International Health Law
|Date:||27 May 2020|
To what extent are governments free to take measures in response to COVID-19? Should governments prioritize the protection of their citizens’ health and therefore restrict individual rights strictly? Can governments, for instance, restrict my right to freedom of movement to hinder the spread of the virus? And what about restrictions on the provision of other medical services that may generally be available to me, such as treatments for other diseases and abortion?
These are just a few questions contemporarily relevant to the course International Health Law, taught here in the Faculty of Law.
Naturally, the questions above are the most pertinent to ask for the current situation we are caught in. Even if we are not directly affected by COVID-19, our daily lives are in any case affected by the implications of governments’ strategies in response to the pandemic. But how should governments address such issues? On the one hand, they have obligations under internationally binding human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), to protect our lives and health. On the other hand, no crisis can automatically preclude the applicability of other rights. Governments should therefore take decisions by balancing this with other rights. This balancing exercise, however, should be conducted in light of the existing circumstances, in which the infectious disease is spreading. Debates concerning this balancing exercise are among the those found in our International Health Law course discussions.
International Health Law is not restricted to issues concerning communicable diseases , such as COVID-19. Certainly, COVID-19 is an important matter in every aspect of our lives currently, and poses an exceptional threat due to its contagiousness. However, non-communicable diseases (NCDs)  also play a great role in our lives: in the ‘normal’ situation and in the COVID-19 era. As such, according to statistics of the World Health Organization, approximately 70% of all deaths in 2017 were caused by NCDs.
Certain behavioural factors, such as tobacco and alcohol consumption, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity, give rise to NCD prevalence. This means that adjusting human behaviour, for example by regulation, may contribute to the prevention of such deaths. By looking at such regulation, the field of international health law is not restricted to human rights law. For instance, while writing my LLM-thesis on regulating the marketing of fast food, I found out that there is a lot more to the topic. Not only the interests of individuals concerned with their health are of importance, also industry interests are to be taken into account. Therefore, other regimes, such as international trade law, are also relevant in this regard. Although human rights law remains the main and principal topic of the programme, participating in this course during the LLM-degree has contributed to my interdisciplinary understanding, by applying knowledge exceeding my general colloquium.
The topics of the International Health Law course also include more ethical, maybe even controversial, topics that can be viewed from a non-medical perspective. Such topics include the matters of embryo-selection, abortion, and euthanasia. In particular, the geographical setting of this course – taking place in the Netherlands – is of great advantage, as this country is relatively progressive on such issues. This does not take away, however, from the fact that other perspectives are welcomed, accepted, and appreciated in the classes.
Course lecturers & expertise
The welcoming atmosphere in the course classes is facilitated by the lecturers involved, such as Professor Brigit Toebes, the coordinator of the course. Besides having extensive knowledge on the theoretical aspects of health-related human rights provisions and practical experience in, among other fields, the field of tobacco control, she is also a very open-minded professor, who welcomes her students’ questions, academic comments, and personal observations. This is one of the factors, among others, that made the course exceptional for me.
The contributions of fellow students bring a unique perspective into the debates as well. In this year’s class, my colleagues came from the Netherlands, India, Canada, Poland, Argentina, Australia, Romania, and many other countries around the globe. The intercultural setting offers students an insight into the different perspectives on health issues faced in different parts of the world. As mentioned previously, the classes did not take up the form of one-sided lectures. Rather, twice a week we had interactive discussions in which we were invited to share not only our academic analyses, but also our personal experiences. This invited us to think further than our own understanding of health-related problems and to attempt to see the world through the lenses of others.
Furthermore, a number of guest lecturers presented in the course this year. For instance, Doctor Ger Steenbergen, a medical doctor specialized in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, shared his personal experiences on the ground during the Ebola crises in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead of solely looking at what is written in the textbooks about this, he shared his first hand experiences. He told us, for example, intriguing stories about how the chief of a village was successful in containing the spread of the disease. By interacting with such an experienced person and connecting real life stories to the existing law, we did not only gain interesting insights into the front-line workers of infectious disease control, but we also learned about the law in practice.
All in all, the International Health Law course is not only increasingly relevant in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, but also valuable for discussions surrounding the many different facets of health law internationally. It also invites students to develop their knowledge and intercultural and interdisciplinary skills. Students are challenged to think outside their own ‘boxes’, and to understand the perspectives of other cultural and disciplinary social fields. The enhancement of this set of skills is enhanced by the warm environment created in the classes. Due to all the aforementioned reasons, I will remember this course as a challenging, yet enjoyable part of my LLM studies, in which I have improved my knowledge and skills in this field of law significantly.
- Dominique Mollet, Netherlands, Public International Law LLM student
*The International Health Law course is part of the International Human Rights Law LLM programme, yet the author pursued the course as an extracurricular course in addition to her own LLM programme curriculum.
 Infectious or communicable diseases are diseases that spread from one person to another, for instance through bacteria, viruses or parasites. Examples include Covid19, cholera and smallpox; ‘Communicable diseases’ (World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa) <https://www.afro.who.int/health-topics/communicable-diseases> accessed 26 May 2020.
 Non-communicable diseases are caused by (a combination of) genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioural factors, and cannot be transmitted through agents such as bacteria and viruses. Examples of NCDs are cardiovascular diseases, lung diseases, cancers and diabetes; ‘Noncommunicable diseases’ (World Health Organization <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/noncommunicable-diseases> accessed 26 May 2020.
 ‘NCD mortality and morbidity’ (World Health Organization) <https://www.who.int/gho/ncd/mortality_morbidity/en/) accessed 25 May 2020.