A woman votes in Timor-Leste's presidential elections. Photo by United Nations Photo on flickr.

A woman votes in Timor-Leste's presidential elections. Photo by United Nations Photo on flickr.

Strong states need people-driven constitutions

20 January 2015

People power in putting together constitutions can help sustain post-conflict and new states.

It was the first new state of the 21st century. But less than five years after gaining independence from Indonesia in 2002, Timor-Leste almost became a failed state.

In 2006, political turmoil and clashes between security forces spiraled into civil unrest, riots, gang warfare and violence, culminating in the displacement of 150,000 people and an Australian-led UN peacekeeping mission to restore order and stability. It almost brought the young nation to its knees.

Now a new study of Timor-Leste explores why some new and post-conflict states remain weak, despite the best state-building efforts.

Across the globe – in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq, parts of Asia, the Balkans, Africa and the Pacific – state institutions have struggled to achieve control over, or the loyalty of, their fragmented and divided societies.

In her new book, Constitution making and state building, Dr Joanne Wallis from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific asks how fragmented and divided societies that are not immediately compatible with centralised statehood best adjust to state structures.

Her finding is that the answer rests in part on the role that constitution making can play in state building.

“Constitution making can play a central role in state building because constitutions create state institutions, provide a legal framework for the exercise of state power, and establish the relationship between the people and their government,” says Wallis.

“This suggests that the process of constitution making should be viewed not only as a technical exercise conducted by constitutional lawyers, but also as an important political process.  Additionally, if the state is to be a liberal democracy, there should be a high level of public participation in constitution making.”

Wallis’ book is one of the first in-depth studies of how constitution making, and public participation in the process, can lead to better outcomes in state building.

In addition to Timor-Leste, she also looked at Papua New Guinea and the autonomous region of Bougainville – where civil war claimed the lives of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people.

But unlike Timor-Leste, Bougainville seems to have gone from strength to strength.

“Right on our doorstep our neighbours in Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea have had their own challenges in state building,” she says.

“My research in PNG’s autonomous region of Bougainville suggests that extensive public participation in constitution making there had positive consequences for state building and for the region’s subsequent performance.

“In contrast, minimal public participation in Timor-Leste initially had negative consequences for state building and contributed to instability and conflict in the new state.”

The solution to these challenges is what Wallis calls a “constituent process”. 
This public participation in constitution making gives fragmented and divided societies the chance to resolve their grievances, agree upon common values and norms, and work out how they are going to be best accommodated and adjust to the transition to statehood.

“Importantly, in fragmented or divided societies in which local socio-political practices and institutions remain highly legitimate and effective, public participation can enhance the legitimacy and effectiveness of state institutions,” says Wallis.

“I argue that future constitution making processes in fragmented or divided new or post-conflict states should involve a high level of public participation in order to generate positive effects for state building and the longer term performance of the state.”  

Dr Joanne Wallis is senior lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

‘Constitution making during state building’ is available from
Cambridge University Press. This is an edited version of an article first published at fifteeneightyfour, the blog of Cambridge University Press. 


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