New York, October 26, 2012—Columbia Law School Professor Sarah H. Cleveland spent two days in Venice earlier this month working with members of the National Constituent Assembly of Tunisia on their efforts to draft a new constitution.
Cleveland, the Louis Henkin Professor of Human and Constitutional Rights and the faculty co-director of the Human Rights Institute at the Law School, was in Venice as the U.S. expert on the European Commission for Democracy through Law, better known as the Venice Commission. Established in 1990 by the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission provides expert legal assistance to emerging democracies and other states on rule of law reform; compliance with fundamental human rights; and reform of executive, judicial, legislative, and electoral systems. It has advised dozens of countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Russia, Georgia, Romania, Hungary, and South Africa. Besides Tunisia, the commission is working with several of the Arab Spring states, including Libya, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt.
Cleveland, center, with the Venice Commission earlier this month.
Tunisia’s constitutional process comes after its revolution ousted former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. At this month’s meeting, members of the Venice Commission and the National Constituent Assembly of Tunisia discussed and analyzed the six chapters of Tunisia’s draft constitution. Some of the issues facing the country include: gender equality and religious freedom, the powers of the constitutional court, the choice between a presidential and parliamentary system, and the distribution of powers between the national and local governments.
“It’s a very delicate process,” Cleveland said of the commission’s work. “There is a great deal of knowledge and experience that can be drawn upon in the drafting of constitutions. The Venice Commission was heavily involved in drafting the interim South African Constitution, and others. But countries also want to feel that their constitution is their own—that it reflects their own needs, legal traditions, and values.”
Part of the reason for the Venice Commission’s success is its international composition and independence—58 countries are full members, and all of the experts serve in their personal capacity. “It does not carry the baggage of being associated with any particular government,” Cleveland said.
As an Observer Member, the United States sends one expert to commission meetings. Cleveland, who has expertise in international human rights and the constitutional law of U.S. foreign relations, was appointed to the commission by the Obama Administration in 2010 for a four-year term. From 2009 to 2011, she served as the counselor on international law to U.S. Department of State Legal Adviser Harold Hongju Koh.
Cleveland will return to Venice in December when she and other representatives from observer nations will speak about recent constitutional developments in their countries.
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