In global response to Covid-19 threat, international law being trampled upon, says report
MANILA, Philippines—Fear of the 2019 novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has led to numerous violations of a little-known international treaty adopted by 196 countries to safeguard human rights and dignity, among others, in state responses to health emergencies like the current outbreak of Covid-19, according to a report published in the Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal.
In the report published last Feb. 13, 16 international health law scholars said the International Health Regulations (IHR) of 2005 govern how signatory countries and World Health Organization (WHO) “collectively address the global spread of disease and avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.”
“In imposing travel restrictions against China during the current outbreak of 2019 novel coronavirus, many countries are violating the IHR,” said the report in the Lancet, a highly respected source of information on medical science.
It said the authors of the report “came to this conclusion after applying the interpretive framework of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties,” referring to an international agreement that took effect in 1980 which established rules, procedures and guidelines on how treaties generally operate.
It said there was also legal consensus among the authors that violations had been committed in many countries’ response to the Covid-19 threat. It did not identify the countries, though.
But in the Philippines, authorities lifted a ban on travel to Taiwan after protests from the Taiwanese government and Filipino migrant workers who can’t return to their jobs in Taiwan. The travel ban had been questioned for having little scientific basis and the Philippine government had been accused of being influenced by its one-China policy in imposing the ban.
In a statement issued last Feb. 12, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center also questioned the Taiwan travel ban.
“There have been conflicting signals over the travel ban to Taiwan,” said Susan Ople, the center’s head, in the statement.
“Is it due to pressing and urgent health concerns or is it more because of the One-China policy?,” she said.
“To inject geopolitics into what is now a global health crisis may prove to be both untimely and unwise,” Ople added.
The report in Lancet said IHR is a “legally binding instrument” which “restricts measures countries can implement when addressing public health risks to those measures that are supported by science, commensurate with the risks involved and anchored on human rights.”
The report said IHR was put in place so that “countries should not take needless measures that harm people” or remove incentives for countries to report new health risks.
The text of IHR said states are not prevented from adopting measures to “achieve the same or greater level of health protection than WHO recommendations” and adopt measures “to protect their citizens during disease outbreaks.”
But these measures, the IHR said, should be based on “scientific principles, available scientific evidence of a risk to human health” and “available information from WHO and other relevant bodies.”
Such measures, the IHR said, should also heed “available specific guidance or advice from WHO.”
According to the report in Lancet, any state enforcing additional measures during outbreaks that would “significantly interfere with international traffic shall provide to WHO the public health rationale and relevant scientific information for it.”
“Significant interference generally means refusal of entry or departure of international travellers, baggage, cargo, containers, conveyances, goods and the like or their delay by more than 24 hours,” the report said.
Measures taken by states in response to health emergencies, like Covid-19, “shall not be more restrictive of international traffic and not more invasive or intrusive to persons than reasonably available alternatives that would achieve the appropriate level of health protection,” said the report citing IHR text.
“Many of the travel restrictions being implemented during the Covid-19 outbreak are not supported by science or WHO,” said the report.
“Travel restrictions for these kinds of viruses have been challenged by public health researchers,” it said. “WHO has advised against travel restrictions, arguing they cause more harm than good,” the report added.
“Even if travel restrictions did work, there are so many other more effective measures that countries can take to protect their citizens,” the report continued.
Among these measures, which had been recommended by WHO, were “surveillance, patient management and screening at ports of entry,” the report said.
“Under no circumstances should public health or foreign policy decisions be based on racism and xenophobia that are now being directed at Chinese people and those of Asian descent,” the report added.
“Many of the travel restrictions implemented by dozens of countries during the Covid-19 outbreak are, therefore, violations of IHR,” it said.
It added that “even more troubling” was the failure of at least two-thirds of the countries to report additional measures to WHO “which is a further violation of IHR.”
“Flagrant disregard for the legal requirement to promptly report any additional health measures frustrates WHO’s ability to coordinate the world’s response to public health emergencies,” the report said.
It also “prevents countries from holding each other accountable” for violations of IHR.
“Some countries argue that they would rather be safe than sorry,” said the report. “But evidence belies the claim that illegal travel restrictions make countries safer,” it added.
“In the short term, travel restrictions prevent supplies from getting into affected areas, slow down the international public health response, stigmatize entire populations, and disproportionately harm the most vulnerable among us,” the report said.
It added that as countries select “which international laws to follow,” disorder is turning into chaos and “undermines the broader rules-based world order.”
“Effective global governance is not possible when countries cannot depend on each other to comply with international agreements,” the report said.
It, however, acknowledged that the IHR treaty “is far from perfect.” It governs only countries which makes it difficult to deal with airlines suspending or ceasing flights to countries deemed virus-infected.
Another treaty weakness, the report said, is that it didn’t have mechanisms to make violating countries accountable.
“But IHR is a legally binding system for protecting people worldwide from the global spread of disease,” said the report.
“With more than 2 billion people travelling between about 4,000 airports every year, future outbreaks are inevitable,” it said.
But it added that “responses anchored in fear, misinformation, racism and even xenophobia will not save us from outbreaks like Covid-19.”
“Upholding the rule of international law is needed. now more than ever,” the report said. “Countries can start by rolling back illegal travel restrictions,” it added.
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