Rule of Law Reform and States of Emergency

An Overview of Current States of Emergency

States of Emergencies (SoEs) are constitutional (or equivalent) mechanisms invoked by governments during large scale crises that undermine social and political order. This paper examines SoEs under international law. It provides an overview of how States are applying SoEs in response to COVID-19, and highlights risks and longer term impact on Rule of Law, stability and good governance. It concludes with recommended actions donors can take “now” to help ensure Security Sector Governance reforms remain relevant and provide solutions to current challenges. 

State of Emergency measures have been a critical part of the global response to COVID-19, allowing for the suspension of normal constitutional procedures for the government to regain control over the emergency. SoEs measures affect the relationship between the branches of government, state security and justice institutions and the community. Any misapplication of SoEs can severely weaken the social contract in place, specifically the state justice and security institutions, with the effect of making it harder to combat the original emergency, but also triggering entirely new threats and risks. Currently, over 106 countries have declared SoEs, with security institutions directly intruding into personal lives and enforcing confinement measures. Parliaments, the judiciary, non-state organisations and citizens have a collective responsibility towards future generations to safeguard the Rule of law, human rights standards and basic liberties.

The goals of good, democratic SSG/R are efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of security institutions. These values are more essential than ever during a health emergency, when swift and concerted action is necessary to protect human life on a large scale. The security sector has a key role to play in mitigating the devastating human costs of infectious outbreaks, but it can only succeed if its personnel are trusted and respected by the public, recognized by other actors responding to health emergencies, and held accountable to democratic oversight mechanisms. Failure to do so exacerbates the risks of a public health mission. Therefore, a direct link exists between good security sector governance, security sector reform and development, and the ability of security sector actors to effectively contribute to combatting an outbreak.

States have a wide margin to assess when a situation constitutes an emergency, if the basic parameters of proportionalitylimited durationparliamentary control and judicial oversight are met. Some guidance is provided by the European Convention of Human Rights (RCHR), which was signed by all of the Member States of the European Council, in addition to the UK. The ECHR defines a “public emergency threatening the life of the nation” as “an exceptional situation or crisis of emergency which affects the whole population and constitutes a threat to the organised life of the community of which the state is composed.”

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Do not forget to check out our related Thematic in Practice Pages: 
States of Emergency and Disaster Responses to Covid-19 in Practice: Emerging Trends for SSG/R
Security and Justice Reform Response to Covid-19 Crisis and
Disaster Risk Reduction, Preparedness and Relief & the Security Sector