Editor’s note: This article is an edited version of “Do not violate the International Health Regulations during the COVID-19 outbreak,” which was first published on the Lancet on February 13, 2020. The article reflects the author’s views, and not necessarily those of CGTN AND cgtn aMERICA
On February 15, 16 global health law scholars in a joint statement on The Lancet, a prestigious general medical journal, urged countries against violating the International Health Regulations (IHR) during the COVID-19 outbreak.
They said countries imposing travel restrictions against China amid the current COVID-19 outbreak goes against the IHR.
The International Health Regulations (2005) is a legally binding document that protects people worldwide from the global spread of disease and is used in 196 countries. It states that countries should not take measures that harm people or disincentivize countries from reporting new risks to international public health authorities through interference with international traffic and trade.
They concluded that travel restrictions against China violates the IHR after applying the interpretive framework of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 3 and reaching a consensus on the legal meaning of IHR Article 43.
First, under Article 43.2, countries cannot implement additional health measures exclusively as a precaution but must rather ground their decision making in “scientific principles,” “scientific evidence,” and “advice from World Health Organization (WHO).” There is no evidence based on science suggesting that trade and travel restrictions work. And the WHO has also advised against the application of any restrictions of international traffic.
Second, under Article 43.1, any additional health measures implemented by countries “shall not be more restrictive of international traffic and not more invasive or intrusive to persons than reasonably available alternatives.” In this case, the health law experts insist that there are so many other more effective measures that countries can take to protect their citizens besides travel restrictions. For example, WHO has issued COVID-19 technical guidance on several such measures, including risk communication, surveillance, patient management, and screening at ports of entry and exit.
Third, in accordance with Article 3, the implementation of these regulations shall be in full respect of dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons. These scholars underlined that under no circumstance 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.
Furthermore, a WHO report reveals that at least two-thirds of countries that have implemented travel restrictions have not reported their additional health measures to WHO, which is a further violation of IHR Articles 43.3 and 43.5.
In the short term, travel restrictions prevent supplies from getting into affected areas, slowing down international public health response, stigmatizing entire populations, and disproportionately harming the most vulnerable among us. In the longer term, it may encourage other countries to do the same, which in turn undermines the broader rule-based world order.
“Responses that are anchored in fear, misinformation, racism, and xenophobia will not save us from outbreaks like COVID-19.” They point out that upholding the rule of international law is needed now more than ever. Countries can start by rolling back illegal travel restrictions that have already been implemented and by supporting WHO and each other in implementing the IHR.
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