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Letting off steam: Interim constitutions as a safety valve to the pressure-cooker of transitions in conflict-affected states?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 April 2017

University of Melbourne, Parkville VIC3010, Australia


Recent years have seen considerably more attention being given to constitution-making as a field of deliberate study and practice, particularly with regard to the challenges and opportunities posed by constitution-making in conflict-affected states. A consequence of this work has been a more explicit recognition of the interconnectedness of peace processes and constitutional processes as mechanisms of political settlement. Within this context, this article argues for the more deliberate use of interim constitutions as a peacebuilding mechanism with potential to be effective in highly divided contexts in grounding a more inclusive and sustainable political settlement. This article argues that while interim constitutions are indeed commonly found in conflict-affected contexts, their use appears ad hoc and their design poorly conceived. The article reflects upon the potential strengths and weaknesses offered by interim constitutions in fragile and conflict-affected states. Reflecting on both the existing scholarship and the author’s own practical field experience, the article concludes that if a more modest and realistic approach to what constitution-making can achieve in fragile and conflict-affected states is coupled with more attention to design, interim constitutions can provide space and time to undertake more comprehensive discussions regarding the longer-term settlements.

Special Issue: Constitution-making and political settlements in times of transition
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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Former UNDP constitutional assistance and political dialogue specialist. Currently, an inclusive and accountable governance consultant and a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne Law School. I wish to thank Professor Christine Bell, Edinburgh Law School, University of Edinburgh, for her generous guidance and editorial support.


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2 For example, as discussed below, the original 2011 Libya Constitutional Declaration envisaged a six-month constitution-making process, in Egypt multiple constitutions were drafted between 2011 and 2014 in the wake of the revolution in time spans of one, three and six months, and in the Central African Republic the 2014 peace agreement envisaged a revised constitution within approximately six months (to align with the anticipated deadline for elections).

3 ‘Completion’ of the transition has often been proxied with the holding of national elections, with a new constitution being considered a precedent step, in order to set in place transformational post-conflict political arrangements before holding elections for a new executive and/or parliament.

4 Varol, O, ‘Temporary Constitutions’ (2014) 102 California Law Review 409, 411–12Google Scholar. (The counterpart to the so-called Ackermanian ‘constitutional moment’ is the belief in constitution-making as a profound, long-enduring form of law-making that transcends ordinary politics); Hart, V, ‘Constitution-Making and the Transformation of Conflict’ (2001) 26 Peace & Change 153Google Scholar. (‘The constitution is thus enshrined, isolated, representing a moment of unity and consensus. This is the constitution as icon. The contract is signed, the covenant made.’)

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7 Varol (n 4); Jackson, V, ‘Constitution-Drafting in Post-conflict States Symposium: What’s in a Name? Reflections on Timing, Naming, and Constitution-making’ (2008) 49 William & Mary Law Review 1249Google Scholar; Ludsin, H, ‘Peacemaking and Constitution-Drafting: A Dysfunctional Marriage’ (2011) 33 University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law 239Google Scholar; IDEA, Interim Constitutions in Post-Conflict Settings, Discussion Report (IDEA, Stockholm, 2014). Discussed further in Section III below.

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19 Varol (n 4) 412.

20 IDEA (n 7).

21 C Goss, unpublished, ‘Chapter 8: Success and failure of interim constitutions’ 315 (part of an untitled book to be published on the topic of interim constitutions, copy on file with the author).

22 Hart (n 4) 153.

23 Ludsin (n 7).

24 Elkins, Ginsberg and Melton (n 5).

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26 Varol posits four benefits: (1) facilitating consensus building where decision costs are high, (2) promoting incrementalism and experimentation where error costs are high, (3) reducing cognitive biases where cognitive biases predominate in constitutional design, and (4) relaxing the ‘dead hand’ problem by easing intertemporal control by the constitutional framers. Varol (n 4) 414.

27 Ludsin (n 7) 288. (‘The primary advantage of a multistage process is that an interim constitution can secure the immediate constitutional changes necessary for a cease-fire without rushing into a final drafting process and sacrificing long-term constitutional goals. An interim process allows negotiators room to address immediate crises without entrenching provisions for governance that would be inappropriate for a stable and representative state.’)

28 Benomar (n 12).

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid 6.

31 Interim Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (Act 200 of 1993) Schedule 4 – Constitutional Principles of the Interim Constitution.

32 Barnes, C and De Klerk, E, ‘South Africa’s multi-party constitutional negotiation process: Owning the process: Public participation in peacemaking’ 13 Accord 26 (Conciliation Resources, 2002)Google Scholar.

33 Ex Parte Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly: In re Certification of the Constitution 1996, 1996 (4) SA 744 (CC); 1996 (10) BCLR 1253 (CC); see also IDEA, ‘Constitutional history of South Africa’ (ConstitutionNet, Stockholm, 2015).

34 Ex Parte Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly: In the Certification of the Amended Text of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, 1997(2) AS 97 (CC); 1997 (1) BCLR 1 (CC); see also IDEA (n 33).

35 Democracy Reporting International, ‘Lessons Learned From Constitution-Making: Processes with Broad Based Public Participation’ (2011) Briefing Paper No. 20: 6.

36 Benomar (n 12) 6.

37 Ludsin (n 7) 288–9.

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39 Ibid.

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42 Abdi (n 40).

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46 Federal Republic of Somalia Provisional Constitution 2012, chs 7 and 8.

47 30 August 2001, art 1.

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52 Ludsin (n 7) 272.

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56 Central African Republic Constitution of 2013, art 102.

57 Agence France-Presse, ‘C. African parliament starts work on new constitution’ ReliefWeb online, 14 March 2014, <>.

58 Reuters Africa, ‘Central African Republic council adopts new constitution’, 31 August 2015, at <>.

59 Ludsin (n 7) 277–81.

60 Ibid 281.

61 UNDP (n 8); Brandt, Cottrell, Ghai and Regan (n 9); Benomar (n 12) 15.

62 Franck and Thiruvengadam (n 1) 8.

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69 Ibid.

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77 Ibid.

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80 Sharma and Najar (n 76).

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82 A Yousif and D Rothbart, ‘Sudan and South Sudan: Post-Separation Challenges’ (2012) Beyond Intractability Collaborative, available at <>.

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85 Ibid, art 1.5.5.

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100 Benomar (n 12).

101 Arato (n 6) 427.

102 Varol (n 4) 412.

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