Emergency and Escape: Explaining Derogations from Human Rights Treaties

Laurence R. Helfer, Duke Law School
Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, University of California, San Diego
Christopher J. Fariss, University of California, San Diego

Available in the Faculty Scholarship collection.


Several prominent human rights treaties attempt to minimize violations during emergencies by authorizing states to “derogate”—that is, to suspend certain civil and political liberties—in response to crises. The drafters of these treaties envisioned that international restrictions on derogations and international notification and monitoring mechanisms would limit rights suspensions during emergencies. This article analyzes the behavior of derogating countries using new global datasets of derogations and states of emergency from 1976 to 2007. We argue that derogations are a rational response to domestic political uncertainty. They enable governments facing serious threats to buy time and legal breathing space from voters, courts, and interest groups to confront crises while signaling to these audiences that rights deviations are temporary and lawful. Our findings have implications for the studies of treaty design and flexibility mechanisms and compliance with international human rights agreements.