Peace and constitutions

Christophe Barbey
Lawyer and peaceworker. Coordinator at APRED (Participative institute for the progress of peace)
Christophe Barbey

Christophe Barbey

Constitutions are locally universal. They express our ideals. They are to a great extent binding. As much as possible, they moderate the use of power in order to serve all the people. The word "peace" is present in most constitutions1. Too often, however, it occurs only in the preamble or relates solely to powers of war, to public order or "justice of peace2". Nevertheless, as constitutions are revised more frequently, more often than not through popular votes, peace progresses in our fundamental texts, thus ensuring that both the people and their institutions receive greater means for the establishment of peace. I will show here where and for what purposes peace is present or can be added to constitutions.

Preambles are a good place in which to assert what the people aim for through their constitution. They recall the symbolic dimension of peace and state peace as one of the governing values of a country. They can also express peace as a need for unity and conciliation, acknowledging the political and social differences that the constitution will later address in order to regulate peacefully the political debate. Peace should also be included in preambles because it offers the only sustainable solution to conflicts. However, as preambles are of an exemplary nature, more concrete ways of furthering peace are needed.

Usually, constitutions affirm the guiding principles ruling the form of the State and its modes of action. As part of the rule of law and of the democratic system, peace can be mainstreamed, taken into account in all State activities, just as should be - or already are - gender equality and the preservation of natural resources. Adding peace to the basic requirements of governmental action affirms the need for harmonious relations between the State and the population, as well as between all elements of society.

A welcome example can be found in the new constitution of a Swiss canton, Vaud that stipulates: "In all its activities, the State shall see that justice and peace prevail. It supports conflict prevention"3. A different example of peace governing all State activities exists in the strong body of jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court of Costa Rica, a country that has no army.

Constitutions usually contain a catalogue of human rights. Can peace be considered a human right and, if so, to what purpose? Everyone has the right to live in peace. This is only a stronger assertion of the right to security granted to all. The human right to peace will promote peaceful living, dialogue instead of opposition, and peaceful solutions for most, if not all, conflicts. It will assure that the State issues regular reports on the progress of peace in its own activities as in society as a whole, and will establish the right to exercise judicial control over any use of force. The United Nations' Human Rights Council is working on the concept, in an original approach, by affirming that the right to peace should express itself through measurable standards of peace. Any new constitution stating that peace is a human right will further this form of progress.

The dispositions regulating legislative, executive and judiciary powers, sometimes including the specificities of federalism, are mechanisms intended to ensure the peaceful functioning of institutions. They can be improved by adding to the democratic system more effective consensus procedures and more participative democratic rights, for example by creating or extending the people's right to call for referendums.

If peace is a human right and a guiding principle of State activities, then the State must give its inhabitants and its personnel the means to learn how to live in peace. Peace is therefore to be taught¸ practiced and studied in schools, from the lower levels on to higher education. This can also be provided for in the constitution.

As conflicts nevertheless do sometimes arise, peaceful conflict-solving methods are to be made easily available for the population and for its authorities: traditional or local peaceful conflict solving methods, mediation and other dispute-resolution mechanisms, as well as ombudsmen institutions now appear regularly in constitutions.

This may be insufficient, so policies for the prevention of violence are also needed. The duty of the State to prevent violence peacefully and to ensure public order is a constitutional mission. In so doing, the State functions as an example of peace for the people.

Should prevention nevertheless fail, the use of force to restore peace may be necessary. To avoid abuses and to limit damages, the use of force must be strongly regulated. The 2012 constitution of the local Swiss state of Geneva offers a good example of what can de done: "In conflictive situations, the use of force shall in priority be avoided, or limited. Persons concerned shall participate"4.   

Can we imagine international relations without peace? Some countries ban war in their constitution5. The United Nations charter bans war as well6, so all countries should in fact ban war. Some countries do ban having an army7, or nuclear weapons. More countries have made peace a prerequisite for international cooperation. And many others have reaffirmed that the peaceful coexistence of people is a general principle of international law.

Peace is a human gift, a human need and the expression of our creativity towards a better quality of life. We all relate to a given constitution, and theoretically, we all have a say regarding its contents. We also have a say in the future of humanity, on what we want for ourselves, for our countries, for our institutions. Assuming that we desire a sustainable and therefore a peaceful future, we can start by improving the presence of peace in our local constitutions.

[1] 174 out of 187 listed (16.10.2013).

[2] Lower jurisdictions in civic law systems.

[5] Japan, Italy, Bolivia and Ecuador.

[6] Article 2, § 3 and 4, by deduction and art. 51 by limitation.

[7] Costa Rica, Kiribati, Panama and Liechtenstein. Japan.