Sunday, July 1, 2007

Reviewed: Gross and Ní Aoláin, Law in Times of Crisis: Emergency Powers in Theory and Practice

Law in Times of Crisis: Emergency Powers in Theory and Practice, by Oren Gross and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin (Cambridge University Press, 2006) is reviewed on the Law and Politics Book Review by Therese O’Donnell, Law School, Strathclyde University. O'Donnell begins:

“How to allow government sufficient discretion, flexibility, and powers to meet crises while maintaining limitations and control over governmental actions so as to prevent or at least minimize the danger that such powers would be abused? . . . How to balance security and liberty? These questions are as ancient as the Roman republic and as new as the realities wrought by the terrorist attacks on London’s public transportation system on July 7 and July 21, 2005.” (pp.1-2)

And so begins Oren Gross’ and Fionnuala Ní Aoláin’s impressive, richly sourced study of the responses of democratic states to violent emergencies. The book’s structure divides principally into two parts. The focus of Part I is upon the principal models dominating theory and practice concerning responses to acute national crises. Part II considers the relationship between international law and some of its specific legal regimes (e.g. international humanitarian law whereby non-state actors may be held accountable). The structure works well and any overlaps in content are unobtrusive. As Gross and Ní Aoláin comment, violent crises often precipitate a reaction urging that “legal niceties may be cast aside as luxuries to be enjoyed only in times of peace and tranquility” (p.7).

Part I opens with an analysis of the various models of accommodation by which a state may seek to manage a crisis. By acknowledging some element of accommodation, the State is best depicted as a tree bending in a storm; how far it yields will depend on which model it chooses to adopt. The main models posited by Gross and Ní Aoláin are those embodying classical accommodation, constitutional accommodation, legislative accommodation and interpretative accommodation. The assessment of the Roman model of dictatorship is fascinating, particularly when the authors consider Machiavelli’s conclusion that one of the crucial checks and balances in place was the innate incorruptibility of the citizens of Rome (comparing favourably to their Florentine counterparts) (p.24). As the authors note, Lord Acton focuses on absolute power’s impact on the ruler, while Machiavelli focused on the people. This is interesting, but to this cynical reader, a little precarious. The perfect example of the Roman model operating in practice is offered by way of Cincinnatus who, after enjoying awesome power during a siege and winning a significant victory, resigned as dictator....

The sheer flexibility of models of accommodation seems well captured in the discussion of the French state siege model. Originally intended to confront a military crisis, it morphed into ensnaring political crises. The impotence of the various attempts to rein in the ever-expanding use of the siege concept was finally captured in Article 13 of the French Constitution of 1946 which stingingly stated “The National Assembly alone may vote the laws. It may not delegate this right.” The possibility of constitutional accommodation of emergencies is also explored with a discussion of Lowenstein’s consideration of whether the concept of militant democracy can avoid the dangers of constitutional measures operating as Trojan horses. Gross and Ní Aoláin present an extensive survey of state constitutions, thus, as they acknowledge, revealing problems in the classification and categorization of emergencies and the dangers inherent in creating “scales” of emergencies which may permit states to easily “upgrade” to higher levels with presumably more draconian consequences (pp.45-46). The issue of “necessity” operating as a constitutional principle, making legal what might otherwise be illegal or unconstitutional, and its embodiment in inherent executive powers is considered....
Perhaps one of the most potent motifs running throughout this book is that associated with addiction – paranoia, dreams and ever increasing dosages. It is in relation to this last aspect that the authors comment on the “normalization of the exception.” A craving develops for new, more radical powers to fight impending crises, and the unthinkable develops into the thinkable with a consequent “tranquilizing effect on the public’s critical approach toward emergency regimes” (p.236), and thus to hidden revolution (p.242). As the authors later note, despite the common understanding of the word “emergency” as sudden, urgent and unforeseen, numerous examples testify to systematic entrenchment of the exception as the norm (p.304).
Part II focuses on the application of the various models in the field of international human rights law, with the authors concluding that there is a gap between theory and practice of emergency powers in international law.

The rest of this detailed review is here.

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