International Law and COVID-19: The WHO and the IHR

Post Authored By: Teresa Dettloff

The COVID-19 pandemic continues on, months after the first cases were diagnosed. International law has an important role to play in the way in which pandemics are recognized, addressed, and monitored. The World Health Organization, a part of the United Nations, is the international organization tasked with working to preserve global health. The International Health Regulations, enacted in 2005 and signed by 196 countries, set forth the rules for member states in reporting, preventing, and controlling the spread of disease in the international community to preserve global health security.

The World Health Organization

The World Health Organization (the WHO), is an international organization affiliated with the United Nations that was founded in 1948 and works to address health care coverage, health emergencies, and the general health and well-being of the world’s population. The WHO has developed blueprint strategies for responses to disease outbreaks, and issues recommendations, research, and guidelines in the context of global health emergencies, such as the current COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the WHO published recommendations for assessing workplace risk, preventing exposure in the workplace (through strategies such as physical distancing and respiratory hygiene), and additional precautions to be taken at workplaces that are classified as medium or high-risk.[i] The WHO has also, during the COVID-19 pandemic, issued daily situation reports reporting on the number of cases and deaths regionally.

IHR

The International Health Regulations (IHR) were approved by the WHO after the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The goal of the IHR is to set forth guidelines to prevent, protect, control, and provide a public response to the international spread of disease, without hindering unnecessarily international traffic and trade.[ii] Article 6 sets forth specific requirements for parties to notify the WHO within 24 hours of “assessment of public health information” of all events that may qualify as a public health emergency that rises to the level of international concern.[iii] This Article also requires that the party notify the WHO of the steps taken in response to the events that constitute a public health emergency that is an international concern. The Director-General of the WHO, after gathering the appropriate information, makes the determination of whether the situation constitutes a public health emergency of international concern. Further, the IHR sets forth general obligations of member states to preserve global health security and ways to contain and prevent the spread of disease during the context of international health emergencies.

COVID-19

The WHO has been blamed by some for mismanagement of the pandemic, and individual countries have been reprimanded for failing to comply with the IHR, particularly with respect to the reporting requirements. Arguably, the WHO’s role is not to intervene and force countries to adopt specific regulations; instead, member states have accepted the obligations outlined in the IHR and assume the responsibility for implementing the measures contained therein. The IHR contains a dispute settlement provision, which technically would allow a state to bring a legal action against another state for violations of the IHR. However, states have not sought relief through a dispute settlement clause in infectious disease treaties from the 19th century to the present.[iv] It remains to be seen whether, once the pandemic has been resolved, member states who have adopted the IHR will pursue remedies against one another for these alleged violations through the dispute settlement mechanism.


[i] Considerations for public health and social measures in the workplace in the context of COVID-19, World Health Organization (May 10, 2020), https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/considerations-for-public-health-and-social-measures-in-the-workplace-in-the-context-of-covid-19.

[ii] International Health Regulations, Third Edition (2005), Article 2, World Health Organization, https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/246107/9789241580496-eng.pdf;jsessionid=AB43EA1F95A3E95E5A39F7A116D5902D?sequence=1.

[iii] Id. at Article 6.

[iv] David Fidler, COVID-19 and International Law: Must China Compensate Countries for the Damage? Just Security (Mar. 27, 2020), https://www.justsecurity.org/69394/covid-19-and-international-law-must-china-compensate-countries-for-the-damage-international-health-regulations/.

About the Author:

Teresa Detloff

Teresa Dettloff is an associate at Brennan Burtker LLC, focusing her practice on medical malpractice defense. Teresa is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where she served as a lead article editor for the law journal. Teresa currently serves as a member of the advocacy committee for the United Nations Association Chicago chapter.

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