Amid challenges to the prevailing international order from the likes of Russia and China, this year’s Tang Prize in Rule of Law winner Cheryl Saunders said that effective cross-disciplinary collaboration and well-crafted state and sub-state institutions would be vital going forward.
“We really need to think very hard about the institutions we’re using, and try and shape them for the demands of the 21st century,” Saunders said in a recent interview in Australia.
“It’s quite clear that as the world goes forward, we’re going to need to collaborate effectively on all sorts of things,” said Saunders, a laureate professor emeritus at the University of Melbourne and constitutional law expert.
The world has been roiled by the COVID-19 pandemic and the conflict in Ukraine, both of which, alongside other challenges, have led to deep concerns about the future of democracy, the Australian law professor said.
“It’s clear that nothing’s going to actually happen unless it’s done within the states, by governments within states, and at the sub-state level... And that is going to require collaboration across these disciplinary or sub-disciplinary boundaries,” Saunders said.
Many of the institutions that are still in use today were devised for a 19th-century conception of the world, she said.
There is a need to “modernize our systems for the circumstance of the 21st century,” Saunders said, adding that input from young people would be crucial.
“Democracies can learn a lot from each other ... and then it’s not going to get rid of the Soviet Unions or the People’s Republic of Chinas of its world, but it will undoubtedly be a genuinely competitive force,” she added.
Saunders has won the Tang Prize in Rule of Law for her “pioneering contributions to comparative public law, in particular, her work on constitution-building in the Asia-Pacific region,” the Tang Prize Foundation said yesterday.
The Asia-Pacific region is characterized by its ethnic diversity, large population, and complex historical, cultural, and political systems, Chang Wen-chen (張文貞), a professor at National Taiwan University’s College of Law, said in announcing the winner at an event in Taipei.
“Professor Saunders was really one of the very first scholars to be engaged in all these difficult challenges with her leadership [and] with the organizations she led,” Chang said.
Saunders, born in 1944 in Quetta, British India, said she had always been interested in history and politics, which led to her eventually delving into constitutional studies while reading law at the University of Melbourne.
Saunders began her academic career in Australian constitutional law, but later expanded her expertise to comparative constitutional law. Over the past four decades, she has taught at her alma mater, the University of Melbourne, but has also held several visiting positions at universities across the globe, including the University of Cambridge.
Her contributions to law and public administration have been recognized by such awards as the Officer of the Order of Australia in 1994 and the Centenary Medal in 2003.
Beginning in the 1990s, Saunders has had some involvement in aspects of constitutional design in countries such as South Africa, Fiji, Zimbabwe, East Timor, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Iraq.
However, Saunders said she would not overstate her role in the design of constitutional arrangements of these countries, as such work required collective effort, especially the input of local knowledge.
“You do need to work with the people in the country concerned ... [You] do not go in with the program and say now I’m going to tell them about decentralization or organizing executive power. What do they really need to know? What do they really want to know and why?” she said.
The most difficult part of her work was understanding local needs, as well as unique historical, political and cultural conditions, and responding accordingly, she said.
As an example of such diversity, Saunders noted the contrast between Taiwan’s gradual reformation of a decades-long one-party authoritarian system in the late 1980s, and rapid “Big Bang” moment-type transitions that took place in countries such as the US and France.
Another challenge for comparative constitutional legal scholars is “to recognize what a big place the world is from the standpoint of comparative constitutional law,” Saunders said.
Much of the scholarship in the field was concentrated on a relatively small number of countries, Saunders said, recalling encountering from time to time a comparative work in which the discussion of all the Asian countries was subsumed into just one category.
“They ought to really expand their horizons,” and try and think about the complexity of a world in which there are at least 200 states, Saunders said.
Despite challenges, Saunders said she found her work in constitutional design “terribly satisfying and very interesting.”
“It’s very fulfilling in working on those sorts of issues... It’s a field that you can never entirely conquer,” she said.
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