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Posted July 22, 2011

Zimbabwean Lawyers Visit Law School, Discuss Making Democratic Constitution

Howard
Professor A. E. Dick Howard facilitated a conversation with a group of lawyers from Zimbabwe on constitution-making.

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Mary Wood

As Zimbabwe struggles with unrest and instability, lawyers seeking a better future for the African country recently turned to the Center for the Constitution at James Madison’s Montpelier and the University of Virginia School of Law for support.

Representatives of the Law Society of Zimbabwe, the country’s bar association, visited Virginia this month to engage in a series of discussions regarding the drafting of a new Zimbabwean constitution.

James Madison is known as the architect of the U.S. Constitution, and Montpelier's effort to help the Zimbabweans is part of a broader effort to engage the Center for the Constitution at an international level, said University of Virginia law professor A. E. Dick Howard, who serves as a board member at Montpelier.

“Zimbabwe is a very troubled country at this point, with a great deal of violence and intimidation and the excesses of one-party rule,” Howard said. He said the Law Society of Zimbabwe hopes a new constitution will move the country “in the direction of constitutional democracy, a multi-party system, an open society, and the rule of law."

Howard, who directed Virginia’s referendum campaign for adoption of the state’s current constitution, has also worked with constitution-makers in post-communist Europe, Malawi and South Africa. 

The African lawyers convened at the Law School and Montpelier for three days to discuss drafting a constitution and bill of rights, and how the Zimbabwean public could be engaged in the process. They reviewed parts of the draft and discussed problems of interpretation and application. 

“I saw my role in the actual conversations as being one of the facilitators,” Howard said. “The agenda was not one that assumed that American ideas could simply be borrowed or adopted in Zimbabwe. It was not an exercise in exporting ideas. It was about engaging people on both side of the Atlantic in a conversation about constitutional principles.”

Howard said Virginia provided a peaceful backdrop for the Zimbabwean lawyers to escape turmoil and think critically about the future of their country. And, he said, it reminded the Zimbabweans that they are part of an international network of lawyers who care about constitutionalism and democracy throughout the world. 

“I hope that they were encouraged by knowing that people in other countries, both in Africa and America, care about what is happening in Zimbabwe,” Howard said.  “It’s not easy to be a lawyer promoting democratic ideals and human rights in Zimbabwe.  It takes courage to fight for the ideals they’re promoting.”

Reported by Ashley Matthews