Judge John Tunheim '75 played an important role in developing the Republic of Kosovo's new constitution.
The simple eloquence of the opening of the Republic of Kosovo's new constitution moves beyond this country's recent stormy birth toward an inspiring future for its people:
"We, the people of Kosovo,
Determined to build a future of Kosovo as a free, democratic and peace-loving country that will be a homeland to all of its citizens;
Committed to the creation of a state of free citizens that will guarantee the rights of every citizen, civil freedoms and equality of all citizens before the law..."
Having a key role in the creation of this remarkable document was federal Judge John Tunheim '75, political science major, honorary degree recipient and member of the board of regents. He is a living example of Concordia's new curriculum that seeks to instill in students the ability to become responsibly engaged in the world.
Tunheim's extraordinary role in international relations helped carve an independent nation out of a war-torn region of the Balkans and, in the process, has brought peace and stability to a place once known for intense ethnic strife.
Political science professor Dr. Peter Hovde remembers Tunheim well.
"In the fall of 1971, we shared our first class together," recalls Hovde. "I was a first-year teacher and John was a freshman. From the beginning, everyone in the political science department knew he was a very promising student. There was a way about him that was so measured and calm."
Hovde believes an influential time for Tunheim was his participation in the Washington Semester, where he worked in Hubert Humphrey's Senate office.
"From that point on, his sense of civic duty was readily apparent," says Hovde. "Now, of course, that has carried over internationally."
At the request of the State Department, Tunheim first went to Kosovo in January 2000 to help develop an independent judiciary and establish the rule of law in a region under United Nations supervision and protected by NATO troops following Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's attempts at ethnic cleansing.
Kosovo is a small, landlocked region of the former Yugoslavia in the southern Balkan Peninsula that for centuries was assumed by Serbs to be a province of Serbia. Yet its population of two million is composed of nearly 90 percent ethnic Albanians and only 5 percent Serbian.
Tunheim was the first American judge to arrive there after the end of the NATO bombing in 1999. He found unheated courtrooms with no electricity, judges with no real power still operating under the old Yugoslav system, and courts facing insurmountable barriers to trying war crimes, particularly involving Serb defendants. Intimidation and corruption were rampant, and the tribal nature of families also made it impossible for judges to be impartial – if a judge were to put aside his bias, he would be seen as disloyal to his ethnic group.
"It was hard to find what laws there were at the time," says Tunheim. "It's a remarkable experience to start developing the rule of law. I told the judges, 'Apply what you know, be fair, seek justice and use your best instincts.'"
Gradually, Tunheim and other judges he brought with him from Minnesota demonstrated how the justice system works, and Kosovo society began to put itself back together after the violence stopped.
In 2007, the Kosovars were openly talking about independence and what form of government they might want, and Tunheim was asked by the American Chief of Mission to help the process along.
"The intent was to be as responsive as possible to multi ethnic sensibilities," he says. "I felt a constitution that would establish the structures of new government needed to be based on the principles of liberty, how much power to delegate, and so on."
Tunheim became a mediator between government officials and opposition leaders.
"It was like settling a case," he says. "First you identify key areas where compromise is possible and areas where it isn't; then you agree on how to elect a president or how to set up a security apparatus – those were the kinds of issues that were in play."
Eventually a power-sharing agreement was established, setting up a European-style parliamentary system, where the people elect a prime minister as head of the government.
"We settled on a democracy with significant American-style checks and balances, so power would not be concentrated," says Tunheim.
With that, writing of the constitution began in earnest, with committees drafting portions related to issues like rights and liberties, economic structures and security systems. By the fall of 2007, Tunheim was quietly helping revise the drafts. The document needed to be completed before independence was declared, and Serbia was suspicious.
"The process was kept somewhat under wraps," says Tunheim. "Serbia wanted to know why U.S. officials were writing a constitution for a part of 'their' territory."
On the afternoon of Feb. 18, 2008, Kosovo declared its independence and was immediately recognized by Great Britain, Germany and France, then the United States. The action caused rioting in Serbia and condemnation by Russia. The draft of the constitution was quickly posted on the Web, followed by six weeks of gathering additional ideas from the populace.
"Finally, in April 2008, I was in Kosovo for the last time on the constitution project, sitting with the American ambassador as the constitution was signed," says Tunheim. "That was a very fulfilling experience for me."
The national assembly quickly ratified its new constitution on June 15, 2008, the constitution became effective as Kosovo became and independent country after nine years of U.N. administration.
"Creating a country, writing a constitution and making it work, especially in this part of the world under conditions of constant suspicion, is a real challenge," says Tunheim. "But I have great hope for the future of Kosovo. There are many economic uncertainties there, but Kosovo's leaders are wonderful people who are thoroughly committed to the rule of law and justice."
Tunheim's work abroad continues today. He is now helping the citizens of Uzbekistan understand new changes in their laws that give courts more authority over the criminal pretrial process.
Story originally published in the Winter 2009 Concordia Magazine