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Should a State of Emergency be an emergency?

By: Joe Gleason, AHT


Martial law. State of emergency. Over the past few years, governments in Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Jamaica and Zimbabwe, amongst others, have all enacted various versions of emergency powers in parts or all of the country. Following a recent maritime clash, the Ukrainian parliament voted to declare martial law in the regions closest to Russia. Reasons for imposing emergency measures vary – from crime in Jamaica and civil unrest in Ethiopia and Nicaragua, to a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe. Some emergency powers last for days or weeks, and others remain in place for years.

For those traveling to or working in countries where emergency laws are in place, context matters. What prompted the imposition of emergency powers? Where within the country is it in place? How long might it last? While specifics will vary based on the situation, to manage the risks associated with the imposition of emergency powers (however that’s defined in the local context) it’s important to consider:

  • Restrictions on movement that may include checkpoints, curfews, no-go areas, scrutiny of or delays in visas and additional documents required for entry to/movement within the country. Access to certain areas may be restricted or even prohibited — either legally or due to increased risk. During the January 2018 state of emergency in Jamaica, checkpoints were established and a curfew imposed. Some restrictions may be very specific – as part of its martial law, Ukraine has barred the entry of “military age” Russian nationals.
  • Limits on meetings or gatherings to include the size and location of meetings. Special permission for larger meetings, gatherings or events may be required, and travel to the event may be impacted by restrictions on movement. Even without specific restrictions, the authorities may show greater interest in events, including extra scrutiny from security forces.
  • Disruptions of internet and mobile phone networks, significantly impacting communication and the ability to manage risk or respond to emergencies. Not surprisingly, this tactic is increasingly used to limit the spread of information nationwide or in specific areas, including in Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, among others, in recent years.
  • Increased powers of security forces that might include broader surveillance (electronic or otherwise), search, arrest or detention authority. These increased powers could be general or directed at specific segments of the population or even international organizations based on the nature of their work.


In some cases, the measures imposed may be specific while in others, they may be deliberately broad. Actions that “violate the constitutional order” or “harm unity and tolerance of the people” were both prohibited during the March 2018 state of emergency in Ethiopia. Not sure what that means? That’s not by accident. These types of sweeping prohibitions give authorities wide latitude in cracking down on opponents and can result in “collateral damage” to organizations unwittingly violating the emergency measures. Understanding what could fall into those categories is important to reduce running afoul of authorities.

Depending on the underlying reasons for the emergency powers, international companies or NGOs may face greater scrutiny by authorities. Funding of host country partners, in particular, may receive extra attention, as can events – especially those involving civil society, political or rights issues. Even seemingly mundane, administrative issues, such as obtaining visas or visitors or receiving wire transfers from HQ, can be impacted.

In many cases, host country staff and partners will feel the brunt of any emergency powers by national authorities. Whether it’s the challenge of getting to work through multiple checkpoints, leaving in time to get home before curfew or pressure on family members in restricted areas, it’s essential to recognize how host country personnel may be affected and adjust activities and expectations accordingly.

So, are states of emergency an “emergency” for those working in the country? Invariably the answer is: it depends on the situation. Operating in environments under a state of emergency starts with understanding the risk and potential exposure. With that foundation, it’s important to update day-to-day operations and mitigation procedures as well as incident response plans, where necessary, to reflect any changes in freedom of movement, communications, etc. Then, it’s essential to keep aware of any additional changes and adapt activities accordingly.