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What does it mean when a country declares a state of emergency?

Pheakdey Heng / No Comments Share:
PM urges people not to trust in faith to fight the virus. MoH

In recent weeks, many countries have decided to declare a state of emergency over COVID-19. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on March 25 said he was also considering requesting the King to declare a state of emergency as the number of infections from the Coronavirus nationwide rose to 96. So, what does it mean for the government and the people when a country enters into an emergency state?

A state of emergency is a situation in which a government is empowered to perform actions or put in place policies that it would normally not be permitted. The measure gives more powers to the authorities, but these vary from country to country. They might include the right to impose curfews, prevent demonstrations or mass gatherings, lock down public spaces or allow police to conduct searches without warrants.

A government can declare such a state during a natural disaster, medical pandemic/epidemic civil unrest, or armed conflict. Such declarations alert people to change their normal behaviour and instruct government agencies to carry out emergency measures.

For example, on March 13 US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to help handle the growing outbreak of Coronavirus. The declaration allows the federal government to tap up to $50 billion in emergency relief funds. Parts of the emergency response also include giving the US Health Secretary and health officials the flexibility to waive certain laws and licence requirements.

Thailand declared a state of emergency over the COVID 19 pandemic on March 25 when the number of cases passed 800. The declaration barred travel to Thailand via land, sea and air, although certain exceptions have been made for goods transportation, diplomatic missions and foreigners with work permits.

All nightclubs, playgrounds and sports venues in Bangkok and several other cities were ordered to close down indefinitely, as were spas, gyms and massage parlours. Hoarding of food, drinking water and medical supplies will be punished.

On the same day, New Zealand which had 205 cases of COVID 19 at the time, also declared a state of national emergency.

This allowed the director and local controllers to regulate land, water and air traffic, close roads and public places, evacuate any premises including any public place and, if necessary, to exclude people or vehicles from any premises or places.

The constitution and law of a country usually outline the circumstances which may give rise to a state of emergency, specify the processes to be followed and set limits on the emergency powers that may be exercised or the freedoms that may be suspended. While each country will want to define its own practices, international norms can provide useful guidance.

For example, important international treaties such as the European Convention of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) stipulate that states are to observe the following principles.

The state of emergency must be announced publicly. This informs citizens of the legal situation and reduces the possibility of a de facto state of emergency.

The measures taken to counter the crisis must be proportional to the gravity of the emergency situation; this applies to the area of application, their material content and their duration.

Human rights and fundamental freedoms during a state of emergency must respect the limits provided for by the relevant instruments of international and national law;

A state of emergency does not imply a temporary suspension of the rule of law, nor does it authorise those in power to act in disregard of the principle of legality, by which they are bound at all times.

Notification of the measures taken must be made to other states and relevant treaty-monitoring bodies; for example, if a state is to derogate from its obligations under ICCPR then it must inform the UN of its derogation, the measures it has taken and the reasons therefore, as well as the termination of the derogation.

Certain human rights are non-derogable under any circumstances. These include the right to life, prohibition of torture, freedom from slavery, freedom from post facto legislation and other judicial guarantees, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the humane treatment of all persons deprived of their liberty, the right to recognition before the law and the protection of the rights of persons belonging to minorities.

Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng has  said that the government is considering two separate infection prevention methods.

“During a ‘critical’ state of emergency, all citizen’s rights are revoked,” he said. “People are not allowed to travel and gather, among many things.

“However, during a ‘lockdown’ everyone is only required to stay home – this is a ‘minor’ state of emergency,” Sar added., but we have yet to decide to which degree.”

This is about the clearest explanation to date on the declarations of emergency, if and when it happens, and would it could mean.


Dr Pheakdey Heng is the founder and chairman of the Enrich Institute and an adviser at the Asian Vision Institute

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