Trade, foreign policy, diplomacy and health

7. International Law

David P Fidler


The neglect of international law by WHO

  • Historical neglect of international law by WHO due to:
    • Institutional culture
    • Focus on delivering biomedical tools (e.g. vaccines)
    • Bad experiences with regulatory regimes
  • However, in 1990s launched:
    • revision of IHR
    • development of the FCTC

An interesting feature of the role of international law in the production of GPGH has been the historical neglect of international law by the WHO, not adopting a single treaty on any public health issue. Three reasons are: (1) it reflects the WHO's institutional culture, which is dominated by public health experts, physicians, and medical researchers and law receiving low or no priority; (2) WHO came into existence at the beginning of a revolutionary period for biomedical tools, such as antibiotics and vaccines, and activities were focused on delivering these, for which legal initiatives were not needed; (3) WHO's limited experience with regulatory regimes are fraught with controversy and conflict.

However, the WHO depends on international law, primarily through the structure and processes created and supported by the Constitution - a treaty between member states. Thus, the WHO itself supports the practical and normative necessity of international law for the production of GPGH.

During the 1990s, the WHO launched two initiatives suggesting that international law may be seen as a more important instrument of global public health policy in the future: (1) revision of IHR to make them more relevant to the global problems faced from emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases; (2) development of the FCTC, marking the first time WHO exercised its treaty-making powers.

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