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Donia Human Rights Center Lecture: Just Words? Evaluating the Impact of Constitutional Rights

Mila Versteeg, Professor of Law and Director, Human Rights Program, University of Virginia School of Law
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
3:00-4:30 PM
1636 School of Social Work Building Map
Policy-makers, political theorists, and lawyers have long viewed constitutional rights as important safeguards against abuses of government authority. Given the importance of constitutional rights in curbing power, it is probably no surprise that substantial time and resources are devoted to drafting bills of rights. Indeed, the past several decades have seen a sweeping expansion of constitutional rights protections; between World War II and today, the average number of rights in national constitutions more than doubled.

Their importance notwithstanding, we know remarkably little about whether constitutional rights actually make a difference. As numerous countries­––ranging from South Sudan to Myanmar to Iceland––are debating new bills of rights, neither policy-makers nor academics know much about which rights actually make a difference and under what conditions they are most effective. For example, when a constitution enshrines a prohibition on torture, do governments actually torture less? Or when a constitution promises a right to health care, does that increase government spending on health care? Perhaps more importantly, under what circumstances do constitutional rights make a difference, and when do they fail? Are some rights more effective than others?

The question whether constitutional rights matter is the topic of my book manuscript in progress. It presents findings from quantitative analysis of the impact of 10 different constitutional rights provisions in 188 countries over a 30 year period. One of the main findings is that rights that are practiced within organizations, such as the right to unionize or the right to form political parties, are particularly effective in constraining power. The distinctive feature of such “organizational rights” is that they do not merely represent a substantive policy preference for a particular right, but also aid the establishment of organizations that have the incentives to safeguard the right as well as the means to act strategically to protect it from government repression. For example, the right to unionize is practiced within trade unions. If the government were to encroach on this right, unions could mobilize their constituents to take the streets, lobby the political opposition, or bring their case to court. Other examples include the right to form political parties, with is organized by political parties, and the freedom of religion, which tends to be practiced within churches, mosques, synagogues, and other religious organizations. By contrast, individual rights, such as the freedom of speech or the prohibition of torture, do not appear to constrain government behavior. To further unpack these findings, the book manuscript will also present case studies and results from survey experiments.

Mila Versteeg joined the Law School in 2011. Her research and teaching interests include comparative constitutional law, public international law and empirical legal studies. Most of her research deals with the origins, evolution and effectiveness of provisions in the world’s constitutions. Her publications have, amongst others, appeared in the California Law Review, the New York University Law Review, the University of Chicago Law Review, the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Legal Studies, the American Journal of International Law, and the Journal of Law, Economics and Organizations. A number of her works have been translated into Chinese, Portuguese and Turkish.

Versteeg earned her B.A. in public administration and first law degree from Tilburg University in the Netherlands in 2006. She earned her LL.M. from Harvard Law School in 2007 and a D.Phil. in socio-legal studies in 2011 from Oxford University, where she was a Gregory Kulkes Scholar at Balliol College and recipient of an Arts and the Humanities Research Council Award.

Prior to joining the Law School, Versteeg was an Olin Fellow and lecturer in law at the University of Chicago Law School. Versteeg previously worked at the U.N. Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute in Turin and at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre in Johannesburg. While at UVA, Versteeg has been a visiting associate professor at the University of Chicago Law School (fall 2013) and Columbia Law School (spring 2016), and a visiting professor at the law schools of Hebrew University, the University of Hamburg (summer 2015) and Tel Aviv University (spring 2017, upcoming).
Building: School of Social Work Building
Event Type: Lecture / Discussion
Tags: Human Rights, International, Law, Lecture
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Donia Human Rights Center, International Institute