International responses to pandemics

Hussein Hassouna
Friday 21 Aug 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the limits of international cooperation, contributing to calls for the creation of a more effective multilateral order

The world has been exposed to many epidemics throughout history, among which those that have spread in the last few years and resulted in thousands of victims may be mentioned, including the SARS epidemic of 2002, the 2005 Dengue Fever epidemic, the Ebola outbreak of 2007, the 2009 flu pandemic, the MERS outbreak in 2012 and the current Covid-19 pandemic. What international efforts have been made to address such epidemics, whether through specialised conferences, international conventions or international organisations such as the UN, which is currently faced with the coronavirus pandemic? 

The international community first began to address the consequences of epidemics in the latter half of the 19th century, when the first International Sanitary Conference was held in Paris in 1851 in order to unify international regulations on quarantining in order to halt the spread of cholera, plague and yellow fever epidemics. This was followed by a further 14 international conferences on epidemics between 1851 and 1938, and the International Office of Public Health (Office Internationale d’Hygiène Publique (OIHP)) was also established in 1907, some time before the establishment of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1948. 

As for international conventions, the first International Sanitary Convention was concluded in 1892 and was later amended in 1903. In 1969, the WHO adopted International Health Regulations (IHR) that must be adhered to by member states in accordance with the constitution of the organisation. 

Although a number of international conventions have addressed the health field in general, they have not addressed the issue of epidemics per se, as these have remained subject to special regulations. It is time for the international community to replace these with a comprehensive multilateral document dealing with epidemics within the framework of international law relating to health, human rights, sovereignty, international responsibility, international trade, cross-border movements and the role of international organisations. 

The UN International Law Commission (ILC), of which I am a member, may be the competent body to study this issue and prepare a draft international treaty by reviewing state practices, conventions and national legislation and providing a comprehensive preamble that includes rules, standards and mechanisms for cooperation among states in the prevention, containment and eradication of epidemics. Such a treaty would represent an important addition to the set of international treaties adopted by the UN in the area of the legal regulation of relations among states.

As for the role of international organisations in dealing with epidemics, the UN has recently shown increasing concern about the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic. On 2 April, the UN General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution entitled “Global Solidarity to Fight the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19),” reaffirming its commitment to international cooperation and multilateralism and its strong support for the central role of the UN system in the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It called on the UN secretary-general to lead the mobilisation and coordination of the global response to the pandemic and its adverse social, economic and financial impacts on all societies. 

The resolution also emphasised the need to respect human rights and oppose any form of discrimination, racism or xenophobia in the response to the pandemic and stressed the need to help the most vulnerable populations and communities that are the hardest hit. The adoption

of this resolution by all UN member states was a strong political message reflecting the concern of the international community over the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the increasing number of deaths due to it as well as its economic and social repercussions. 

It also reflected the UN’s concern to remind all states of the importance of dealing with the pandemic through solidarity and cooperation, taking into account the central role of the UN system in guidance and coordination. Emphasising such a UN role and mandating the secretary-general to lead the campaign to fight the pandemic could result in enhancing the UN’s role on the international scene after it lost credibility and effectiveness in resolving global issues as a result of the lack of support of influential states within the organisation.

The resolution may also be viewed as an indication of the belief of states that despite temporary restrictions on the cross-border movement of persons and goods, international cooperation and mutual assistance among states are unavoidable to meet the current challenges facing all of humanity.

It has been shown that it has been more difficult for the UN Security Council, which is responsible for maintaining international peace and security, to reach a unified position in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, due to its being influenced by the political orientations of the major countries that have permanent membership of the council. Perhaps this is the reason why convening a session to discuss the various dimensions of the crisis and to issue an agreed resolution dealing with it was hindered for a long time. 

The council only convened a meeting on 9 April on this issue at the request of its non-permanent members to listen to an intervention by the UN secretary-general, during which he stressed that the pandemic posed a great threat to the maintenance of international peace and security and could lead to increasing social unrest and violence in various countries. He also pointed out the importance of an indication of the Council’s unity and its determination to confront the crisis at the critical stage the world is passing through.

However, despite the secretary-general’s warning, political differences among the major powers have continued to paralyse the work of the council and to preclude agreement on a unified resolution in the face of the crisis, as some of these states have insisted on referring to the source of the pandemic, while others have opposed this. Some have also tended to object to the council’s consideration of a public-health issue, which in their view is not related to international peace and security and which could be considered to be a deviation from the proper concerns of the council. 

The content of this objection obviously does not agree with the secretary-general’s opinion of the council’s responsibility for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, which also contradicts the stance previously taken by the council in 2014 regarding the Ebola epidemic that had spread in West Africa and was considered to be posing a threat to international peace and security. 

Should the council not apply the same approach to the Covid-19 pandemic? This is especially the case since the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (AU) expressed its deep concern over the spread of the current pandemic on 20 February, adding that it could constitute a threat to peace and security on the African continent. Let us also recall that in his 2005 report to the UN, former secretary-general Kofi Annan had already asserted that epidemic diseases in the 21st century constituted, with other global risks, a threat to international peace and security due to their catastrophic effects. There is no doubt that such a description certainly applies to the effects of today’s Covid-19 pandemic.

In spite of the divisions among its major powers, the Security Council unanimously adopted Security Council Resolution 2532 on 1 July, expressing its support for the secretary-general’s appeal for a global ceasefire that had been issued in March to help unify efforts in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic in the most vulnerable countries. The council called upon all parties to armed conflicts to begin a durable humanitarian pause immediately and for at least 90 consecutive days in order to enable the safe, unhindered, and sustained delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical evacuation. Regrettably, this humanitarian pause was not observed by all parties, and the Security Council has refrained from enforcing it.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a test of the concept of international cooperation. It has demonstrated that in spite of the importance of collective multilateral action to overcome the major international crises facing the world, the international community is still unable to meet the challenge. This should lead Egypt, on the basis of experience of the current pandemic, to work with other developing countries in the creation of a new international

multilateral order founded on effective cooperation and solidarity among all nations.

*The writer is a member of the UN International Law Commission.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: