What are constitutional amendments?
May 27, 2024

What are constitutional amendments?


The introduction of an amendment to a country’s Constitution means that a new paragraph is added to the current Constitution, or an existing one is changed. Given that the Constitution is the main document of the country, this means that the essence of the amendment has received the maximum degree of support among government officials and/or citizens and its introduction is considered absolutely necessary to improve the life of society. 

In most countries, an amendment to the Constitution can be introduced through Parliament, a national referendum or the Constitutional Court. At the same time, there are clauses in almost every Constitution that cannot be changed or removed. This is most often the case with the paragraphs that determine the type of government, national symbols and fundamental rights of citizens.

It is generally believed that the role of constitutional amendments ends when the adoption of a new constitution is required. Thus, “typical” amendments are used to solve specific problems without violating the integrity of the constitutional order. For example, all the states of the European Union have brought their constitutions in line with the requirements of the modern integration process. In general, amendments usually do not contradict core values such as democracy, the rule of law, or respect for human rights. However, history shows that even stable democracies can propose destructive constitutional changes. And although such initiatives usually do not go beyond parliamentary meetings, there is no guarantee that they will not be implemented.

Based on Belarusian experience and the experience of our neighbours from Russia, for many Belarusians the concept of “constitutional amendments” sounds like something negative and even provocative. Since independence, such amendments have been made not to improve people’s lives, but to achieve the ruling elite’s own interests. For example, in 1995, Alexander Lukashenko held a national referendum on changing the national symbols, replacing the white-red-white flag with the red-green one used in Soviet times, which violated the current Constitution, which stated that a referendum should not be held on this issue. The amendments adopted in 1995 and 1996 helped to strengthen the executive branch and weaken the legislative branch. In 2004, again bypassing the relevant prohibition in the Constitution, amendments were made allowing Lukashenko to run for president an unlimited number of times, consolidating and legitimising his dictatorship. Similar scenarios were seen in Russia in 2020. 

The classic example of a “hard-to-change” Constitution is the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Constitution was created in 1789 – it is the oldest current Constitution in the world. For almost two and a half centuries, over 11,000 amendments have been proposed, but only 27 have been adopted and ratified. The last amendment to date was adopted in 1992. Modern studies of various American institutions and independent agencies agree that the American Constitution lacks a large number of amendments that would provide additional environmental, economic and social rights. The complicated and confusing process of adopting and ratifying amendments has led to the fact that to this day Americans live with a Constitution that is in many ways more appropriate to the time of its creation than to the present.

We see the opposite situation with France and Germany, where dozens of amendments have been adopted over the past 70 years. This led to the creation of modern and relevant constitutions that correspond to the spirit of the times. These changes made it possible to ban the death penalty, improve electoral, social and political processes, and, in the recent case of France, adopt a revolutionary amendment on the right to abortion. This happened precisely because of the well-established mechanism for introducing and ratifying amendments. And unlike the Belarusian experience, despite the frequency of amendments, countries do not lose their democracy and freedom. On the contrary, this contributes to their development and ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Amendments to the Constitution play a key role not only in the implementation of laws arising from the will of the current government and society, but also in the ratification of international protocols, covenants and agreements. Considering the prospect of Belarus’ future in the European Union after regime change and democratic transformations, it is necessary to understand that the mechanism for changing the Constitution must remain inviolable. It is important to protect this, because it will ensure the rapid integration of EU laws and international acts into the Constitution of Belarus. This process will bring us closer to a version of the Constitution that guarantees human rights, equality, democracy and the rule of law. Even if a completely new Constitution is adopted, the need for changes will remain. In order for the Constitution to serve the good of the people, it must meet modern requirements and be changeable.

Sources:

Рэферэндум 1995 года / Сведкі | Референдум-1995 в Беларуси (The 1995 referendum / Witnesses | Referendum-1995 In Belarus by Belsat TV)

Peter Paccone, ‘Why is the US Constitution so hard to amend?’

Jill Lepore, ‘How to Stave Off Constitutional Extinction’, New York Times, 1 July 2023

D​​aria Eremina and Ilya Koval, ‘Обнуление сроков Путина и другие поправки в Конституцию РФ’ (The zeroing of Putin’s terms and other amendments to the Constitution of the Russian Federation), dw.com
Eleonora Bottini, Margaux Bouaziz, Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, ‘Enshrining Abortion Rights in the French Constitution: A Global Statement with Little Domestic Substance?’, VerfBlog, 9 March 2024

Cass R. Sunstein, ‘Why Does the American Constitution Lack Social and Economic Guarantees’, Chicago Unbound, 2005
National Constitution Center, ‘10 reasons why America’s first constitution failed’, 2022

Terry M. Moe, William G. Howell, ‘Our Outdated Constitution’, Hoover Institution, 2016

Lech Garlitsky, Zofia A. Garlitskaya, ‘Неконституционные поправки к конституции: существует ли проблема и найдется ли решение?’ (Unconstitutional amendments to the Constitution: is there a problem and will there be a solution?), Сравнительное конституционное обозрение (Comparative Constitutional Review), 2014




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