Constitution-making in South Sudan: a work in progress with many complexities but a clear goal
Every country needs a constitution. South Sudan needs a new and permanent one. But what should it say, and exactly how does one go about drafting an updated constitution?
The process is complex, and intricately interrelated with other provisions in the revitalized peace agreement. Across the country, staff serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan are gearing up to support the judicial marathon by providing technical assistance, including by gathering key stakeholders for consultations.
Simpler to explain than the process of making it is the purpose and importance of getting a permanent constitution in place: not only does the revitalized peace agreement, signed by the previously warring parties in September 2018, stipulate that this take place, it also states that the crucial document is expected to pave the way for free and fair elections at the end of the current transitional period.
Or, in the words of Guy Bennett, Director of the peacekeeping mission’s Political Affairs Division:
“The constitution-making process is the fundamental consideration of sovereignty and should be an inclusive process where all voices are heard, with public processes premised on the idea that democratic constitutions should be created and adopted through open processes and not in small, closed rooms by scholars and elites alone,” he said.
Mr. Bennett was talking to internally displaced persons and refugees gathered in a closed but big room for a stakeholder consultation on the elaboration of the critical document. He could have added that this is a first for South Sudan, whose current Transitional Constitution from 2011 was conceived under less inclusive circumstances.
While the workshops, forums, symposiums and other events organized by UNMISS and partners like the United Nations Development Programme and UN Women started taking place in late June, an essential step to kick start consultations was taken a month earlier by the Reconstituted Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission.
Needless to say, rulemaking requires rules. On 25-28 May, this body, tasked with overseeing the implementation of the peace deal, therefore held an initial workshop where stakeholders proposed the guidelines and legislation that will govern the elaboration of the greater book of political rules, the permanent constitution. The suggestions made will be turned into laws to be approved by the national legislative assembly.
The nitty-gritty of constitution-making does not, however, exist or take place in a vacuum. For the process to move forward effectively, some key, outstanding transitional tasks must be dealt with.
“These include the reconstitution of the Council of States, the swearing in of the Transitional National Legislative Assembly members and the implementation of judicial reforms, not least the establishment of the Constitutional Court,” said Guang Cong, Deputy Special Representative (Political) for South Sudan and Deputy Head of the peacekeeping mission, speaking at a high-level symposium on “federalisation” in the constitution-making process.
That’s right: federalism, a form of governing where power and wealth are shared in intra-governmental relations at three levels – national, state and local – is also part of the brew prescribed by the peace deal and needs to be worked into the constitution as well.
The same goes for numerous judicial reforms, another key area where the mandate of the Mission to reform the rule of law and justice sector, enhance existing institutions and strengthen all links in the entire justice system by building their capacity, dictates that UNMISS will be heavily involved.
A first step was taken when members of South Sudan’s judiciary and legal fraternity got together for a two-day workshop to discuss how to go about a review of the 2008 Judiciary Act and Judicial Service Council Act, the grandfather documents regulating the functioning of the judiciary.
The technicalities involved are many and close between, but the objective of the transformative overhaul is clear: effective rule of law and accountability for all.
“An independent judiciary contributes eventually to the democracy that signals the changing political and legal environment of South Sudan,” Evelyn Edroma, the United Nations Development Programme’s Chief Technical Adviser for Rule of Law and Access to Justice, noted at the event.
Mr. Cong was very much on the same page, stating that “the judiciary’s role as a primary mechanism for accountability cannot be overstated”.
“Many key political and other disputes will eventually come before the judiciary. In the case of South Sudan, accountability mechanisms include statutory judicial institutions and traditional or customary systems, both of which discharge justice across the country,” he added.
At the end of the day, the peacekeeping mission is working to enable a national conversation, operating under the assumption that if solutions to conflict and division come from the people, the durable peace they deserve is more likely to prevail.