At the end of September, Build Up joined constitutional and legal scholars, government ministers, and democratic activists from around the world at the conference on Democratic Constitutional Design (DCD) at the University of Iceland hosted by EDDA Research Center in Reykjavik. We presented a tool, in partnership with the Center for Democratic Constitutional Design (CDCD) and the University of Washington, to support the continued process of constitutional reform in Iceland.
Writing a constitution is a society’s statement of values and purpose.
Iceland may seem like a strange destination, possibly far from the characteristics we’ve come to expect for peacebuilding processes. Build Up staff collectively have decades of experience supporting efforts by peacebuilders all around the world, but mostly in non-Western and global South conflict contexts. We don’t think Iceland sees itself as a conflict or post-conflict country — but as we learned more about Iceland’s citizen-driven constitutional reform process, we recognized that what Icelanders are doing around their constitution process is relevant to all of us.
We came to know this process in 2014 at our first Build Peace conference at MIT in Boston, where Eileen Jerrett presented her documentary Blueberry Soup, a beautiful film that introduced all of us to Iceland’s remarkable constitutional reform process.
Watch Blueberry Soup Online | Vimeo On Demand
An intimate look into the rewriting of the Icelandic constitution by its citizens. Chronicling a nation-redefining…
Being able to amplify and broaden participation in peacebuilding processes, which often times including constitution making, is critical. Build Up feels there is a lot to learn from the organic process that Icelanders have gone through and continue to pursue in the aftermath of their 2008 economic crash.
The entire history of this process, including crowd-sourced inputs from common citizens and the innovative process employed by its authors… are in danger of being lost.
We are profoundly moved by Icelanders efforts to re-imagine their constitution, by truly making it a people driven social contract. Too often, the legalistic and technical complexities of a modern constitution makes it inaccessible to the people it’s intended to protect; it’s not a government’s document, it’s a people’s document. At the DCD conference, there were some wonderfully provocative discussions on a variety of forms of engaging and convening people, both online and offline — whether through new forms of digitally connected conversations and crowd-sourcing, or mini-publics and deliberative processes.
At this point, the core drafting process of the proposed Icelandic constitution is complete. The Icelandic people approved the draft Constitution in a non-binding referendum in 2012, but a filibuster by the opposition party prevented it from being voted on by the Parliament in that year and it has been stalled ever since. There are a number of political parties that remain committed to the passage of draft Constitution, however, and citizen’s groups have worked hard to keep the issue of citizen-centered constitutional reform on the national agenda.
What’s at risk in this process is more than just the success or failure of a unique and forward-thinking citizen-driven constitution. Writing a constitution is a society’s statement of values and purpose. Imagine it as the core social and legal contract that holds a nation together. This would be the backbone of stewardship of public resources, spaces, rights, and laws, should the constitution, or even parts of it, be enacted.
Yet, the new draft of the Icelandic constitution faces other dire problems through this stagnation. Over a decade’s worth of documentation critical to the reform process, including interviews, drafting notes, analysis, films, photos, and other electronic and physical evidence remains scattered across the island on the computers and in the homes of many who participated. The entire history of this process, including crowd-sourced inputs from common citizens and the innovative process employed by its authors in drafting the reformed constitution are not easily accessible to Icelanders, and are in danger of being lost. The memory of the process, of what mattered to Icelanders in their difficult four-year struggle after the 2008 economic crisis, is in danger of fading away.
Given the resistance by some of the political elite to put that people-driven constitutional reform process behind them, losing this history could ultimately close the door on a process that still shows signs of life.
A Tool For Collective Memory
In collaboration with the Icelandic Constitutional Society, the CDCD, and the University of Washington, Build Up envisioned a portal to access an archive of the history. A well designed and well presented interactive analysis of events important to the constitutional process could help Icelanders stay connected to its relevance.
Through an ongoing process of input from Icelandic stakeholders, Build Up worked closely with Eileen Jerrett (CDCD) and Cricket Keating (University of Washington) to develop a portal prototype— a proof-of-concept that gives us an idea of what’s possible when it comes to preserving the history and telling the story of an active constitutional reform process.
Our initial presentation of the tool was met with overwhelming positivity. There is clearly a strong desire for this kind of resource, not only by those central to the Icelandic process but many conference participants from around the world were equally excited about having access to this important process and its history.
Build Up will continue to support this important process. Following the conference, we are now working with CDCD and the Icelandic Constitution Society to bring more Icelanders on board. While thousands of documents and electronic files have been collected, there are likely thousands more uncollected across the island. Icelanders will also need to play a central role in determining the proper framing for the resources as they’re presented through the portal, ensuring the material is relevant and usable. Ideally, this portal not only preserves the history, but also catalyzes new energy among those Icelanders who were central to the effort, as well as a new generation of reformers who were too young to participate in a process that started over a decade ago.
What Icelanders are doing around their constitutional process is relevant to all of us.
While we see many learning opportunities beyond Iceland in making this process accessible, we also appreciate that its universal lessons must first and foremost be focused inward on a process of change within the country. Build Up is excited to play a small but, we believe, important role in supporting Icelanders efforts to present and preserve their recent history while continuing to reform their constitution for a more just and equitable future.