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Excerpted From: Cosmas Emeziem, COVID-19 Pandemic, The World Health Organization, and Global Health Policy, 33 Pace International Law Review 189 (Spring, 2021) (140 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CosmasEmeziemThe COVID-19 pandemic has opened a floodgate of dialogues and reflections about disaster, medicine, infectious diseases, human rights, and the World Health Organization (WHO) as an international organization vis-à-vis its overarching mandate in global health policy. It has affected every aspect of human endeavor the operation of international organizations such as the WHO. International Organizations (IOs) or institutions are set up by states and garbed with mandates to carry out specific duties within the international system. These organizations are treaty-based organizations with mandates that are spelled out in their charters or constitutive instruments. These mandates often determine the spheres of activities to which they must restrict themselves, subject to the overriding superintendence of Member States. In other words, these organizations are special-purpose instruments and platforms through which the international community conceives, designs, and implements policies that have a common purpose for all members.

Before World War II and the consequent establishment of the UN System, few IOs had a worldwide mandate. They included such organizations as the League of Nations, the Universal Postal Union (UPU), and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). These organizations enjoyed widespread acceptance and support despite their humble beginnings. The post-1945 era of international law and policy has seen a definitive shift in the nature, number, and reach of international organizations. There has been a manifest expansion of these organizations--both in number and subjects of influence. In a way, the evolution and expansion of international institutions, “the move to institutions,” must be seen as one of the most phenomenal iterations of international law development in the 20 century. In that century, they became very relevant in helping humanity achieve some common goals, including international peace and security, trade, nuclear arms, food, and healthcare. The rapidity of their growth simultaneously added layers of complexity to the array of activities and functions that necessitated these organizations' establishment.

Against the backdrop of the interdependence of states and societies in our globalized world, IOs have become even more crucial in the overall architecture of global consensus building and policy. The entrenchment of IOs is now a common fixture of the in international law and policy landscape. Illustrative of this is the role that the WHO has played in the current effort to contain and stop the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the current pandemic, the WHO has been working with member states and many professional bodies to develop a reliable framework for managing and generally combating infectious diseases. Thus, the WHO's role in the current pandemic arises from the fact that no single nation, no matter how rich or powerful, is capable of solving the pandemic problem without collaboration with other states. It requires a high level of committed cooperation between states and IOs, which may sometimes generate diplomatic frictions. Therefore, it is imperative to refocus the public's mind on the policy foundations and institutional framework of the WHO. That way, it will be easy to show the need to avoid zero-sum strategic games within the institution. It is hoped that participants in global health policy will be able to eschew zero-sum games and concentrate on the international and imperative duty of ensuring the highest possible standard of health for humankind.

[. . .]

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to a moment of reckoning. The reckoning has ranged from taking a fresh look at socioeconomic inequality to radical nationalism's failures. The pandemic has also unveiled many other lessons. One inescapable lesson from it is that the world has become very integrated, and many of the problems of the 21 century would demand deeper collaborations across state boundaries, identities, class, cultural, and ideological differences. This entails both a horizontal and vertical collaboration between states--big and small. No state can do it alone, and the sustainability of any collaborative effort is measurable by the strength of the weakest state.

More so, knowledge and real-time access to reliable information are central to sustainable development, health for all, and global peace. Those with the knowledge and means to act responsibly will be better positioned to tackle the menace of global pandemics. The WHO and other international organizations are critical to finding lasting and sustainable solutions to these problems. In that regard, they ought to be insulated from the political and global strategic games of Member States. Where conflicts emerge despite state parties' best efforts, it is vital to use the accepted means of dispute settlement to resolve all such contentions. In other words, whatever misgivings may arise in tackling joint problems like global pandemics, states must focus on using specific dispute resolution mechanisms to settle their disputes. The United Nations Charter, in its Chapter VI, emphasizes the peaceful settlement of disputes and this should be borne in mind at all times in the international relations of states. It is imperative not to defeat the mandate of the WHO since the whole world--especially the underprivileged communities-- will suffer the most devastating consequence of policy failures arising from these contestations. Even significantly prosperous economies like India and Brazil can suffer direly due to failures arising from inadequate policy interventions in health care due to strategic games or limited collaboration amongst states.

The world is at a new threshold of international law and relations amongst states. This is a moment to recalibrate and reform, rather than relegate multilateralism for inclusive development and shared prosperity. The pandemic's unmatched lesson is the fragility of all human societies and the need for cooperation amongst states. One state alone cannot respond to grand global challenges--such as climate change and pandemics. Therefore, there is no gainsaying that humanity will pay a steep price whenever IOs such as WHO are turned into arenas of strategic zero-sum games. International epidemics are global security issues and should not be approached with a power game mentality, let alone a zero-sum game approach. Rather, these organizations are spaces for seeking enduring collective answers to common problems like pandemics. Thus, it is in the enlightened self-interest of all states to abide by settled norms, rather than to engage in the festival of corpses in the name of strategic contestations during pandemics. This will defeat the WHO's human rights essence--to ensure the highest attainable standard of health for all peoples.

Cosmas Emeziem, LL.B. (Nigeria), LL.M., J.S.D. (Cornell), MPA Fellow at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA), Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

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