Autonomy, sovereignty and constitutional change

CISRUL-POLITICO workshop with Nancy Postero

Organisers: Trevor Stack, Valentín Clavé-Mercier, and Chuck Sturtevant

Time and venue: 12-3pm, Committee Room 2 (University Office)

This workshop will explore autonomy and sovereignty in processes of constitutional change. Processes of constitutional change include not only moments in which new constitutions are adopted, but also academic, activist and judicial proposals for new constitutional frameworks, reinterpretations of existing constitutions, and unwritten projects that constitute communities. These processes refigure political communities, calling for new (di)visions of inclusion and exclusion and conjuring new relationships between institutions and subjects. As moments in which the basic norms by which a political community is defined and governed are made explicit and subjected to public debate, these processes provide fertile ground in which to explore the relationship between constitutional ideas and their enactment in specific situations.

Although discourses of human and communitarian rights have ushered in a trend towards liberal multiculturalism and constitution-making that ‘recognises’ the diversity of ‘the people’ or of ‘the nation’ through equality and minority rights these shifts have generally fallen short of shifting the power of decision-making to minority or marginalised groups. By contrast, processes as distinct as Maori claims to sovereignty, the refoundation of Bolivia as a Plurinational State, and Kurdish models of political organisation have raised the possibility that sovereignty or autonomy might be distributed beyond the state. They suggest that the concept of sovereignty – often a tool of domination in the hands of centralising state projects – holds emancipatory potential for local or marginalised communities. The workshop raises the question about the relationship between  the concepts of sovereignty or autonomy and  the claims and demands of minorities and marginalized groups for autonomy and self-determination.

Do processes of constitutional change allow for the redistribution of sovereignty? How can we compare and contrast sovereignty or autonomy claims by local or marginalised communities with claims by the state? How are social and economic hierarchies maintained or disrupted in the process?

This one-day workshop will present work at the intersection of normative and empirical scholarship, considering not only how processes of constitutional change are implemented, but also what are the moral and ethical consequences of that implementation. We ask how these processes which problematize the distributions of sovereignty might lead to more just political systems.

Session 1

12pm    “Self-governance in Bolivia’s First Indigenous Autonomy: Charagua”

Nancy Postero (UC San Diego)

What does autonomy mean for Latin America’s indigenous peoples?  Based in part on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Bolivia’s 2007 constitution recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination and to maintain their distinct institutions. This paper explores the debates around concepts of autonomy and sovereignty at Bolivia’s Constituent Assembly, and the form of “indigenous autonomy” that was included in the final constitution. While the constitutional language appears to give indigenous communities far-reaching new rights, many questions remain about what autonomy means in practice. This paper investigates how those rights are being exercised in Charagua, which became Bolivia’s first “indigenous autonomy” when the municipality’s Guaraní majority approved conversion in 2015. I examine the difficult process Charagua’s leaders endured, the novel institutions of self-government they ended up establishing, and the ways Guaranís are negotiating autonomy, both externally and internally. The result of those negotiations is a hybrid political system in which power is balanced between an executive organ (required by the country’s Plurinational Constitutional Court) and a deliberative assembly (which operates according to indigenous custom). The prominence of the assembly expresses a significant form of autonomy that promotes intercultural political participation and enacts indigenous self-government in ways that are important to Guaraní people. Yet, because the municipality does not control sub-soil rights and thus cannot determine the sorts of development in its territory, it is hard to conclude they are exercising full and robust autonomy as understood in the UN Declaration’s provisions for self-determination.

