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From South Africa to Sri Lanka: Prospects of Travel for ‘Transformative Constitutionalism’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 May 2020

University of Melbourne, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka
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What lessons can we learn from the way in which the South African experience of transformative constitutionalism was invoked in Sri Lanka's recent constitutional reform experience? What conditions allow experiences of transformative constitutionalism to travel? In this article, I respond to these two questions, using Frankenberg's idea of a ‘layered approach’ in comparative constitutional law. My analysis affirms that in the comparative enterprise, a thick explanation that allows each experience to ‘speak for itself’ heightens the value of a comparative example. In the case of South Africa, I demonstrate that transformative constitutionalism is in fact a specific genre of constitutionalism. It demands attention not only to substantive constitutional guarantees and institutional design, but also to the process of constitutional reform. Moreover, effective measures for transitional justice are an essential component of transformative constitutionalism. A closer reading of the South African experience that paid attention to these factors would have led to better use of this experience in Sri Lanka's post-war constitutional governance.

Copyright © National University of Singapore, 2020

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LLB (Hons)(Colombo), LLM (Harvard), PhD (Colombo), Attorney-at-Law (Sri Lanka). Postdoctoral Fellow, ARC Laureate Program in Comparative Constitutional Law, Melbourne Law School; concurrently Senior Lecturer, Department of Public & International Law, Faculty of Law, University of Colombo. A draft of this paper was presented at the ‘Public Law in Four Nations’ conference convened by the Faculty of Law, University of Witwatersrand, South Africa on 2–5 July 2019. I thank Toerien Van Wyk, PhD candidate, Melbourne Law School, for her comments on this paper, and the Academic Research Service at the Melbourne Law School for their research support. Research for this paper was undertaken from April 2019 to August 2019 and was fully funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Program ‘Balancing Diversity and Social Cohesion in Democratic Constitutions’.


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3. Jackson (n 1) 54.

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5. ibid 9.

6. ibid 7.

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8. Tushnet (n 2) 68.

9. ibid.

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13. ibid 443–451.

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17. ibid.

18. ibid. Compare the South African approach to transformative constitutionalism with that of understandings of transformative constitutionalism as developed in Latin America. See eg Von Bogdandy, Armin et al. (eds), Transformative Constitutionalism in Latin America: The Emergence of a New Ius Commune (Oxford University Press 2017)Google Scholar.

19. Klare (n 16) 155.

20. ibid.

21. ibid 151.

22. ibid 156.

23. ibid 188.

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27. That is to say, the constitutional obligation to enforce a positive right.

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30. ibid.

31. ibid 106. For a similar critique see Venter, Francois, ‘The Limits of Transformation in South Africa's Constitutional Democracy’ (2018) 34 South African Journal on Human Rights 143CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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33. For a critique of the South African constitutional project, see Roux, Theunis, ‘Transformative Constitutionalism and the Best Interpretation of the South African Constitution: Distinction without a Difference?’ (2009) 20 Stellenbosch Law Review 258Google Scholar.

34. Sibanda, Sanele, ‘Not Purpose-Made! Transformative Constitutionalism, Post-Independence Constitutionalism and the Struggle to Eradicate Poverty’ (2011) 22 Stellenbosch Law Review 482Google Scholar. See also Rapatsa, Mashele, ‘Re-thinking the Constitution's Rights-based Approaches and Klare's Social Change Phenomenon: A View towards Securing Human Well-being and Societal Stability’ (2017) 13 Acta Universitatis Danubius Juridica 65Google Scholar.

35. See Ramose, Mogobe Bernard, ‘Towards a Post-Conquest South Africa: Beyond the Constitution of 1996’ (2018) 34 South African Journal on Human Rights 326CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Davis, DM, ‘Is the South African Constitution an Obstacle to a Democratic Post-Colonial State?’ (2018) 34 South African Journal on Human Rights 359CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36. For an account of the internal armed conflict in Sri Lanka from a constitutional perspective, see Chandrasekaram, Visakesa, The Use of Confessionary Evidence under the Counter-Terrorism Laws of Sri Lanka: An Interdisciplinary Study (Amsterdam University Press 2017) 1731Google Scholar; Welikala, Asanga, A State of Permanent Crisis: Constitutional Government, Fundamental Rights, and States of Emergency in Sri Lanka (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2008)Google Scholar.

