Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Framing the State in Times of Transition: Focus on Five Core Values

Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Framing the State in Times of Transition: Focus on Five Core Values

Article excerpt


I begin by noting a change in the sub-title of my paper from what was originally publicized. The new sub-title is, "Focus on Five Core Values." Every constitution in the modern era must contain these five core values in order to be considered worthy of the name constitution. A constitution has been described as the soul of a nation; and a constitution without these core values may be likened to a body without soul.

As someone who has been involved in constitution making, I think it is worth pointing out the connection between constitutional engineering and statecraft. In recent years, state actors, supported by the community of scholars and practitioners, have been increasingly relying on constitutional engineering for creating bridges of understanding among different segments in divided societies. It is always better to build bridges, rather than walls, in all nations and societies divided along ethnic, racial or class lines. This is particularly the case in societies in transition from conflict to post-conflict situations, or from autocratic to democratic governance.

Constitution makers start their work by asking two related questions: What should be included in a constitution, and how long should it be? These questions logically raise another one: How does one determine what should or should not be included in a constitution? Is there a set of universally applicable criteria, or is each country's choice determined by specific historical conditions? The answer to the last question must be both. From the writing of the American constitution onward, modern constitutions have been based on preceding models or experience, modified to suit the conditions of the particular country. How much such modification affects the universal principles differs from case to case. Nonetheless, the point of departure must be the historical, socio-political condition of the country concerned. It is worth noting here that the American constitution was not a novel invention owing nothing to other ideas and experiences. In crafting what later became a model, the American constitution makers borrowed from the French Enlightenment ideas like separation of powers, and from the Iroquois nation, the federal system of government.

Scholars and statesmen have wrestled with the question concerning the size and content of the constitution; and some have attempted to provide general rules for good constitution writing. For example, Lord Bryce, British scholar and statesman, affirms the rule of brevity in writing a constitution, adding simplicity of language and precision as essential requirements. In this respect, he ranks the American constitution above all other hitherto written constitutions "for the intrinsic excellence of its scheme, its adaptation to the circumstances of the people, the simplicity, brevity, and precision of its language, its judicious mixture of definiteness in principle with elasticity in detail." The last phrase is worth emphasizing: a judicious mixture of definiteness in principle with elasticity in detail. Drafting a constitution can thus be likened to both a work of art and an engineering project, it can test the writing skill of the best draftsman in choice of language, precision and clarity, while at the same time requiring craftsmanship in building the edifice of state institutions. An edifice is built to last, and in the case of a constitutional edifice, it has to be built to weather the storms of changing political fortunes, as it were. (1)

To take another statesman's counsel, this time from France, the constitution must be kept "neutral." This was according to Abbe Sieyes, who influenced the constitution making in post-revolutionary France. He counseled that the constitution must be kept neutral or at least open-ended in political and ideological terms, particularly for the Bill of Rights provisions. For, otherwise, they may be too closely identified with "the transient fortunes of a particular party or pressure group, and rise and fall with them. …

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