The State of Emergency: A Backdoor Into Authoritarianism

Raise your hand if you were aware that France’s national assembly has extended the state of emergency last week, which was initially declared as a response to the November Paris attacks 7 months ago.

The apparent lack of attention paid to this second extension is illustrative of the general indifference to the erosion of democracy happening slowly but surely before our eyes. Because why should anyone be worried, when extraordinary measures are being taken to protect us, within the framework of the constitution and international law?

1) The State of Emergency in International Human Rights Treaties: Only Good Intentions

The state of emergency was laid down in multiple human rights documents, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Art. 4 par. 1), the American Convention on Human Rights (art. 27 Par. 1), the European Convention on Human Rights (art. 15 Par. 1), and the 1961 European Social Charter (art. 30). Furthermore it was codified in most national constitutions.

The drafters of the international treaties intended to give states the flexibility to deal with particularly serious crisis situations whilst simultaneously imposing strict binds in order to prevent abuses. The resorting to extraordinary measures should always go hand in hand with strict limitations and international accountability.

The end goal of extraordinary measures should be to return to normality, to restore a situation in which human rights enjoy full, unrestricted protection.

The provisions describing the state of emergency carry comparable hallmarks:

  • The crisis at hand must be so serious that the life of the nation (universal and European levels) or the independence or security (America’s) is actually under threat.
  • Each provision only allows for restricted use, which is absolutely necessary in the situation at hand (principle of strict proportionality), barring any violation of international law: Each derogation must be limited both in time and space to what is absolutely necessary in the light of the exigencies of the situation.

2) The State of Emergency in Practice: Bending the Rules

It is too often forgotten that Hitler’s Third Reich did have a Constitution, but basic civil rights were quickly suspended under Hitler’s government after — you guessed it — a state of emergency was declared. This state of exception was a response to a suspicious fire in the Reichstag in 1933, which the government falsely stated resulted from a communist attempt to overthrow the state.

So it should be no surprise that definitions can be stretched, rules can be bent, and crises can be created or over exaggerated. In today’s world, the state of emergency goes by many names (“state of exception”, “state of emergency”, “state of alarm”, “state of siege”, “martial law” to name a few) and has many faces.

That the so-called “counter-terrorist era”, which began with the 9/11 attacks, has been used over and over to justify extreme “measures” such as interventions, occupations, civilian killings, rendition- and torture programs, and nationwide or even world-wide cover-ups has become clear. So it is only to be expected that the invocation of this era to justify declarations of states of emergency has led to no good.

3) The State of Emergency in France: On to a Perpetual State of Exception?

So let’s have a look at France, the only European country to have declared a state of emergency over terrorism. France’s Socialist president Hollande answered to the November Paris attacks by echoing the words of president Bush after the 9/11 attacks, stating that France was at “war” and making promises to “eradicate terrorism”.

Just like in the USA after the 9/11 attacks, civil liberty lost and national security won.

Operation “Sentinelle” was unleashed and over 10,000 troops filled the streets of France. Of course it remains questionable whether saturating the country with army-men holding guns will actually contribute to (a feeling of) safety.

The police was granted sweeping powers allowing them to search premises without warrants and put suspects under house arrests. The term “suspect” includes anyone suspected from being radicalized, as the definition merely requires “serious reasons” to believe there is a threat to public order.

And boy, were these new special powers appreciated. In the first weeks alone after Hollande’s declaration, 2200 police-raids had been carried out, multiple mosques had been shut down, over 200 people had been detained and over 300 weapons seized (of which appr. 200 came from one person). Weapon-seizures of course can be chalked up as “good” results, however the bad may not be discounted. As Yasser Louati of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France pointed out, the mosques that were stormed were already under surveillance: The necessity of these brutal raids is questionable, their marginalizing effect on the Muslim community indisputable.

The general public felt the impact of the changes — queues got longer due to security checks, leaving and entering the country got tougher and of course, the streets got “greener” -, but generally did not mind too much. 79% of the French population approved of the first prolonging of the state of emergency.

Restrictions of civil liberties are far easier to cope with, when you yourself believe not to be truly affected. As large parts of the American public said after it became apparent that the NSA had been spying on them: “What’s the problem, is you have nothing to hide?

And worse than indifference, there is encouragement: Restrictions are being welcomed, and even asked for when they only seem to hurt the (Muslim) scapegoat. It’s the perfect formula: the imposition of an authoritarian regime on what looks like only a (perceived to be scary) section of society is welcomed with applause. But authoritarianism knows no limits. Restrictions of human rights and freedoms are an oil-stain, they will slowly but surely start spreading to the masses. By now we have seen not only the targeting of Muslims, but also environmental activists and workers and youth opposing the government.

When dissent is redefined as a national security concern, Pandora’s box has been opened.

And there is the other “unforeseen” effect, which lies in the radicalization of marginalized groups. To return to the instances of mosques being trashed, there are accounts of police officers ripping of ceilings, smashing libraries, throwing books on the floor and simply walking away. The international accountability for each applied measure, as envisioned by the drafters of the human rights treaties, is clearly lacking. Of course such acts of vengeance, that seems to have little to do with national security, spark outrage and deep humiliation in the Muslim community. A community that in 2011 already made up 11% of the French population and got thrown under the bus by it’s own government. There must be better ways to make the country safer.

In May this year France’s state of emergency was extended a second time, to cover France’s hosting of the European Championship football tournament and the Tour de France. Hollande’s government acknowledged the findings of a parliamentary report stating that the need for raids had diminished drastically, so that the current state of emergency no longer allows for these measures. However new extraordinary measures were granted to local authorities, namely the banning of demonstrations and the forbidding of movement and access of people and vehicles at specific times at specific areas.

This brand new arsenal of special powers is coming in very handy, as workers and youth are protesting en masse against the regressive labour law of PS Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, a law to which 75% of the population opposes. Riot police vigorously attacked the protestors, many were banned from the areas where the demonstrations were taking place, dozens placed under “preventive” arrest or house arrest. Prime Minister Manual Valls pledged to increase aggression against protestors and strikers in the time to come, adding more and more names to the list of those banned from demonstrating.

So why are we falling into this trap?

It has become overtly clear that the “War on Terrorism” as declared by Bush in 2001 can’t be won, as it has proven difficult to bomb an abstract noun. And Hollande’s mission is even tougher, as he is not fighting terrorists in other civilizations, but home-grown terrorism. Where bombing Afghanistan as a response to terror-attacks by mainly Saudi perpetrators was ineffective to say the least, bombing your own country to root out radicalism on own soil would definitely not make anyone feel any safer. The US has been trying to root out an abstract notion for 15 years now, with what seems to have been only adverse effects. Unless if perhaps the erosion of democracy and the imposition of a police-state are not seen as such.

We need to ask ourselves whether the life of the nation is still under persistent serious threat and whether each of the measures that are being taken are absolutely required under the current circumstances. A state of exception should remain just that, exceptional. It should be ended as soon as possible, not dragged on for years or decades to come.

The purpose of extraordinary measures should be to return to normality, to restore a situation in which human rights enjoy full protection. Not to spy on citizens, limit freedom of speech and gathering, trash houses of worship and alienate Muslims, workers and environmentalists.

The French Socialist Party and one of its leading intelligence specialists in the parliament, Jean-Jacques Urvoas, are currently working on legislation effectively making the state of emergency permanent by laying down the special powers now granted under this exceptional state in law. This legislation would constitute a “tool that allows (the French government) to get by without the state of emergency”.

It’s high time to take a deep breath, shake off the fear and obedience and demand back democracy and fundamental freedoms.

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