Democratizing Constitutions Around the World

[This is my handout distributed at a workshop today on lessons learned on social movements to change the US Constitution.]

In exploring how to democratize the US Constitution in the future, we need to not only look at US movements in the past. We must also examine the efforts and movements of other people and nations in the present.


– Following massive protests connected to the Arab Spring, the government was forced to draft changes to the Constitution that weakens the power of the King – creating an independent prime minister, an independent judiciary and provides equal rights for women.

– In July, 98% of voters approved the changes in a national referendum.


– Mass popular revolution beginning in January, 2011 led to ouster of Hosni Mubarak and call for more democratic Constitution – forcing a national referendum.

– In March, nearly 80% voted in support of constitutional amendments paving the way for democratic elections for a new parliament and president within six months. The referendum divided Egyptians between those who said the reforms were sufficient and others who said the constitution needed to be complete rewritten.


– The 2008 economic collapse was blamed in part by a failure of government and regulatory agencies to oversee financial institutions plunder of the economy and collapse of most banks.

– Massive popular uprisings led to call for new constitution.

– November, 2010 popular election to elected 25 people to form Constitutional Assembly. “This is the first time in the history of the world that a nation’s constitution is reviewed in such a way, by direct democratic process,” says Berghildur Erla Bergthorsdottir, spokeswoman for the committee entrusted with organizing the Constitutional Assembly. “It is very important for ordinary citizens, who have no direct interest in maintaining the status quo, to take part in a constitutional review,” said Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. “We are hoping this new constitution will be a new social covenant leading to reconstruction and reconciliation, and for that to happen, the entire nation needs to be involved.”

– Assembly composed of regular citizens, with the exception of current officeholders and stakeholders.

– Assembly is currently drafting a proposed new constitution. They are using ideas from 1,000 randomly chosen Icelanders — aged 18-89 — who offered their views in 2010 on what should be in the constitution. The Assembly is also accepting ideas from their Facebook page, which covers the weekly meetings in real time.


– President Hugo Chavez issues decree in 1999 ordering a referendum to ask people whether a Constituent Assembly should be held to reform the Constitution. Passes with 82% of vote.

– Nationwide elections of 131 members in 1999 of Assembly representing the nation as a whole, regional districts and constituencies, and indigenous populations.

– Only 3 months for public input.

– Three branches of government expanded to 5. It incorporated the idea of popular sovereignty (such as frequent referendums), social responsibilities, the right to rebel against injustice, and the eternal independence of the republic from foreign domination. It also embedded certain human rights (free education , free health care, access to a clean environment, and the rights for minorities, including indigenous people, to their own cultures, religions, and languages).

– 26th Constitution approved by 72% of voters in national referendum in December, 2009.


– National referendum for a new Constitution was passed by 90% of voters.

– Drafted by the Constituent Assembly, an elected body that met for 18 months, beginning in 2006. The Constitution was further modified by an Editing Commission before being present to Congress in December 2007

– The Constitution (Chapter Three of Title I) defines the forms of democracy—participatory, representative and community-based—and structure of government. It also establishes a separation of powers between four branches of government: legistlative, executive judicial, and electoral.

– 17th Constitution approved by 64% by national referendum in 2009.


– Following 2006 election of President Rafael Correa, he called for a referendum to form a constitutional assembly to write a new constitution. The April 2007 referendum passed – 80%

– Elections of new assembly, September, 2007, 130 members.

– Assembly developed a draft consisting of 494 articles, including Rights of Nature.

– 20th Constitution passed in September, 2008 by a 64% to 28% majority in a national referendum

Lessons for us in the US

Following significant uprisings and social movements that have demanded societal change, people haven’t simply called for changing faces, political parties or laws. They’ve called for changing constitutions. We need to do the same. We need to overcome the culture and fear that has caused us to avoid addressing constiutional injustices and to codify our aspirations.


More information: Greg Coleridge, Director, Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee, 2101 Front St., #111, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44221, 330-928-2301,,


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