Bulletin of the World Health Organization


10 December 2002

International legislation could do more to improve the prospects for global health, according to a series of articles in this month's Bulletin of the World Health Organization. The authors show how the law plays, or can play, an ever more important part in fighting lung cancer, infectious diseases, and environmental and other health hazards.

This is "a global response to a global menace," writes Luiz Felipe de Seixas Corrêa about the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, for which he is the Chair of the International Negotiating Body. With annual tobacco-related deaths now estimated at 4.9 million and rising, the Convention will meet a widely recognized need for curbs on marketing strategies. It is the first convention to be negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. In other cases legislation protecting health has been adopted by other agencies.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, for example, promoted by the United Nations through its environment programme, was hailed as "a global public health treaty" when it was finalized last year. The Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, and a lengthening list of others make health a major objective.

The international human rights conventions also contribute directly to protecting health. They have no mechanism to penalize those who break their rules but they can be used to exert pressure on bodies that do. This is what happened in April 2001, when 39 pharmaceutical companies abandoned their court action against the South African Government for making essential drugs affordable. It was mainly human rights law and obligations that prevailed to modify the effects of World Trade Organization mechanisms.

With its premise that certain values transcend cultural diversity, human rights law is also invoked in the growing attempt to impose a ban on reproducing human beings by cloning, and redesigning them by means of germ-line interventions.

An early starting point for all this was a series of international sanitary conferences convened in the nineteenth century, to agree on measures to check the cross-border spread of cholera, plague and other diseases whose transmission was accelerated by the upsurge of trade and travel. The measures agreed eventually took the form of the International Sanitary Regulations, adopted by WHO in 1951. Renamed the International Health Regulations in 1969, they are currently under revision for adoption by the World Health Assembly in 2004.

Full text of the theme issue on international law and health can be found here.

For further information, contact Desmond Avery, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, WHO, Geneva, Telephone (+41 22) 791 2422, email averyd@who.int

All WHO Press Releases, Fact Sheets and Features as well as other information on this subject can be obtained on Internet on the WHO home page: http://www.who.int

Authors alone are responsible for views expressed in the Bulletin's signed articles, which are not necessarily those of the World Health Organization.