37. For a critical examination of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (the 1978 Constitution), see Edrisinha, Rohan & Jayakody, Aruni (eds), The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution: Substance and Process (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2011)Google Scholar.

38. Seventeenth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, art 41A. Individuals from civil society were appointed as follows: one appointed by the President, five nominated by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and appointed by the President, and one nominated by political parties other than the parties that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition belong to.

39. The independent commissions are the Elections Commission, the Public Service Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, the Finance Commission, and the Delimitation Commission: Seventeenth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, Schedule to art 41B. The high offices are those of the Chief Justice and the judges of the Supreme Court, the President and the judges of the Court of Appeal, members of the Judicial Service Commission, the Attorney-General, the Auditor-General, the Inspector-General of Police, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, and the Secretary-General of Parliament: Seventeenth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, Schedule to art 41C.

40. Eighteenth Amendment to the 1978 Constitution, art 411A(1).

41. In re the Eighteenth Amendment Bill SC (SD) No 01/2010, SC Minutes 31 August 2010.

42. For a critical account of the Executive Presidency under the Sri Lankan Constitution, see Welikala, Asanga (ed), Reforming Sri Lankan Presidentialism: Provenance, Problems and Prospects (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2015)Google Scholar.

43. For an examination of the political and constitutional issues related to the impeachment of the Chief Justice, see International Bar Association, ‘A Crisis of Legitimacy: The Impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake and the Erosion of the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka’ (Human Rights Institute, Executive Summary, April 2013) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

44. The 1978 Constitution, art 107(3) provides that Parliament ‘shall by law or by Standing Orders’ provide for all matters relating to the impeachment of judges of the appellate courts. The procedure in place for impeachment has been established by way of a Standing Order. It provides that a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) should investigate and determine the allegations made against the judge in question. In the case of Chief Justice Bandaranayake, the government of the day followed this procedure; however, the Chief Justice was not afforded the guarantees of natural justice during the hearings before the PSC.

45. For instance, it was described as a ‘threat to the independence of the justice system’ by Gabriela Knaul, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. See ‘UN independent expert concerned over reports of intimidation of judges in Sri Lanka’ (UN News, 31 December 2012) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

46. See 11th special session of the Human Rights Council A/HRC/S-11/2(26 June 2009); Resolution 19/2 Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka A/HRC/RES/19/2 (3 April 2012); Resolution 22/1 Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka A/HRC/22/1 (9 April 2013); Resolution 25/1 Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka A/HRC/RES/25/1 (9 April 2014); 30/1 Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka A/HRC/RES/30/1 (14 October 2015).

47. The reports commissioned by the Secretary-General are the Report of the Secretary-General's Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (31 March 2011) and the Report of the Secretary-General's Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka (November 2012). The relevant reports by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) are: A/HRC/22/38 (11 February 2013); A/HRC/25/23 (24 February 2014); A/HRC/30/61 (28 September 2015); A/HRC/34/20 (10 February 2017); and A/HRC/37/23 (25 January 2018).

48. The Commission found that human rights violations such as enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings were the acts of individual members of the armed forces and not in furtherance of a policy. See Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (November 2011), para 4.282 ff <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

49. For a critical discussion on the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation, see Hoglund, Kristine & Orjuela, Camilla, ‘Friction over justice in post-war Sri Lanka’, in Björkdahl, Annika et al. (eds), Peacebuilding and Friction: Global and Local Encounters in Post Conflict-Societies (Routledge 2016) 128 ffGoogle Scholar; Thiranagama, Sharika, ‘Claiming the State: Postwar Reconciliation in Sri Lanka’ (2013) 4 Humanity 93, 98 ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar. The recommendations of the Commission included resettlement of internally displaced persons and accountability for enforced disappearances.

50. See ‘Working Visit by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, appointed as Special Envoy of President Jacob Zuma to Sri Lanka, arrived on 7 July 2014’ (South African High Commission, Colombo, Sri Lanka) < > accessed 31 Mar 2020.

