Jan. 22, 2004
Vol. 23 No. 8

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    Scholars to seek ways to foster understanding of basic rights between polarized cultures

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    Martha Nussbaum

    Cass Sunstein

    “Can people with different cultural and religious commitments agree on certain basic rights and institutions—constitutionalism, constitution-making and human rights?”

    The Center for Comparative Constitutionalism, an interdisciplinary initiative based at the University, will pose this difficult question in the uniquely polarized context of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute at a conference on constitutionalism in the Middle East.

    Experts in law, philosophy and political science, including Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, will gather for the conference Friday, Jan. 23 to Sunday, Jan. 25. Justices Albie Sachs and Z.M. Yacoob of the Constitutional Court of South Africa and Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia also will participate.

    “We want to cast fresh light on a question that has been much discussed since the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and explore central issues of constitutionalism in an area in which those issues are not frequently studied,” said Martha Nussbaum, Coordinator of the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism.

    “This conference is the first of its kind and could foster cross-cultural understanding on the nature of fundamental human rights.”

    Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law & Ethics in the Law School, Philosophy and the Divinity School. She and colleague Cass Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor in the Law School and a faculty member in Political Science and the College, organized the conference.

    “We hope to make a contribution to substantive dialogue across the current lines of conflict,” Nussbaum said. The inspiration for the conference originated when Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and Palestinian envoy in East Jerusalem, visited Chicago, said Nussbaum.

    “Nusseibeh spoke with us about the draft constitutional text then under discussion for the Palestinian authority, and we noted interesting parallels and contrasts with constitutional developments in Israel,” Nussbaum said.

    “Despite the fact that a written constitution is still in the process of formation, there has been significant judicial activity in defense of fundamental rights in recent years. The effective balance of legislative and judicial authority has been shifting.”

    Nusseibeh told Nussbaum and Sunstein that Israelis and Palestinians might find common ground on issues other than those at the center of their dispute—substantive issues such as the place of judicial review; the nature and limits of free expression; social and economic rights; discrimination on the basis of religion, ethnicity and sex; and the rule of law.

    “We want to compare constitutionalism in two complex societies with different problems, and neither of which is the usual case for studies of comparative constitutionalism,” Sunstein said.

    Nusseibeh will be a keynote speaker at the conference along with professor Gordon Wood of the department of history at Brown University. Wood is the author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution and a leading historian of the founding of the United States.

    Nussbaum and Sunstein hope the conference will help promote liberal democratic and constitutional norms and culture for the Palestinian Authority and improve and spur constitutional thinking in Israel. “And ideally,” Nussbaum said, “we will produce a declaration of shared principles, basic understandings, and areas of agreement and disagreement that can serve as the basis for more productive discussions.”

    The conference, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Law School, 1111 E. 60th St. A full conference schedule can be found at http://ccc.uchicago.edu/.