Boston University School of Law
A year in Nepal: Brendan Doherty ('06) helps emerging democracy with new constitution


Nepal is home to Sagarmatha (more commonly known as Mount Everest in the West), the birthplace of Buddhism, and until recently a monarchy.

Since the 1950s, Nepal has cycled between absolute rule and democracy. This all changed in 2006 as the Maoists’ decade-long “People’s War” finally forced the government to the negotiating table. What emerged was no small change—the abolishment of a monarchy, an interim constitution, and a Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Maoists and the government. The interim constitution called for the election of a new legislature tasked with drafting the country’s permanent constitution by May 28, 2010.

In the midst of this historic process is BU Law alumnus Brendan H. Doherty (’06), who is serving as Chief of Party with the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG), an international pro bono law firm and nongovernmental organization providing legal assistance to governments in post-conflict states. His role is to provide legal and technical support to the constitutional drafting process in Nepal.

Brendan Doherty
Doherty in his office in Singha Durbar, the Nepali seat of government, where he is helping to draft their new constitution as chief of party with the Public International Law & Policy Group.

From Cape Cod to Kathmandu

A native of Chatham, Mass., Doherty never thought when he entered BU Law that a few years later he’d be halfway across the world, offering a hand in the forming of a new democracy. What he did know was that he “wanted to work at the intersection of law and policy. I wanted the analytical framework that comes with that law degree, to use it and apply it in a policy setting.”

After graduating in 2006, Doherty spent his first three years working at the U.S. Department of State. While there, heserved as special assistant to the under secretary for political affairs on issues related to the United Nations and Africa. He was a political officer in the U.S. Embassy for Addis Ababa, advising the U.S. ambassador on issues of human conflict conditions. Immediately prior to taking his position in Nepal, he served as deputy in the Office of War Crimes Issues, where he directly advised the ambassador-at-large on accountability and justice mechanisms, in-country political conditions, and bilateral and multilateral engagement strategies.

In November 2009, he took a year’s leave from the State Department to join PILPG in Nepal. Doherty describes his work as both detail-oriented and exciting. “Constitutional drafting is one of the most politically charged legal issues on the international stage,” he said. Helping a government to draft its new constitution was not a skill he expected to use when he took Professor Tracey Maclin’s constitutional law class. “What I learned in Tracey’s class I’m able to translate into very practical advice based on what our own country’s experiences were.”

Drafting a constitution

On an average day, Doherty is meeting with stakeholders in the constitutional drafting process, including assembly members, lawyers, leaders within the political parties, and representatives from domestic and international NGOs, other governments and the United Nations.

He is very careful to respect the Nepali government’s role in this process and draws upon the diplomacy skills he developed working at the State Department.

“When I sit down with these drafters to discuss issues of executive power or freedom of expression or judicial appointments, I can’t help but think: these are the framers of Nepal’s constitution. This is a rare moment for a country, and it’s fascinating to be a part of it,” said Doherty.

Doherty’s office is in the Nepali government building Singha Durbar, which literally means the “Lion’s Gate.”

“The lead-up to May 28 [the deadline for producing a constitution] was a very tense and uncertain period in Nepal,” said Doherty. The political parties kept negotiating, as many constituent assembly members and the public waited hopefully for an end to the political impasse.

“At the 11th hour the three major parties came together to extend the deadline by one year, to May 28, 2011,” he said. The extension involved an agreement over general principles and specific points, including agreement that Prime Minister Madhav Nepal would resign to make way for the new government. “It was a concession to the Maoists who are looking to return to power,” and who had earlier resigned in a dispute against the then Maoist prime minister, Doherty explained.

Some of the outstanding core constitutional issues included the type of leadership to be chosen: President? Prime Minister? Both? As an additional resource, Doherty set up a roundtable so that his director at PILPG could share his experiences when assisting in the drafting of new constitutions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq.

“We talk about whether balances in government power work in the sense of producing a stable state. We avoid normative statements as to what Nepal should do; that’s for Nepal to decide. I provide the individuals here in Nepal with a variety of services, including legal memos translated into Nepali, one-on-one discussions and bringing in outside experts to have discussions and roundtables.”

Doherty said that he is grateful for this rare opportunity and is always mindful of the challenges faced when operating in a foreign context.

“We have to be seen as providing quality advice and support. While there may be an initial barrier or hindrance in that I am not Nepali or our organization is international, at the end of the day our success will ultimately depend on the quality of our work, delivered in a timely manner.”

He added, “This is very much a Nepali process. I definitely don’t have illusions
… I’m looking to provide the type of support that the constitutional drafters might need. And in that small way, I hope to further the process.”

Editor’s note: When we interviewed Doherty, he was wrapping things up to return to the State Department in Washington, D.C. where he will serve as special assistant to the under secretary for global affairs, assigned to Africa. He said he was looking forward to seeing friends and family and, he added, “the ocean, seafood—and yogurt-covered pretzels.”

**This story was featured in the Winter 2011 alumni magazine, The Record. View full magazine here (pdf).

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