51. For a discussion of these developments see Bhavani Fonseka et al, ‘Two Years in Government: A Review of the Pledges Made in 2015 through the lens of Constitutional Reform, Governance and Transitional Justice’ (Centre for Policy Alternatives, February 2017) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

52. Notable among these reforms are the Right to Information Act (Act No 12 of 2016), the Office of the Missing Persons Act (Act No 14 of 2016), and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance Act (Act No 5 of 2018).

53. For an analysis of the Nineteenth Amendment, see Welikala, Asanga (eds), The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution: Content and Context (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2016)Google Scholar.

54. Resolution adopted 9 March 2016 by the Eighth Parliament of Sri Lanka, as recorded in 2(243) Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) 212 ff.

55. Six sub-committees were appointed by the Constitutional Assembly on the following themes: fundamental rights, the judiciary, law and order, public finance, public service, and centre-periphery relations.

56. This Committee was appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers on 22 December 2015.

57. The 1978 Constitution, art 82.

58. ibid.

59. The report was submitted by 10 May 2016.

60. Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly of Sri Lanka (21 September 2017) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

61. Subsequent to the Nineteenth Amendment, the President's power to dissolve Parliament could be exercised only after 4.5 years of the term of Parliament had elapsed: 1978 Constitution, art 70(1). This effectively meant that the President had no power to dissolve Parliament until March 2020. See Sampanthan v Attorney General SC (FR) 351–356, 358–361 of 2018, SC Minutes, 13 December 2018.

62. On 21 April 2019, six suicide bombers set off bombs in three churches and three hotels in Sri Lanka, leading to over 250 deaths.

63. The new President (the defence secretary up to 2014 and a brother of former President Mahinda Rajapakse) was nominated by a new party, the Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna [Sri Lanka People's Front] (SLPP). This party was formed during the constitutional crisis. Soon after the election of the new President, the Prime Minister resigned, and the former President Mahinda Rajapakse was appointed as the new Prime Minister.

64. Nine provincial councils were established through the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This Amendment was enacted pursuant to the Indo-Lanka Accord signed between India and Sri Lanka, in which the Sri Lankan Government committed to constitutional reform for the devolution of power. The devolution of power was for the purpose of providing a political solution to the separatist demands by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). However, the Thirteenth Amendment has been criticised for failing to provide an effective solution to the ethnic conflict. See in this regard Rohan Edrisinha, ‘Debating Federalism in Sri Lanka and Nepal’, and Welikala, Asanga, ‘Constitutional Form and Reform in Postwar Sri Lanka: Towards a Plurinational Understanding’, both in Tushnet, Mark & Khosla, Madhav (eds), Unstable Constitutionalism: Law and Politics in South Asia (Cambridge University Press 2015) 291, 320Google Scholar.

65. Jayadeva Uyangoda, ‘Sri Lanka's Presidential Election: Healing the Wounds in the New Task’ (Groundviews, 19 November 2019) <> accessed 2 Mar 2020. On 21 April, five suicide bomb attacks were carried out in Colombo and one in Batticaloa resulting in more than 250 deaths. A local organization inspired by the Islamic State has been alleged to be responsible for the attacks, and investigations are ongoing.

66. See eg Höglund, Kristine & Orjuela, Camilla, ‘Friction and the pursuit of justice in post-war Sri Lanka’ (2013) 1 Peacebuilding 300CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Seoighe, Rachel, ‘Discourses of Victimization in Sri Lanka's Civil War: Collective Memory, Legitimacy and Agency’ (2016) 25 Social and Legal Studies 355CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67. Report on the Second Mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances (the Paranagama Commission) (August 2015), 144 <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

68. Final Report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, vol 1 (17 November 2016), vii <> accessed 31 Mar 2020. The Task Force was appointed in January 2016.

69. Report on Public Representations on Constitutional Reform (May 2016), 28 (referring to the South African Constitution, art 2) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

70. ibid 151 (referring to the South African Constitution, art 178(1)).

71. Final Report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (n 68) 114.

72. ibid.

73. ibid 161.

74. ibid 337.

75. See Report on the Second Mandate of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (n 67). This Commission was initially appointed in August 2013 and its mandate was extended in July 2014.

