The International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR)
In imposing travel restrictions against China during the current outbreak of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), many countries are violating the IHR. We—16 global health law scholars—came to this conclusion after applying the interpretive framework of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treatiespanel).
We explain our conclusion here. 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 WHO”.
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”.
Third, and most importantly, Article 3.1 strictly requires all additional health measures to be implemented “with full respect for the dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms of persons”,
Many of the travel restrictions implemented by dozens of countries during the COVID-19 outbreak are therefore violations of the IHR.
Some countries argue that they would rather be safe than sorry. But evidence belies the claim that illegal travel restrictions make countries safer.
Of course, the IHR is far from perfect. For example, the IHR only governs countries, not corporations and other non-governmental actors. Thus, some countries are finding themselves with de-facto travel restrictions when airlines stop flying to places affected by COVID-19. Additionally, the IHR does not have robust accountability mechanisms for compliance, enforcement, oversight, and transparency.
But the IHR is the legally binding system for protecting people worldwide from the global spread of disease. With more than 2·5 billion people travelling between about 4000 airports every year,
This research was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research ( grant #312902 ) and the International Collaboration for Capitalizing on Cost-Effective and Life-Saving Commodities (i4C) that is funded through the Research Council of Norway's Global Health & Vaccination Programme (GLOBVAC Project #234608). GLB was previously WHO's Legal Counsel. SD is a member of the WHO research ethics review committee. ME-T reports consulting fees from WHO unrelated to this Comment. LOG and SJH are directors of WHO Collaborating Centres. SJH is additionally a Scientific Director with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (the Government of Canada's national health research funding agency). We declare no other competing interests. Views and opinions in this consensus statement Comment represent those of the authors writing in their personal and independent academic roles, without any direction from their governments or institutions.
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Published: February 13, 2020
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