Only very serious public emergencies, where the physical safety of the population, political independence, territorial integrity or the existence and functioning of state institutions that are essential to guarantee the right in question are threatened, can justify derogation from human rights.

The government may provide notification that it intends to derogate from some human rights only in very exceptional circumstances that are serious enough to “threaten the life of the nation.” This essentially means a situation of crisis or emergency which affects the whole population and is a threat to the organised life of the society within the state. These are generally very serious situations where the physical safety of the population, political independence, territorial integrity or the existence and functioning of state institutions that are essential to guarantee the right in question, are threatened. 

example War with another state threatens the territorial integrity, political independence and physical safety of a state’s population. War with another state in the territory of your state is recognised as a type of emergency where some human rights obligations may be derogated from.

The emergency has to be actually happening or imminent. This means that states do not have to wait for the emergency, such as a terrorist attack or an environmental catastrophe to actually occur in order to start taking measures in response, but it has to be sufficiently clear that the crisis is imminent or its consequences much worse, if no action is taken. 

The emergency situation does not necessarily need to be spread throughout the whole territory of a state - a crisis which concerns only a particular region of the state can amount to a public emergency threatening “the life of the nation”.  However, these emergency situations must be so exceptional that restrictions on human rights that are normally permitted are clearly not sufficient to tackle the threat to public safety and security.  

example A serious terrorist threat in one region of a state can justify derogation from human rights. In such case, the derogation should not be automatically applied to the whole territory of the state unless there are properly justified reasons why this is necessary to tackle a regional crisis.

Types of emergencies

Some emergencies that may justify derogation from human rights are:

  • an armed conflict
  • a pandemic
  • an attempted overthrow of the government
  • a terrorist threat
  • a major natural disaster

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Last updated 15/04/2023