Followed by responses from Tamas Gyorfi (Law) and Ritu Vij (Politics & IR), and then open discussion

1.30pm  Sandwich lunch (all welcome)

Session 2

2pm    “A Constitutional Path to Indigenous Sovereignty: Matike Mai Aotearoa”

Valentin Clavé-Mercier (University of Aberdeen)

This paper is a preliminary presentation of the early stages of an ongoing PhD research on discourses and practices of indigenous sovereignty, more concretely in the New Zealand context. Even though it has been an ever-present claim in indigenous discourses since the 1970s, sovereignty is not applicable to indigenous peoples according to Western universalised standards. Therefore, this paper intends to lay out key features of indigenous sovereignty shared across English-speaking settler contexts in order to explore how it might be achieved through constitutional change. In a first part, I will sketch some of the specificities of indigenous sovereignty in order to understand the meaning and scope of their political claim. In this regard, I argue that they mobilise a conceptualisation different to the Westphalian construct traditionally predominant in Western political and legal doctrines. In the second part of this paper, I will present the concrete case of a Māori proposal for constitutional transformation, tracing how this alternative understanding of sovereignty can lead to new configurations of political authority. Through this example, I intend to point out alternative modalities of sovereignty, but also to raise questions about their political and institutional translations, or even whether the transformative weight of indigenous sovereignty can be encapsulated in constitutional arrangements.

2.15pm    “Autonomy and the Self-Administration of North and East Syria”

Aviva Stein (Catalystas Consulting)

Autonomy is often seen as a step towards sovereignty; a necessary stepping stone for communities to ease their way into governing themselves. However, in the case of North and East Syria, autonomy is the cornerstone of a movement for internal governance. The Self-Administration of North and East Syria (SANES), formerly known as Rojava, has held fast to the desire to remain under the umbrella of one united Syrian state, denying themselves independence and sovereignty in the eye of the international community in favor of building a stronger, more tolerant Syrian identity.

This approach has greatly influenced both the construction and implementation of practical governance within the region, as well as the development of a new constitution and other constitutional documents, including the Social Contract. It can be argued that the adherence to the principle of autonomy over sovereignty has hindered the progress of North and East Syria in geopolitical affairs and international diplomacy, preventing the region from being taken seriously as an independent actor with recognized state-level authority and decision making power. However, it can also be argued that North and East Syria’s loyalty to autonomy within a State system has also enabled the region to make great strides in a relatively short period of time. The region has succeeded in building and implementing a democratic, multicultural, and representative system in practice without antagonizing the central Syrian government and other regional and global powers which would not appreciate the shift in status quo necessitated by a declaration of independence for a new Middle Eastern state.

This paper will examine the fine line which North and East Syria has tread with regards to creating a new constitution and governing system within the confines of the debate on autonomy vs. sovereignty, and the ways in which their decisions on constitutional development have affected the social, cultural, economic, and geopolitical situation in the region overall.

2.30pm    “Iraqi Kurdistan’s Struggle for Sovereignty”

Ahmed Fawaz (University of Aberdeen)

Kurds were pivotal in the Iraqi opposition prior to the toppling of Saddam, hosting Iraqi opposition figures and speaking on behalf of the opposition to present their perspectives. The Kurds succeeded in getting their allies’ acceptance of their demand for a federation in case the opposition managed to overthrow Saddam’s regime.  However, it is a unique type of federalism; a federation between Kurdistan on one hand and the rest of Iraq on the other hand. Stansfield (2007) argues that the inclusion of federalism as the political system of Iraq in the constitution indicated the strength of the Kurds. Moreover, Iraqi Kurdistan received considerable political advantages, including formation of the parliament of Kurdistan, formation of the government of the territory, upgrading of Arbil and Sulaimaniyah airports to international airports and granting the Kurdistan parliament the veto power against any central legislation that it deems detrimental to Kurdish interests. The last-mentioned advantage raised a dispute over the regions’ powers against the centre. The Sunni Arabs in Iraq criticised the Constitution as they saw that it indirectly gives the Kurds the right to veto any law or the amendment of the constitution when it gives two-thirds of any three governorates (Kurdistan region then consists of three governorates) the right to reject any amendment.

The presentation will seek to answer the following questions:

  • How had the Kurdish politicians seized the opportunity of constitutional change in Iraq to achieve political and economic gains?
  • How had the constitutional change in Iraq raised a dispute over issues of sovereignty between Baghdad and Arbil (the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan)?
  • What impact has the secession referendum had on the political arena in Kurdistan?

2.45pm    Open discussion

4pm    End of workshop

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