29 July 2012: Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture

On July 29, 2012, Cecelia Goetz Professor of Law Sujit Choudhry, Faculty Director of Constitutional Transitions, delivered the Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam was a prominent Sri Lankan constitutional scholar, legislator and peacemaker who was assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 1999. Dr. Tiruchelvam was also the founder and Director of the International Center for Ethnic Studies and the Law & Society Trust. The Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture is delivered annually. Past lecturers have included former Australian Foreign Minister and former President of International Crisis Group Gareth Evans; Indian historian Ramachandra Guha; and Indian constitutional scholar Upendra Baxi.

Professor Choudhry’s lecture, “Constitutional Design in Plural Societies: Integration or Accommodation” addressed the question of how constitutional design should be framed in societies where ethnic identities are persistent markers of political identity. There are two major conceptual frameworks for constitutional design in plural societies, integration and accommodation. The debate between these models has become as polarized as ethnic conflict itself. Professor Choudhry set out what those two models mean in practice for constitutional design.

He argued in his lecture that it was time to move beyond the sharp dichotomy between the two frameworks. First, rather than conceptualizing the choice between integration or accommodation as an all or nothing decision that is made at a single moment for all time, it may be better to understand these models as appropriate for different stages of a constitutional transition. Second, proponents of integration and accommodation suggest that each amounts to a comprehensive and mutually exclusive constitutional strategy, when in fact many actual constitutions are hybrids that combine integrationist and accommodationist elements. Third, integration and accommodation have a common enemy: democratic authoritarianism, against which proponents of integration and accommodation should make a common front by finding points of strategic overlap, such as federalism.

Professor Choudhry also spoke at a number of related events during his visit to Sri Lanka. The High Commission of Canada in Sri Lanka organized a closed door luncheon for Professor Choudhry and Sri Lankan parliamentarians to discuss the prospects for political reform. Professor Choudhry also led a workshop at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies on constitutional design in plural societies, along with Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

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