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Mr Sascha Mueller
University of Canterbury

The perception of what constitutes a disaster has been changing, both in the eyes of academics as well as the public. Traditionally, disasters were catastrophic events with grave impacts on the life and property of people, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, or humanitarian crises due to war. It was acknowledged that if a disaster was sufficiently grave, ordinary government could be unable mitigate its impact on society. For that reason, disasters often invoke exceptional government, by curtailing or even suspending constitutional processes and democratic principles.

In recent decades, the concept of disasters has been expanding, and with it the use of exceptional government. The mid- to long-term aftermath of disasters (the recovery process) is starting to be included in its definition, and extraordinary powers are used to expedite this process. Similarly, the potential for future disasters is treated is part of the disaster and extraordinary powers are used to attempt to mitigate or prevent the potential disaster event. This leads to a rise of exceptional government, and to the normalisation of exceptionalism.

In many cases, exceptional powers are used as a tool of convenience, rather than necessity. This is a consequence of the fact that disaster law often does not distinguish between disasters and emergencies. Emergencies are events that cannot be adequately dealt with by way of ordinary government because ordinary processes would take too long to respond to the emergency situation. Disasters, on the other hand, describe the impact of a catastrophic event on society, be it short or long term impacts. The essential difference between the two concept is the factor of urgency. Only urgent situations require exceptional powers. Clearly distinguishing between emergencies and disasters would therefore help distinguish between situations requiring exceptional powers and those that don’t.

Sascha Mueller is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. His research interests focus mainly on comparative constitutional law. His current research projects concern the constitutional impact of natural disasters and the consequent erosion of democratic principles and the rise of executive exceptionalism.

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