Emergency Powers & Human Rights: Shield or Sword? Analysing the emergency powers paradox in a Southeast Asian context

University essay from Uppsala universitet/Teologiska institutionen

Author: Paola Zuleta; [2021]

Keywords: ;

Abstract: The state of emergency – the governmental provision of imposing exceptional powers applicable to emergencies – is a characteristic shared by a majority of national governments. The possibility to invoke emergency provisions, albeit necessary, is inherently vulnerable to abuse. Despite established restrictions on emergency powers in national and international law, some states have been found to act beyond these limitations, infringing on human rights in an overly disproportionate and excessive fashion. Such an exercise of emergency powers is contrary to their general aim: i.e., to protect essential human rights in the face of a crisis, be it political, social, economic, or a natural disaster. As such, the state of emergency can be seen as a paradox: both a protection of, and threat to human rights. The present thesis, departing from an observed presupposition of existing and stable liberal-democratic structures for the established checks and restrictions to apply, placed the scope of analysis in a Southeast Asian context, a region featuring a broad variety of democracy levels. As such, the undertaken comparative study charted continuities, developments and changes pertaining to the enactment of emergency powers vis-à-vis human rights in Thailand and the Philippines between 1996 and 2021. Moreover, motivations behind the declaration of a state of emergency were also observed, as the identification of a situation as exceptional is incidentally the process through which a state of emergency is constructed and becomes usable, which in turn guides the formulation of emergency measures and their eventual impact on human rights. The observed instances of states of emergency in Thailand and the Philippines illustrate how emergency powers are often followed by a militarisation of the political agenda, and pose a challenge for social trust, especially in contexts such as Thailand and the Philippines, whose legacy of military rule has shaped how political life is enacted in contemporary times. Moreover, said legacy becomes yet another dimension of the state of emergency in that emergency powers are invoked to stabilise the political system so as to protect human rights, but ultimately the former is stabilised through repression of the latter. In this regard, repression of human rights is at its highest when the exception has entered several dimensions of the social fabric, i.e., becoming the norm. Within the framework of the regional War on Drugs and the Covid-19 pandemic, the cases further illustrate not only the intricate links between the juridico-political vis-à-vis repressive and restrictive consequences, but also how they interact in a context of perpetual emergency.  As such, the frequent invocation of emergency powers in the observed contexts encouraged the exercise of discretionary power through a reconceptualisation of the interaction between the political and the social, rending certain individuals, deemed a potential future threat, politically mute, overpowered by the sovereign decision. In this way, the implementation of emergency provisions were found to produce, portray, and maintain a largely fictional sense of security in the society.

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