Tag Archives: constitutional law

New report on rule of law assistance in constitution building processes

by Rhodri C. Williams

FBA CA coverI am very happy to announce the publication of a report I wrote last year on constitutional assistance for the Folke Bernadotte Academy in Sweden. The aim of the report is to discuss the trend toward greater international assistance to the ‘constitution-building’ processes that tend to accompany contemporary political transitions and post-conflict state-building efforts. It begins with an analysis of some of the debates that have characterized the emerging rule of law field of ‘constitutional assistance’ and goes on to describe the role of various actors at the international and regional levels.

The writing of the report was satisfying at a number of levels. One one hand, constitutional assistance is emerging as a very interesting field of activity, with more attention (if not always resources) from the UN Rule of Law machinery (not least in the form of a Secretary General Guidance Note), and a very active effort to digest and disseminate lessons learned, most recently in the form of extensive handbooks on constitution building by both Interpeace and International IDEA. The work also allowed me to re-engage with debates I had lost track of since my prolonged bath in post-conflict constitutionalism in Bosnia a decade ago. And not incidentally, it put me back in contact with Gianni La Ferrara, an old friend and constitutional guru from Bosnian days of yore.

The subject matter is inherently interesting, sitting as it does at the juncture of transnational dissemination of norms, international human rights and rule of law practice, power-sharing in divided societies and peace building. It is not without controversies as a result. Without going into detail on all of them (the report and its executive summary are available here), I will expand briefly on one which I think is perhaps most interesting, namely the question of whether the aim of ‘democratising’ constitutional processes comes into conflict with the tendency of international rule of law actors to interpose human rights norms into them.

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Terra Nullius no more – Australia approaches constitutional recognition of its indigenous population

by Rhodri C. Williams

The BBC yesterday picked up on a curious piece of legislative news from Australia, with the lower house of Parliament having unanimously passed a bill presenting a constitutional IOU to the country’s indigenous population. In effect, the legislator agrees to lead from the front in seeking to drum up popular support for constitutional recognition of Aborigines and Torres Straits Islanders, and to act on that support as soon as it is there:

“I do believe the community is willing to embrace the justice of this campaign because Australians understand that indigenous culture and history are a source of pride for us all,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said. “This bill seeks to foster momentum for a referendum for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.”

The bill comes as part of a longer term process of reconciliation dating back to the early 1990s, when a Royal Commission was set up to examine Aboriginal deaths in custody and the Australian High Court belatedly disowned the terra nullius doctrine that had premised the takeover of aboriginal land on the demeaning idea that it was not truly occupied by other human beings. This tradition of emphatic non-recognition of Aboriginal peoples was symbolically reversed in 2008 by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s groundbreaking apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. …. A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

The present bill is admirably short and pithy. In its Article 3, entitled ‘Recognition’ it sets out a series of propositions that are revolutionary only in their self-evidentness:

(1) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, recognises that the continent and the islands now known as Australia were first occupied by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

(2) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges the continuing relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with their traditional lands and waters.

(3) The Parliament, on behalf of the people of Australia, acknowledges and respects the continuing cultures, languages and heritage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It then goes on to mandate the Prime Minister to “consider the readiness of the Australian public” to support a constitutional referendum on recognition of Aboriginal peoples and take steps to that effect within 12 months from its entry into force. The explanatory memorandum goes on to explain in somewhat more detail the thinking behind this somewhat unorthodox legislative approach: 

This Bill reflects an intention to pursue meaningful change to the Constitution that echoes the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and unites the nation.  It is one part of the ongoing conversation that needs to happen in the lead up to constitutional change. In particular, the Bill will enable all Australians to become familiar with formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ahead of constitutional change.

A review provision sets out a process for Parliament to consider next steps towards constitutional recognition, while a sunset provision ensures that legislative recognition does not become entrenched at the expense of continued progress towards constitutional change.

The Bill is not intended to be a substitute for constitutional recognition.  ….  The Bill does not restrict the scope of future issues for debate in regards to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In the annals of the law and society debate, this Bill may come to represent something of a hallmark. As a legislative attempt to encourage consensual change rather than simply ram change home based on an argument of necessity, it stands out both in its transparency and in the relatively sophisticated mechanism it seeks to set up. It also represents a sterling example of new constitutional approaches to managing diversity that posit a more sustainable relationship through transparent, participatory and open-ended processes than through foreclosing such processes with an unalterable compact.

There is of course a risk that this type of legislation may be seen as an attempt by the Government to play for time or appease reactionary elements in society. On the other hand, accommodating minority demands always imposes a cost on the majority (or in any event prevents the majority from externalising such costs any longer). If Australia’s current moral redistribution and its political and economic consequences are to be sustainable in a democratic system, then it is imperative that bills such as the present one help to undergird moral necessity with political consensus.

Look before you legislate? The challenges facing restitution in Libya

by Rhodri C. Williams

It seems that plans are now afoot in Libya for a full-scale program of restitution of properties nationalized and appropriated under the Ghaddafi regime. Bloomberg reported yesterday that a law envisaging a two phase process will be rolled out as soon as next month:

Libya will announce a law that will return land and buildings expropriated by late ruler Muammar Qaddafi to the original landowners “within weeks,” a senior member of the Land Ownership Committee said.

“Phase one will return unused lands, empty shops, buildings and villas taken by Qaddafi’s regime and then by the rebels to the rightful owners,” said Fawzy Sheibany, legal representative for the committee, in an interview in the capital, Tripoli. “This will mean millions of dinars can be invested in construction projects and provide employment.”

Phase two of the new law involves rehousing families residing in buildings on expropriated land and could take several years to implement fully, he said. The Ministry of Justice will deal with individual cases through a civil court.

On the face of it, there is every reason to welcome this development. The Ghaddafi-era expropriations were ostensibly meant to further public purposes but became, by all accounts, an arbitrary means of both punishing enemies and rewarding those the regime favored. Moreover, the resulting legal uncertainty in property relations was cited (in 2004) by a leading Middle Eastern law firm as a key structural obstacle to legal reform efforts during the run-up to the uprising:

As a result of abolishing real property ownership for investment purposes, the commercial real estate market has been completely distorted. There exists now a private land market and a public land market with a price gap that creates considerable uncertainty for both foreign and local investors. Compounding the problem, the [1997] Foreign Investment Law is not clear as to whether real property can be used as collateral or even can be freely transferred without government approvals. The government has announced plans to reform the laws governing property and rentals, but their scope is uncertain.

Finally, perhaps the most convincing ground for pushing for quick legislative measures is the need for the National Transitional Council (NTC) to be seen to lead from the front. In the wake of Amnesty International’s widely publicized allegations of human rights abuses by ‘out of control’ militias in Libya, anything the NTC can do to stamp its legitimate authority on matters of broad public interest appears welcome. In fact, this is a particularly important issue in regard to property. Recent reports such as this one by the Guardian indicate that the militias have become part of a pattern of spontaneous restitution, often carried out by means of violent self-help.

So what, one might ask, is not to like in a bill that serves not only justice but also economic development and political consolidation? The answer is that if it is rushed through without consultation, this bill may actually have the opposite effect, generating new cycles of grievance, reducing legal certainty and even undermining the authority of government in Libya if it proves impossible to effectively and consistently implement. Perhaps the most cogent argument for a deliberative approach to restitution for the prior regime’s confiscations is that this is to some extent a constitutional decision rather than merely a legislative one. Continue reading