention is convened to establish a federal system agreeable to the interests both of composite nations and the union itself.

“Sooner or later, if the UK constitution remains unchanged, there will be another demand for independence and another referendum,” he says. “If the choice is once again between independence and the status quo, I find it hard to see how any self-respecting Scot could vote against independence.”

In Southeast Asia, weekend protests in Myanmar reaffirmed calls for constitutional reform to expand officeholder eligibility and loosen the grip of the military on the nation’s parliament.

More than 10,000 people joined famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy to urge the military to amend the 2008 constitution by year’s end.

In particular, activists have seized upon Article 436, which requires constitutional amendments to win 75 percent support in both houses of parliament in order to become law. Because the military is guaranteed 25 percent of all seats, they say, it can veto any proposed changes.

Article 59, which states that the president’s spouse or children cannot be foreign citizens, has also come under fire. Suu Kyi, who married a British man and has two British sons, is effectively barred from office as a result.

Ethnic minority groups in Myanmar, who have long endured a troubled history of violent persecution, also joined the protests in the hopes of attracting support for a federal system that would grant them greater autonomy.

Other nations, too, are facing big constitutional questions. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, newly elected to a fourth term, has proposed changes that would delegate greater authority to the prime minister and empower opposition parties in parliament, among other things. Grenada is pursuing reform that would replace the distant Privy Council of Great Britain with the regional Caribbean Court of Justice as the nation’s final appellate court. And a party in Taiwan has outlined several areas for proposed constitutional reform, including the size of the legislature and presidential power.

Nicandro Iannacci is a web strategist at the National Constitution Center.

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