The Long Shadow of Colonialism: The Origins of the Doctrine of Emergency in International Human Rights Law

51 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2010 Last revised: 26 Oct 2014

See all articles by John Reynolds

John Reynolds

National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Date Written: June 15, 2010


Amidst the post-war turn to transcend international law’s traditional power structures in the narration and codification of individual rights, colonial interests and legal philosophies retained an influence on the framing of human rights discourse. This essay explores the extent to which the particular conception of the ‘state of emergency’ that was distilled into the normative framework of international human rights law at its inception stemmed specifically from Britain’s traditions of colonial governance and legislation. The evolution of emergency law is traced from martial law in England and the ‘first empire’, through British emergency legislative codes in Ireland and India in the nineteenth century, to the wholesale resort to emergency powers in the colonies as the empire began to fragment. The genesis of the emergency derogation provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and European Convention on Human Rights is appraised in the light of the colonial emergency context that formed the backdrop to their drafting. The essay argues that the accommodation of colonial interests at that point embedded a hegemonic legal tool that remains ripe for exploitation by regimes of all stripes inclined to repress opposition and dissent in a ‘post-colonial’ era. In the illumination of the colonial shadows from which the doctrine of emergency emerged, the state of emergency is revealed as a vehicle for law’s violence, grounded in dynamics of domination.

Keywords: colonialism, British empire, martial law, rule of law, state of emergency, emergency powers, derogation, state of exception

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Reynolds, John, The Long Shadow of Colonialism: The Origins of the Doctrine of Emergency in International Human Rights Law (June 15, 2010). Osgoode CLPE Research Paper No. 19/2010, Available at SSRN: or

John Reynolds (Contact Author)

National University of Ireland, Maynooth ( email )

Maynooth, County Kildare

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