Scott Weber

There is one! Interpeace, a Geneva-based, UN-an affliated NGO has released just such a book, giving advice to emerging nations about how to go about the difficult process of creating a constitution. Scott Weber, Director-General of Interpeace believes the process can serve as a mechanism for reconciliation and conflict resolution by providing a framework for a wider range of interest groups to work on an appropriate framework for their own governance.

On September 9th, in the presence of Joseph Deiss, President of the UN General Assembly, you launched a handbook on how to manage the process of constitution-making. What prompted you to make this handbook?

There is general recognition that a society’s constitution is a crucial foundation. It defines the laws and the legal culture; it defines state institutions and gives them their legitimacy. When all else fails, you turn back to the constitution to resolve problems and move forward. And yet constitutions have a checkered history of being imposed behind closed doors by the victors of a conflict or political elites who want to stay in power or change their society’s structure. Following the Arab Spring, we’re witnessing an age of constitution-making. More constitutions will be revised or written in the next five years than in the previous twenty. There’s a thirst for getting it right. The question is why have so many gotten it wrong? Our analysis is that its less from not having the facts from the menu of options of different forms of governance from which to chose. It’s more a failure of the society to buy into the right system for them, given their history, their culture. For instance, why choose a two-chamber system of government? What is the place for ethnic tribes in a state? What is the place of religion in society?
A new constitution may fail –or actually provoke new conflicts– because of the process of its creation. East Timor is an example. This relatively new state introduced multi-party politics in a country that had been dominated for hundreds of years by the Portuguese, followed by 6 months of independence, then 24 years under Indonesian rule. Suddenly, the UN and the US decided a multi-party system was the right vehicle for advancement. Very quickly East Timor became violent and conflictual. Burundi is another example of a country where western-style institutions may not be appropriate. Western societies have also passed through many transformations, including many systems that failed. We have been experimenting.

So what can emerging nations do to identify their needs? Are there templates?

Yes, there are templates from the West, mostly from the US and the UK. The French constitution is also used because it is flexible. Interpeace doesn’t promote any particular system or political order. It is the process that makes or breaks a constitution. Consensus is needed. We’re process experts. We understand how to get discordant groups together to start working on finding a common framework, to resolve their differences and see reality through the other’s eyes. We’re very good at that. So our handbook is how to help a society decide what constitution will work best for them. In a society like Afghanistan it is critical to choose whether or not to base the constitution on Sharia law. The Constitutional Loya Jirga talks were very good. That’s why (veteran UN envoy Algerian-born Lakhdar) Brahami wrote the forward to this handbook –he has experienced this process on the ground.  

The UN didn’t have anything like this, so Interpeace was created as part of the UN. It is now an NGO under Swiss law, but we have a special relationship with the UN that allows us to carry out operations. We removed ourselves from the UN in order to be more flexible. Whenever we see a country go through a very rapid constitution process it drives us nuts because the whole point is to gain consensus. After Mubarak, Egypt moved too quickly. It’s all about ownership and consensus is essential to confer legitimacy.

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by Pamela Taylor