76. See Interim Constitution of South Africa Act 200 of 1993 (as amended by Act No 2 of 1994 and Act No 3 of 1994), sch 4.

77. For a critical assessment of the public participation process in the South African constitution-making process, see Synnove Skjelten, A People's Constitution: Public Participation in the South African Constitution-making Process (Institute for Global Dialogue 2006).

78. ibid 140.

79. See eg Bennun, Mervyn & Newitt, Malyn DD (eds), Negotiating Justice: A New Constitution for South Africa (University of Exeter Press 1995)Google Scholar.

80. See eg Orkin, Mark (ed), Sanctions Against Apartheid (Community Agency for Social Inquiry 1989)Google Scholar.

81. Constitutional Assembly, ‘Community Liaison Report’ (Management Committee Document, June 1995), cited in Skjelten (n 77) 14.

82. See eg Welikala, Asanga, ‘The Sri Lankan Culture of Constitutional Law and Politics: The Lessons of the Constitutional Reform Exercise 2014-19 and the Constitutional Crisis of 2018’, in Welikala, Asanga (ed), Constitutional Reform and Crisis in Sri Lanka (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2019) 263Google Scholar.

83. For a critical discussion see David, Kumar, ‘Revisiting the Single-Issue Common-Candidate Strategy: Successes and Failures’, in Welikala, Asanga (ed), Constitutional Reform and Crisis in Sri Lanka (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2019) 89.Google Scholar

84. For an assessment of the political context at the time, see Fonseka et al (n 51) 5; Neil Devotta, ‘A Win for Democracy in Sri Lanka’ (2016) 27 Journal of Democracy 152; Thiranagama (n 49).

85. The two Members of Parliament (MPs) who led the process for constitutional reform were Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne PC and MA Sumanthiran PC. MP Wickramaratne was nominated to Parliament by the United National Party (UNP) through the National List. MP Sumanthiran represents the Tamil National Alliance and was elected from Jaffna, the urban centre of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Both MPs are senior lawyers who entered the arena of representative politics in the last decade.

86. For an assessment of public perception, among others, of constitutional reform, see ‘Opinion Poll on Constitutional Reform: Top Line Report’ (Social Indicator, Centre for Policy Alternatives, March 2017) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

87. See eg Jayawardena, Kumari, ‘Aspects of Class and Ethnic Consciousness in Sri Lanka’ (1983) 14 Development and Change 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar; DeVotta, Neil, ‘From Ethnic Outbidding to Ethnic Conflict: The Institutional Bases for Sri Lanka's Separatist War’ (2005) 11 Nations and Nationalism 141CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88. See eg Gravers, Mikael, ‘Anti-Muslim Buddhist Nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka: Religious Violence and Globalized Imaginaries of Endangered Identities’ (2015) 16 Contemporary Buddhism 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

89. See eg Stewart, James John, ‘Muslim-Buddhist Conflict in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ (2014) 34 South Asia Research 241CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

90. Examples include the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi [Lanka Tamil State Party, commonly known in English as the Federal Party], the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, and the Jathika Hela Urumaya [National Sinhala Heritage Party].

91. For a helpful analysis, see Rambukwella, Harshana, The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity (UCL Press 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

92. For a discussion see Jeganathan, Pradeep & Ismail, Qadri (eds), Unmaking the Nation: The Politics of Identity & History in Modern Sri Lanka (Social Scientists’ Association 1995)Google Scholar.

93. The two exceptions are the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the Afrikaner People's Front. See Sparks, Allister, Tomorrow is Another Country: The Inside Story of South Africa's Negotiated Revolution (Mandarin 1995) 230Google Scholar.

94. ibid.

95. Resolution 30/1 ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ A/HRC/RES/30/1 (1 October 2015).

96. See eg WA De Silva, ‘Why Constitutional reform is a threat’ Daily Mirror (6 January 2018) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020; Asoka Bandarage, ‘Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and Constitutional Reform in Sri Lanka’ Daily Mirror (9 October 2017) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

97. For an account of the constitution-making process in South Africa, see Ebrahim, Hassen, The Soul of a Nation: Constitution-making in South Africa (Oxford University Press 1998)Google Scholar; Segal, Lauren & Cott, Sharon, One Law, One Nation: The Making of the South African Constitution (Jacana Media 2012)Google Scholar.

