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International Law Applicable to Public Health Emergencies

Dr Jean-Pierre Gauci, Dr Richard Mackenzie-Gray Scott

This report forms part of the project The Role of Good Governance and the Rule of Law in Building Public Trust in Data-Driven Responses to Public Health Emergencies, a COVID-19 Rapid Response research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (grant AH/V015214/1).

A public health emergency (PHE) poses a range of challenges to individuals,communities, companies, states and international organizations. These challenges have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic and the responses thereto by states. The range of measures that have (and have not) been implemented by states in their attempts to address (or ignore) the spread and impact of COVID-19 raise pressing issues for international governance. This pandemic has been a stress test for global governance mechanisms (within and beyond the health sphere) and for the application of, and respect for, international law.

International law has a role to play in framing and providing safeguards for effective responses to PHEs and in regulating the relationships between states and between states and other actors (such as international organizations) during PHEs. The rules and principles across numerous areas of international law highlight some noteworthy considerations. Global cooperation and coordination are crucial, whether between states, states and international organizations and non-state actors, including companies, civil society and others. This is partly the result of the interconnected period of time in which we live, a matter exemplified by the speed with which COVID-19 spread throughout the world.

A crucial component of global governance is global leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised questions about the political leadership exercised by states at the international level. While there have been scientific successes that can help address the current PHE and those that may occur in the future (for example, test and trace technologies, and safe and effective vaccines being developed in record timescales), these have sometimes been met with political failures (for example, lack of cooperation, stockpiling vaccines, and poor public funding in healthcare systems). If states aim to improve their responses to PHEs, political leadership at the global, regional, national and local levels is crucial. It should also be borne in mind that a global PHE is never over for any state until it is over for every state.

This document maps the key areas of international and regional law that are applicable to PHEs and data governance (encompassing binding rules and non-binding principles), as well as the key institutional frameworks that impact governance during PHEs. It identifies key applicable rules and principles from each area of law, whilst acknowledging that the document is not an exhaustive reflection of all the international and regional law potentially applicable to PHEs.

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