Law School Conference to Focus on Constitutions and the Arab Spring

February 14, 2012

An upcoming conference at the University of Virginia School of Law will explore the Arab Spring and its role in developing new constitutions for countries in the Middle East.

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Mila Versteeg

The conference, "Constitution-Making and the Arab Spring," will be held Feb. 24 in Caplin Pavilion, and is sponsored by the Law School, the Oxford Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society. (Full schedule below).

"Obviously, the Arab Spring is just a major unfolding event. So we were interested in exploring to what extent the Arab Spring gets a constitutional forum," said Virginia Law associate professor Mila Versteeg, who is organizing the conference. "We're bringing together some of the main people in the field, who have been there on the ground, and we're asking them: What do you think the problems are? What do you think the issues will be?"

The Arab Spring and the changes it brought to countries across the Middle East presented an opportunity to consider a number of issues related to constitution-making, including the role of the military, the influence of Islam; how the judiciary will fit into the new regime; and women's rights.

"One of the ideas that's often come up is that constitutions are written in times of revolution," Versteeg said. "That's true for many constitutional documents, [such as] the French Constitution of 1791 and the American Constitution. What does that do for constitutions?"

Versteeg said conference participants, including scholars and experts from across the U.S. and England, will also explore to what extent past experiences can inform what might happen with the Arab Spring. In the past, she said, revolutionaries who write constitutions have been known to include unrealistic structures and often try to reject the past. What might that mean for the constitutional design of countries facing new regimes as part of the Arab Spring?

Versteeg, an expert in comparative constitutional law, public international law and empirical legal studies, has recently garnered attention in the media for her co-authored study on the world's constitutions and their general move away from using the U.S. Constitution as a model (More | Faculty Q&A). In another forthcoming article, "Sham Constitutions," she explores constitutions created by dictatorial countries that include promises of rights to citizens that prove meaningless. Versteeg has been editing a book and organizing a conference series at the University of Oxford on the social and political foundations of constitutions. The conference at the Law School grew out of that ongoing project.

The conference is open to the public; parking will be available in the Law School's D-2 lots.

February 24, 2012

All events are located in Caplin Pavilion unless otherwise noted.

10-10:10 a.m.
Continental Breakfast
10:10-10:30 a.m.
  • Denis Galligan, professor of socio-legal studies, University of Oxford
  • Mila Versteeg, associate professor of law, UVA School of Law
10:30-11:30 a.m.
"Abbe Sieyes, Guttenberg, and Habermas: Constitutional Revolutions in Egypt and the Arab World"
  • Nathan Brown, professor of political science, George Washington University
  • Discussant: Denis Galligan, professor of socio-legal studies, University of Oxford
11:45 a.m.-12:45 p.m.
"The Middle East Revolution: Take Two, Constitutionalism"
  • Chibli Mallat, visiting professor of law, Harvard Law School
  • Discussant: Tom Ginsburg, Leo Spitz Professor of International Law and Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago Law School
12:45-2 p.m.
Lunch in Stone Dining Room

2-3 p.m.
"'Arab Spring' or 'Arab Winter'? Women's Human Rights and Law Reform in the New North Africa"

  • Karima Bennoune, professor of law, Rutgers University
  • Discussant: Deena Hurwitz , professor of law, UVA School of Law
3-4 p.m.
"Will Constitutional Theocracy Bloom After the Arab Spring?"
  • Clark Lombardi, professor of law, Washington University
  • Discussant: William B. Quandt, professor of politics, University of Virginia
4-5 p.m.
"Constitutional Borrowing and other Hazards: The Islamic Republic and Transformations in Islamic Law"
  • Miriam Kunkler, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University
  • Discussant: Kevin Cope, adjunct professor of law, American University
5 p.m.
Closing Remarks


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