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4 Dec, 2020 13:30

Covid rules ‘misunderstood, toothless, or insufficient’: Experts claim most countries violated international law during pandemic

Covid rules ‘misunderstood, toothless, or insufficient’: Experts claim most countries violated international law during pandemic

According to new research by a team of 13 global health law experts, ‘most’ countries have breached international law during the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting the need for major reform.

In a review of international public health policy begun by the Global Strategy Lab (GSL) at York University in 2019, researchers found numerous instances in which countries had flouted international agreements.

Back in the pre-Covid era, the experts had begun analyzing what countries are legally allowed to do to one another during public health crises, such as the Ebola and SARS outbreaks, in accordance with the International Health Regulations (IHR) that legally bind 196 countries.

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These regulations govern the overall response to public health crises, including the prevention and detection of pathogens.

More specifically, Article 43 of the IHR governs additional health measures countries can legally enact, while Article 44 covers countries' legal duties to one another in times of international health crises, particularly in the realms of collaboration and assistance. 

The findings of the GSL review were published in the International Organizations Law Review.

“Many countries have taken overbroad measures, both in the past and now during the coronavirus outbreak, which indicate that the provisions within Article 43 of the International Health Regulations are not well understood and perhaps not fit for purpose,” says Roojin Habibi, lead author on the consensus statement that interprets Article 43 of the IHR.

Article 43 states that nations are permitted to adopt additional and proportionate health measures in the face of public health emergencies, only when they align with overriding human rights imperatives and are backed by sufficient scientific evidence.

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However, the coronavirus pandemic response, along with measures taken during previous crises, expose a vastly differing interpretation and understanding of IHR, particularly as they relate to freedom of movement and protection of global supply chains. 

Furthermore, Article 44 states that there is a shared responsibility among signatories to make it possible for all nations to achieve public health goals outlined in the legal document, which is, in theory, overseen by the World Health Organization. 

Measures taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus which impacted logistics may have, unwittingly or otherwise, illegally interfered in the public-health responses of other nations.

According to professor Steven J. Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab at York University and senior author on both consensus statements, most countries are violating these legal obligations under Articles 43 and 44.

“This means that the rules that were supposed to guide governments’ responses to pandemics like COVID-19 are either misunderstood, toothless, or insufficient–most likely a combination of all three,” Hoffman says.

The researchers recommend sweeping revisions and clarifications to improve international cooperation in the face of such wide-reaching public health crises in the future, as well as more accountability for drastic measures taken which may impact the movement of people, goods and services throughout the global economy during times of crisis.

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