Report of Global Health Law Committee to International Law Association Athens Conference, 25-28 June 2024

Global Health Law Committee
International Law Association

1. The Kyoto Biennial Conference of the International Law Association was convened remotely as in December 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic precluded in-person gatherings. The Lisbon Biennial in July 2022 was among the first in-person events attended by many of its participants as the shadow of the pandemic dissipated. As the ILA prepares for its Athens Biennial in June 2024 the international community has largely returned to “normalcy” from a public health standpoint. Yet unfinished business from the COVID-19 pandemic remains as we seek to lay the groundwork for preventing and mitigating future pandemics. In a paradoxical sense, the COVID-19 pandemic opened a window of opportunity for governments and civil society to put in place institutional mechanisms to accomplish these objectives. Yet that window may not remain open for long. Planning and spending time to address low probability, high risk events – paradigmatically pandemics -- does not occupy a high government priority because returns on investment are uncertain, and political leaders are not likely to be credited by their constituencies for spending to address uncertainties. It may be that pandemics are today more likely to recur because boundaries between the natural environment and heavily populated cities have broken down, and transport has been facilitated. But budgets everywhere remain constrained, and before long the window of attention to pandemic preparedness may close. It is with that background that this report of the Global Health Law Committee largely focuses on the policies and legal instruments being debated and negotiated to prepare for and address future public health emergencies. In addition, the Committee recognizes that the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic may potentially create a window of opportunity for norm development and potential standard setting in the health field, beyond health emergencies.

2. The Committee decided to focus this Report on One Health, the Pandemic Agreement negotiations, and the IHR negotiations because each of these subjects is intricately linked to preventing, preparing for, mitigating, and treating potential future pandemics and similar public health emergencies. Also, a major feature of the COVID-19 pandemic was its immediate and longer-term impacts on the mental health of individuals and communities around the world. The effects are felt in the day-to-day life of individuals, and more generally they have influenced social attitudes and political conditions in ways that have not been favorable to public order, or to international peace and security. For this reason, Committee members decided to address the promotion and protection of mental health, focusing on the protection of mental health under international (human rights) law. This Report finally discusses the potential for new investments to address the social environments in which mental health disorders arise.

3. This Report falls into two principal parts. The first part (Sections II-IV) is devoted to policies and international instruments debated and negotiated at the World Health Organization (WHO) that are intended to prepare for and address future pandemics. This includes the One Health approach, negotiation of a WHO Pandemic Agreement (focusing on medical countermeasures), and amendments to the International Health Regulations (2005). Moving beyond pandemics, the second principal part of the Report (sections V-VI) addresses social and environmental determinants of mental health in the context of international human rights, with a concluding section addressing the relationship between international investment law and mental health. Finally, the Report briefly addresses the future work program of the Global Health Law Committee (Section VII).

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