The University of Iowa

Annual Report 2010-2011

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Helping unify a nation

College of Law professor guides Nepal toward new constitution

Negotiators in Nepal are in the final stages of drafting a new constitution for their country, and a University of Iowa law professor recently helped push the process along.

John Reitz was part of a 10-member international team of constitutional and comparative legal scholars who provided advice and counsel to the Nepalese as they hammered out their new governing document.

Reitz participated in the Conference on the Emerging New Constitution of Nepal held May 5-7 in Kathmandu. The panel, which included scholars from the United States, Australia, India, Spain, and South Africa, heard papers and presentations by the Nepalese about their ideas on what should be in the constitution and the issues they face.

He said the Nepalese were eager to hear an outside perspective and analysis of the issues, and for the panel's advice.

"I was very encouraged by the process and by their reaction to the ideas we presented," says Reitz. "There's a high level of involvement by the Nepalese people in this process and good knowledge of international models."

The Nepalese have been negotiating a new constitution since 2008 as part of the peace process meant to end a brutal insurrection by a Maoist political faction. The first product of that process was to unify the political forces in the country, leading to the deposition of the previous constitutional monarchy and abdication of the royal family.

Reitz said one significant challenge negotiators face in writing a new constitution is Nepal's immense ethnic diversity.

"It's a country of stunning diversity, with more than 60 ethnic and caste groups and up to 100 languages," Reitz says. "One of the ideas they presented at the conference was that Nepal should have a federal form of government in order to protect minority ethnic interests. We tried to tell them that federalism is not a way to protect ethnic minorities. What you need is strong human rights laws and an independent court system to enforce them."

One of the other main issues concerns the choice between parliamentary or presidential forms of government. Nepal had been operating since the late 1950s with a parliamentary government on the British model, but a large number of political parties led to instability and frequent changes of government. Reitz said that this was one of the most contentious issues in the conference, with the Maoists promoting a strong president and the liberal parties preferring to find ways to stabilize the parliamentary system in Nepal.

He said protecting human rights, especially for women, and keeping a president from becoming a dictator were some of the other topics discussed at the conference. Panelists also discussed how the court system should be set up and how to keep it from becoming corrupt.

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