Background - ESIL Interest Group on International Health Law

Interest Group on International Health Law

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The protection of human health under international law is a relatively novel topic of research, starting in earnest only in the 1990s.  Even though the establishment of international institutions and the adoption of international rules on the protection against epidemic diseases has a long tradition, other aspects of the interaction between international rules and human health have remain underdeveloped both at a policy-making level as well as in scholarly studies.
The range of international legal instruments directly devoted to the protection and promotion of human health is very limited; the World Health Organization, in particular, did not play the normative role that was expected by its founders, although it succeeded in adopting some essential health treaties in the new Millennium.  At the same time human health has turned into a powerfully political topic with international ramifications, a development precipitated in the 1990s by the HIV-AIDS pandemic, the dominance of a neoliberal economic agenda witnessed by the establishment of the WTO and the explosion in bilateral investment treaties, and growing concerns about the national security implications of outbreak of infectious diseases.  This coming of age of human health has gone in parallel with a renewed questioning of the legitimacy and effectiveness of existing international institutions in the face of the changing needs and actors in global health governance.
Global health is therefore characterized by a complex, multi-layered, plural and fragmented legal and institutional landscape, a situation which is guiding the direction of scholarly studies and research and which will provide the focus of the Interest Group on international health law.
Besides the narrow pool of dedicated international legal instruments such as the International Health Regulations and the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a primary focus of attention will go to the two-way interactions between health and other international legal regimes such as those on international trade, intellectual property rights, investments, but also on human rights, international security, migration, labour, armed conflicts, environmental protection as well as access to biological resources. Health as a human right will provide a common normative thread emphasizing the centrality of human values in the interpretation and enforcement of other international rules. A second and interrelated axis of research will consist of the proliferation of non-binding international instruments and standards, increasingly produced by hybrid or private international bodies and having a dramatic impact on crucial areas such as pharmaceutical regulation and food safety.  A third area will explore emerging areas of global health policy-making with normative dimensions, such as the growing problem of anti-microbial resistance, the role of health considerations in climate change law, the legal framework to share pathogens for public health purposes, and the current trend to “securitize” health in responding to outbreak of infectious diseases.  A fourth and cross-cutting area of research is dedicated to the growing and diverse range of institutions, networks and groups active in global health, a phenomenon that raises interesting questions at the intersection of law, legitimacy, status, role and institutional architecture.

The decision to establish a dedicated Interest Group on international health law arises precisely from these considerations. There is a need for a forum of discussion, research and sharing of experiences coming from a variety of normative fields while at the same time focusing on the protection of human health.  The intrinsic nature of health as an individual and community value and good makes a horizontal and inter-disciplinary approach inevitable.  The Interest Group will reach out to other groups in order to avoid overlaps and to ensure synergy and complementarity.  Besides the Interest Group on Biolaw, there are opportunities for a fruitful collaboration with the Interest Groups on international economic law, international environmental law, human rights and others.
globe and health
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