A Preamble to a Constitution

What is a preamble?

The preamble to a constitution is an introduction to the constitution and usually bears the formal heading “Preamble”.  It presents the history behind the constitution’s enactment, and sometimes sets out the nation’s core principles and values.

Do all constitutions have preambles?

Many countries’ constitutions have preambles.  Some are brief, such as the preamble to the Constitution of the United States, while others are lengthy – in the cases of China and Croatia, for example, extremely lengthy with long historical (and arguably one-sided) narratives.

Is a preamble necessary?

A constitution is the basic law of a country.  By their very nature, constitutions are often long and very detailed – after all, they are subject to intense legal and moral scrutiny and must stand the test of time.  A preamble is the first part of the constitution that people usually read.  As such, it serves to explain how the constitution came into being, as well as the nature of the system established by the constitution and the values and aspirations of the people.

What issues are covered by a preamble?

Constitutional preambles generally cover some or all of the following issues:

1.      Sovereignty: most preambles specify the source of sovereignty in the country, that is the legal foundation on which all laws, including the constitution, are based.  Some preambles state that sovereign power rests with the people (“We, the people of …”);  others refer to representative bodies such as Parliament or a constituent assembly.

2.      Historical Narratives: preambles often tell a national story that is rooted in language, heritage and important events.  The South African preamble, for example, declares that the people of South Africa “recognise the injustices of our past” and “honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land.”  The danger of such narratives, as will be mentioned below, is that they may be socially divisive rather than unifying and they may quickly become out of date.

3.      Supreme Goals: preambles often outline the nation’s fundamental goals.  These may be universal objectives, such as the advancement of justice, fraternity, and human rights; or political or economic goals, equitable distribution of the nation’s resources; or others, such as maintaining the unity of the State.

4.      National Identity: preambles usually contain statements about national beliefs — how citizens of the country see themselves — as well as the nation’s aspirations for the future.  Preambles may include a commitment to resolve disputes by peaceful means and to abide by the principles of the United Nations Charter;  they often refer to inalienable rights such as liberty, dignity and national self-determination.

God or Religion: a preamble may include references to God.  This is acceptable only where the vast majority of the country’s population believe in a single God, otherwise the preamble will become socially divisive.  Conversely, a preamble may emphasise the separation of state and religion, or the state’s secular character.

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