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International Health Law: The New Frontier in Global Governance

Date:03 June 2021
Rosalind Turkie (image courtesy of R. Turkie)
Rosalind Turkie (image courtesy of R. Turkie)

International Health Law, a course coordinated by Professor Brigit Toebes, is a fantastic introduction to the emerging body of law governing the protection of public health. International health-related standards may pertain to different areas of public international law, and touch on many issues of contemporary concern, which allows for varied lecture content and stimulates engaging debates. What struck me most after taking this course was my realisation that health does not only relate to the domain of doctors and health workers. In fact, health touches on everything, everywhere, and healthcare services rely on many other disciplines, legal and other, for their effective delivery. Law and governance are, of course, crucial disciplines for the regulation of health systems and policies, but issues of health also raise important questions of ethics, morality… even trade and religion. Human rights are pivotal for ensuring that everyone can access and receive a proper standard of care and treatment, hence the course’s inclusion on the International Human Rights Law LLM.

Do smoking bans in public places violate individual rights to autonomy? Does the legalization of euthanasia conflict with the right to life? Can States regulate unhealthy food products without violating trade rules? Is there a "right to smoke"? Does the failure to provide abortion services within the legal time-frame for accessing such services due to lockdown measures violate the right to ‘the highest attainable standard’ of reproductive health?

The issues broached here showcase the course’s absolute relevance for many contemporary societal issues. The tension between international health- and trade- related standards was critically evaluated in light of the regulation of risk factors for non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, including smoking, unhealthy diets, lack of physical exercise and excessive alcohol consumption. The Netherlands was discussed as an example of a ‘progressive’ State with regards to its legalization of euthanasia; which, interestingly, has been found compliant with the right to life at the European Court of Human Rights. Other topics addressed questions of mental health, environmental issues, and infectious disease control. Finally, a brilliant guest lecture from Dr. Lucia Pizzarrossa discussed the world’s (slow) recognition of sexual and reproductive health rights, the tension between the right to life and access to abortion services, and the regulation of modern reproductive technologies.

We (students) were, of course, invited to reflect on the impact of COVID-19. In fact, when I took the course, the whole world was in lockdown due to the pandemic. The vaccines were then in the process of being developed, and the rules governing their production, distribution, and regulation under discussion. We were able to have hugely relevant discussions on the extent to which these measures infringed individual rights, such as freedom of movement, liberty, and security, and on compulsory vaccination policies. We were given a forum to debate the issues affecting our daily lives and our concerns, which – in my view – contributed to dispelling certain feelings of vulnerability, widely experienced by students, and make us feel more empowered to reflect on these issues. What stands out for me is that not only did the pandemic, as expected, put pressure on global health systems, but it actually brought to light many functional deficiencies underlying the provision of care. The course required us to write a blog post on a health topic of our choice, and, having chosen the topic of ageism during COVID-19, I was shocked by my findings – the ease with which international human rights standards are waylaid during times of crisis. The course therefore speaks to powerful issues that form the bedrock of our society, including how human rights norms can inform health policies and programmes, and why they should.

The – exceptional – online format of the course did not affect the quality of the teaching, nor did it detract from its focus. The lecturers employed a variety of different learning techniques, including pre-recorded lectures, case studies and group work, in order to vary the course material. Meaghan Beyer’s role of moderator contributed greatly to the smooth running of the online lectures and seminars. Dr. Brigit Toebes is the main lecturer and coordinates the course, and invited a number of guests to speak on their field of specialization this year. We had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Pedro Villareal, Prof. Stefania Negri, Dr. Katerina Tsampi, Natalie Schuck, Meaghan Beyer, Marlies Hesselman, Dr. Lucía Berro Pizzarossa, and Prof. Scott Burris. All are experts in their field, of which they provided a comprehensive overview, as well as the way it relates to human rights.

Overall, the course is an important component of the International Human Rights Law LLM, but is also relevant to all students interested in present-day societal issues. Health is an inescapable facet of human life, and the outbreak of Covid-19 has shown how vulnerable we are to crisis. The globalised nature of our community proves that we need resilient international solutions that translate to efficient domestic policies. The International Health Law course is therefore a key step towards raising awareness of the various efforts deployed in the field of health to articulate a coherent system of governance, and recognising international health law as a distinct branch of public international law. Students from many different backgrounds will find it informative, inspiring, and may even – as in my case – prompt them to write a health-law LLM thesis.  

- Rosalind Turkie, United Kingdom, International Human RIghts Law LLM student

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