Subject: NYT: East Timor Lures Experts in Helping New Nations

The New York Times September 18, 2001

East Timor Lures Experts in Helping New Nations


DILI, East Timor - They are the new missionaries. Steeped in the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, they travel from one emerging nation to another to share their gospel.

In places as obscure as Vanuatu or as consequential as Russia, they join with founding fathers to help create new societies for the 21st century.

They are the constitutionalists - some more dogmatic than others - who offer their expertise to new or reforming nations like East Timor as they draw up the written foundations for statehood.

Yash Ghai, for example, will arrive here soon from his native Kenya, where he is leading a constitutional review commission. He has given advice in Cambodia, Fiji, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and the Seychelles.

And he has only scratched the surface.

"There have probably been more constitutions made since World War II than ever in the history of mankind before," said Mr. Ghai, who is a professor of public law at the University of Hong Kong and a leader in the world of constitution-drafting. "So we have quite a bit of work."

When he arrives, he will be working essentially with a blank slate. In August, East Timor, newly independent from Indonesia, elected an 88- member council to draw up a constitution and gave it just 90 days to do so. At the moment, there is essentially no expertise here in constitution- making. Three council members have studied law.

This nation of fewer than 800,000 people, most of whom are illiterate, is abuzz with constitutional talk. Will it have a presidential system, a parliamentary system or a semi-presidential system? How much will the government control the economy? Will women be liberated from the local system of buying brides? What will become of the village councils that traditionally settle disputes? What will the national language be?

"We do need advisers with experience in developing constitutions around the world," said Aderito de Jesus Soares, one of the council members with a legal background. "But we don't want someone to write it for us. It has to be our constitution that we own."

This is the tricky part, Mr. Ghai said. Inevitably, people like him bring with them not only their technical expertise, but also a set of core democratic and human rights values that are common to most modern democracies.

"So there is a bit of danger," he said, "that one carries in one's baggage ideas that need to be scrutinized carefully, both in terms of their social impact and of their compatibility with the traditional systems and aspirations of the people."

It is a caution that applies as well to international advisers in many areas of nation-building — a huge, itinerant machine of democratization that includes experts in electoral law, bureaucratic systems, judicial practices, law enforcement, parliamentary procedures and the workings of a free press.

All those are hard at work in East Timor, a sort of petri dish of nation- building. And each has his style.

A constitution is far more than a legal document, said Herman Schwartz, a professor of law at the American University Law School who has helped draft constitutions in 12 nations in the former Soviet bloc.

"My own values are very strongly democratically and human-rights oriented," he said. "And I try gently to promote these - sometimes not so gently - in the sense that I might point out things I think are very bad. One of the few things from the American Constitution that I push very strongly is a true independence of the judiciary."

He said he also tried to help hone a workable balance of powers and stressed the importance of some sort of freedom-of-information act, something the United States lived without for nearly 200 years, as "absolutely vital to having a decent democracy."

His ideas generally meet with a positive reception, he said, adding: "One of the major forces here is the pull of the West, the prosperity. That's been immensely influential in Eastern Europe."

No matter what the theories or the balance between international and local norms, there is one factor that overrides all others, the experts said - politics.

"No constitution is written in a vacuum," said Louis Aucoin, a constitutional expert at the Institute of Peace in Washington who recently worked in East Timor.

Factional squabbling is a theme that runs through East Timor's history, even within the independence movement that struggled for 24 years against Indonesia. Each party or bloc is quite likely to seek political advantage from aspects of the new constitution.

So it is no surprise that even before the constitution is written East Timor has already embarked on one of the hallmarks of democracy, political infighting.

Back to September menu
World Leaders Contact List
Human Rights Violations in East Timor
Main Postings Menu

Note: For those who would like to fax "the powers that be" - CallCenter is a Native 32-bit Voice Telephony software application integrated with fax and data communications... and it's free of charge! Download from