The Exception as Rule: Protracted States of Emergency

State of Emergency, photo: Cold Storage/flickr

Declaring a state of emergency opens the door to an exceptional world, one in which government power is temporarily prioritized over individual rights. Unfortunately, many countries (see examples below) have made the exception a permanent rule.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) recognizes each state’s right to declare a state of emergency in times of public crisis that pose a direct threat to the nation. This allows the state to derogate from certain human rights obligations under the Covenant. Declaring a state of emergency grants governments exceptional powers, thus allowing them to curtail certain individual rights.

Although certain rights are non-derogable even at a time of national emergency – among others, the right to life, prohibition of torture, freedom from slavery, the right to recognition before the law – governments can limit the freedom of the press, deploy armed forces domestically, search homes without a warrant, confiscate private property, and arrest without charges.

In order to avoid governmental abuse, the ICCPR makes clear a state of emergency must be guided by certain principles. First, the crisis at hand must be of present and real danger to the state’s political or territorial existence. Second, it must be temporary, meaning that states can only declare a state of emergency for as long as the crisis is still present. And third, the state of emergency must be clearly declared and communicated both to the domestic population and to the international community.

Bolivar’s Exhumation: Chavez’s Orwellian Cult of (His Own) Personality

President Hugo Chavez speaks in front of a portrait of Simon Bolivar, photo: Sheila Steele/flickr

Hugo Chavez’s latest bout of political theater reeks of George Orwell. In his dystopian novel, 1984, Orwell shrewdly points out that “those who control the present, control the past, and those who control the past, control the future,” an assertion Chavez seems to have taken to heart. The Venezuelan president’s recent decision to exhume the body of legendary hero and national founder, Simon Bolivar, has sparked an onslaught of international criticism about the president’s persistent eccentricities and obsession with the national figure. According to Chavez, a self-professed admirer, follower and disciple of Bolivar, the exhumation seeks to allow forensic scientists to discover the real cause of Bolivar’s death; Chavez believes Bolivar was possibly poisoned by Colombian traitors. The aberrant decision has reinforced perceptions that Chavez is a mad man who is losing his grip of reality; but how crazy is he really?

The search for possible reasons behind the exhumation has yielded a plethora of theories.  Some say Chavez wishes to divert attention from domestic problems such as the economy’s unrelenting recession or a recent scandal over imported food left rotting in the country’s ports. Others claim that, if he can prove that Bolivar was indeed poisoned by Colombian traitors, Chavez would use such evidence to support his contentious relationship with the current Colombian government. Yet others believe that Chavez seeks to use Bolivar’s body as a political gimmick to rile up support for his Bolivarian movement ahead of crucial parliamentary votes in September. Regardless of which theory turns out to be right, one thing is clear: Chavez wants to use Bolivar’s symbolic power to pursue his own ends, whatever they may turn out to be.

The Usual Suspects: Abstaining the Water Vote

Clean public drinking water in the Democratic Republic of Congo, photo: Julien Harneis/flickr

The usual suspects never fail to disappoint. With 122 countries voting in favor and 41 abstaining, the UN General Assembly has recently declared clean water and sanitation as a fundamental human right, a move hailed by water rights activists as a “big step in the right direction.” Although passing with an overwhelming majority, the vote’s abstentions are disconcerting, although, considering the culprits, not surprising.

The usual suspects—United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Israel—attempted to justify their abstentions through unconvincing procedural language. Substantively, they argued that declaring water as a human right has no sufficient legal basis in customary international law. Isn’t that the exact purpose of this declaration, to move in that direction? Before the non-binding Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, most human rights now enshrined in treaty law was also not part of international law. Like the UDHR, the current water rights declaration has the power to fuel the onset of a normative and legal shift focusing on codifying the right to clean water and basic sanitation in enforceable treaty laws. The second argument, of a procedural in character, proposes that the vote would disrupt ongoing water rights negotiations at the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. Why would the HRC—a 47-member body—be deemed more appropriate a forum than the more democratic and representative 192-member General Assembly? If anything, the current declaration can help guide and even compliment the negotiations in Geneva.

So why abstain from such a seemingly basic declaration?

Uganda’s Somali Dilemma – Learning from Ethiopia’s Mistake

AMISOM’s Burundian Peacekeepers Prepare for Deployment, photo courtesy of US Army Africa/flickr

The West can afford to ignore Somalia, Africa cannot. On the evening of July 11th, three bombs went off in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, leaving at least 75 dead and many more injured. There was no need for investigations or inquiries; the perpetrators quickly and proudly claimed responsibility. Carrying out its first attack outside Somalia’s borders, the Islamic militia Al-Shabaab, announced that Uganda was paying the price for deploying troops to Somalia in support of the African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM) and the weak Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

The bombings warranted an immediate and stalwart response from Somalia’s neighbors—Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan—who pledged to reinforce AMISOM with an extra 2,000 troops. It seems, however, that Uganda is also seeking to go beyond simply helping AMISOM.

UNpopular – Public Resistance to UN Peace Missions

MINUSTAH peacekeepers fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators in Port-au-Prince, courtesy of UN Photo/Logan Abassi

Most UN peace missions established during or after conflict need the permission of the host country in order to deploy international troops. Once deployed, UN operations come to play a formative role in helping to re-build the state apparatus. They operate by, among others, establishing the rule of law, providing security, jump-starting economic development programs, and helping the host government build its capacity to form functioning state institutions.

However, government consent does not necessarily translate into popular support for such a strong foreign presence, which can be seen by local populations as too intrusive and pugnacious. A recent wave of popular backlash against UN missions has brought into question the universality of the UN’s internationalist norms and practices.

In Sri Lanka, following the government’s defeat of the Tamil Tigers’ 25-year armed campaign for an independent Tamil state, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appointed a three-member panel to advise him on allegations of human rights violations that allegedly occurred during the protracted conflict. Resistant, a Sri Lanka government cabinet minister, Wimal Weerawansa, calling on Ban Ki-Moon to dissolve the panel, is leading hundreds of Sri Lankans in protest outside the UN office in Colombo, blocking access to the UN offices as well as harassing and intimidating officials.