98. Sparks (n 93) 133.

99. ibid.

100. See eg ibid 137 ff; Bennun & Newitt (n 79).

101. Murray, Christina, ‘A Constitutional Beginning: Making South Africa's Final Constitution’ (2001) 23 University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review 809, 816Google Scholar; Ebrahim, Hassen & Miller, Laurel E, ‘Creating the Birth Certificate of a New South Africa: Constitution Making after Apartheid’, in Ebrahim, Hassen & Miller, Laurel E (eds), Framing the State in Times of Transition: Case Studies in Constitution Making (United States Institute of Peace Press 2010) 134Google Scholar.

102. Skjelten (n 77) 86–87.

103. ibid 76. On constitutional public meetings, see ibid 56 ff.

104. ibid 104 ff. The sectors were: judiciary and legal systems, business, children's rights, traditional authorities, religious groups, youth, labour, women, national machinery and the advancement of women, local government, socio-economic rights, and land rights.

105. Ebrahim & Miller (n 101).

106. ibid 148.

107. ibid 138.

108. ibid 159. See also generally South Africa History Online, ‘Chapter 13 – The public participation process’ (1 September 2019) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

109. Ebrahim & Miller (n 101) 111.

110. For a discussion of this initiative, see ibid 91 ff.

111. ibid 93.

112. Gloppen, Siri, South Africa: The Battle over the Constitution (Ashgate 1997)Google Scholar.

113. See eg Alexander Edward Hudson, The Impact of Public Participation in Constitution Making (PhD dissertation, University of Texas at Austin 2018) 46 ff.

114. The themes were: nature of the state, form of government, basic structure of the constitution, fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy, legislature, supremacy of constitution or parliament, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and the court structure, constitutional court, devolution and local government, sharing of power at the centre, constitutional council and independent commissions, public service, electoral reforms, judicial review of legislation, powers of president under parliamentary system, election of president under parliamentary system, public security, finance, and any other issues. See Report on Public Representations on Constitutional Reform (n 69) 211.

115. Report on Public Representations on Constitutional Reform (n 69) iii.

116. ibid vii.

117. For a detailed analysis of these proposals, see Mario Gomez et al, ‘Constitutionalising Economic and Social Rights in Sri Lanka’ (CPA Working Papers on Constitutional Reform No 7, September 2016) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020; Tom G Daly, ‘A Constitutional Court for Sri Lanka? Perceptions, Potential and Pitfalls’ (CPA Working Papers on Constitutional Reform No 15, April 2017) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

118. See eg ‘Introduction’, in Report of the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights (Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly of Sri Lanka, November 2016) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

119. See in this regard CA Chandraprema, ‘Radical changes in the Judiciary: New draft constitution – part 4’ The Island (7 August 2018) <> accessed 31 Mar 2020.

120. Discussions at the public meeting organized by the Sri Lanka Bar Association on ‘The Report of the Sub-Committee of the Constitutional assembly on Fundamental Rights – perspectives on the inclusion of Socio-Economic Rights in the new constitution’, 10 January 2017.

121. Report of the Public Representations Committee (n 69) 100 ff.

122. See eg the Constitution of Nepal 2015 and the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

123. 1978 Constitution, art 9.

124. ibid art 16.

125. See Interim Report of the Steering Committee (n 60), Part IV.

126. See generally ibid.

127. See eg Pierre Legrand, ‘The Impossibility of Legal Transplants’ (1997) 4 Maastricht Journal of European and Comparative Law 111.

128. ‘We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world’: President Nelson Mandela at his inauguration speech, as cited in Sparks (n 93) 229.

129. Klare (n 16) 150.

130. See in this regard Huntington, Samuel P, ‘Democracy's Third Wave’ (1991) 2 Journal of Democracy 12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

131. See eg Moffitt, Benjamin, The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation (Stanford University Press 2016)Google Scholar.

132. See Gunter Frankenberg, ‘Critical Comparisons: Re-thinking Comparative Law’ (n 14).