Diseases have been an integral part of human life, be it the1918’s Spanish flu or the recent COVID-19. However, it was when the United Nations became concerned about International public health. The World Health Organization was brought into existence.It is always said that “With Great Power Comes, Great Responsibility” however, in the context of the WHO, it is quite ironic. The organization has been burdened with lots of responsibility yet, no such equivalent power to investigate independently has been vested in it.
Imagine an alternate timeline where the WHO has sufficient powers to investigate the reasons for the outbreak of COVID-19 and has imposed appropriate sanctions. In place of a pandemic, maybe there would have been a few tragic local outbreaks. However, the reality is entirely different.
In the light of the above stated argument, the authors, with the help of this article, emphasize the lack of investigating power in the hands of the WHO. Apart from this, the article has also discussed how the existing mechanism of WHO has failed to cope up with the COVID-19 due to this lacuna. Finally, some necessary emendations have been suggested in the WHO’s Constitution.
WHY THIS DEBATE? THE COVID-19 SPREAD TIMELINE
The urgent need for investigating powers under the WHO can be understood in a way that, on December 31, 2019, China confirmed some unknown pneumonia cases spreading rapidly in the Wuhan province. However,on January 14, 2020, the WHO posted that “preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission” of the Coronavirus. Finally, the Coronavirus was declared as a Pandemic by the WHO on 11 March 2020.
The timeline mentioned above should be stressed upon as the existing mechanism of WHO had reacted very late in the response of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
ENHANCEMENT OF POWER- A NEED OF THE HOUR
The objective of the WHO is to ensurethe highest possible health level globally. Its role in public health has been stretched to a great extent that includes monitoring the health situation and assessing the health trends across the globe. However, this herculean responsibility vested on the WHO can be duly accomplished in its true spirit only when the organ itself has sufficient power.The powers and the functions of any organization come from its charter or constitution. However, the Constitution of the WHO is blatantly silent on the power of independent investigation, and this has seriously affected the entire world in this era of a pandemic.
In the initial days of the COVID outbreak, the Chinese government urged the WHO to keep the international borders open, and the WHO, while relying upon the request of China seconded this position. In light of the same, many countries in the world did not restrict international mobilisation, which remained a big reason for the spread of the virus. All the information publicised by the WHO in the initial days of the pandemic was misleading when compared with the current trend of the transmission of the virus. For instance, initially the WHO released the guidelines stating that there was no need for the healthy people to wear mask to prevent coronavirus spread. However, soon it changed its stance on wearing mask and recommended the general public to wear a three-layered fabric mask
One of the probable cause of it could be thatthe WHO did not have any vested power in itself to go and investigate the real cause and nature of COVID- 19. If there were such powers existed before the pandemic, the WHO would not have relied on the information advanced by China solely.The whole world is alleging that the WHO has not taken appropriate measures or has taken the actions needed at a very later stage. However, the aspect of providing independent investigation power has not been discussed in this pandemic debate. Therefore, there is an immediate need to empower the WHO to investigate independently in the situation of a pandemic.
IMPEDIMENTS AGAINST THE ENHANCEMENT OF POWER
It is very crucial to fix the existing lacunas in the WHO. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has emphasisedthat “the WHO should be given the power of weapons inspectors to forcibly enter a country to investigate and verify the information forwarded by the state parties.”Presumably, this was a reference to the International Atomic Energy Agency, where teams could be sent into the countries that are signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other agreements to inspect nuclear facilities.
However, allowing an international body to enter into one’s country will trigger the issue of State Sovereignty. The initial draft of The International Health Regulations (IHR) contained the suggested investigative power, which reads as “ability for the WHO to send a team into a country to verify an incident.” However, this was pulled down by the US, Iran, and China,citing that there is no need to empower the WHO with this power as it endangers state sovereignty.
Thus, it is amply clear that the WHO member states have always beendubious while conferring powers to the WHO. Despite this fact, the WHO has been continuously acting as a shield for the entire human race. But with so much responsibility on the shoulder, the WHO should be equipped with both shield and the sword.
Another issue that might come up against the enhancement of the power is the existing structural framework of the “Regional Committees” as well as the “Information and Public Health Response Mechanism” under the Constitution of WHO and IHR, respectively. IHR has already set the parameters for monitoring, surveillance, and investigation of the health threats for the state parties.Annex 1of IHR mandates the state parties to disclose all the relevant information related to the disease to the WHO within a specified timeframe of 48 hours. Also, Article 10 of IHR was incorporated for verification of the information forwarded by the state parties.
Apart from this, Article 48 of the IHR talks about emergency committees that monitor the situation of public health emergencies. The working procedure of these committees has been elaborated under Article 49 of the IHR. Nonetheless, the interference by the state party in the working of these emergency committees cannot be severed off.
Moreover, despite all these efforts, the WHO was unable to cope up with the circumstances of COVID-19. It does not mean that the WHO is incapable of holding this position, but the power in its hand is not sufficient in nature.
WHERE THINGS WENT WRONG
It is self-evident that if there is an outbreak of a disease in a country, the economic sector of that country faces severe trade and travel restrictions. Thus, there might be a situation where the country does not reveal the requisite information needed to combat the disease with a fear of facing global discrimination.
Therefore, the mandate imposed by IHR does not guarantee that the information that is revealed by the state parties can rely upon without the shadow of a doubt. Merely speculating on the information advanced by the nations can be proved very menacing for the whole world like what was witnessed in this COVID era.
AMBIT OF THE POWER
Although there are various impediments against the issue of granting independent investigation power to the WHO, it is argued that the international community needs to understand the stance that the life of a human being should always stand on a higher pedestal than the other aspect of international law like the issue of State Sovereignty.
Primarily, the interference of the state parties in the working of the emergency committees under Article 49 of the IHR should be cleaved away. So, an independent investigation of the root cause of the disease could be possible. Furthermore, the United Nations Security Council has the power to impose international sanction on the member countries, the same should be inculcated in the working mechanism of WHO.
Indeed, after the whole world has been severely impacted by the pandemic, the WHO has finally announced to visit China to investigate the origin of the Corona Virus. It is argued that this step is taken in after the milk has spilled from the glass. Had the suggested power of investigation was vested with the WHO earlier, it would have authoritatively taken this step a long time ago.
There is a need to save the WHO more than ever. There should be some real and honest concern about the shortcomings immersed in the leadership of the organization, which is highly erroneous. Nonetheless, it is still the gem of the international health community. It needs to be restructured, and the first order of business is to give investigation power so that if the world will face another pandemic in the coming future, the WHO will be there to warn the world about the danger.