I helped to facilitate a dialogue very recently between a group of Venezuelan experts and local counterparts. One presentation described the recently developed practice of carrying around the Constitution in booklet form as a weapon against arrest and harassment by authorities. It is used in moments of confrontation to remind authorities of the rights of all citizens under the Constitution.
For some reason this got me thinking about preambles. A contemplation that was fuelled further by a recent lecture by Justice Peter Jamadar on the “Caribbeanisation” of legal education.
I certainly do not attempt to represent here the views he expressed during his lecture. Rather, for me the nagging question is why bother with a preamble? Why not just cut to the chase and deal with the minutiae in the Constitution. The real meat of the matter for rule-of-law considerations is in the rest of the Constitution, from Article 1 onwards. Preambles are generally believed to have no significant force in law, so why bother?
We bother because preambles give context; they articulate our aspirations and our expectations as a nation and as citizens. I recall as a member of the UN mediation team in Cyprus, our largely unsuccessful attempts to get the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to sit together to draft a preamble to the Constitution to a future united Cyprus.
They preferred instead to hammer out the details of the legislative provisions to protect each other from the other. In fact, we dared not even refer to the people of Cyprus in any document as Greek and Turkish Cypriots, each side standing strong on the principle of being different. Thankfully, in this country we are very far along in the evolution of embracing our diversity, a fact that must never be overlooked. Preambles are important.
When the rule of law breaks down and institutions begin to falter, it is in the words of the preamble that we can find the source of our discontent. It is to the preamble that we should return to guide us back to what is our common purpose.
The very, very first words of the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are, “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
These sentiments are reflected in the preamble of our own Constitution, which begins by establishing that the Constitution is intended to uphold the will of the people, individually and collectively. It begins, “Whereas the people of Trinidad and Tobago” and then affirms the dignity of the human person and the equal and inalienable rights with which all members of the human family are endowed.
It goes on to declare our respect for the principles of social justice and to require that the operation of the economic system should result in the material resources of the community being so distributed as to subserve the common good.
It asserts our belief in a democratic society and recognises that men, women, children and institutions remain free only when freedom is founded upon respect for moral and spiritual values.
Only after articulating all the hopes of the people of Trinidad and Tobago and the desire that their Constitution should enshrine these principles and beliefs does the Constitution begin to articulate how this should be done: “Now, therefore the following provisions shall have effect…”
Preambles are important because only with the fuller and common understanding of our context can boundaries established by the rule of law have meaning as being in the service of the ideals of the people. It is only with that picture of how we each fit into the whole that we can move forward as one.