Symposium on COVID-19 and International Law: Introduction

Symposium on COVID-19 and International Law: Introduction

[Barrie Sander is a Fellow at Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Brazil and Jason Rudall is Assistant Professor of Public International Law at Leiden University.]

The entire symposium is accessible in PDF format here.

As we write this introduction we are each sitting in different houses, in different countries, on different continents, and in different hemispheres. We could not be much farther apart. And yet our present experience could not be more similar. We are both social distancing at home, we both see desolated streets outside, we are both worried about our friends and families, and we are both trying to make sense of what is happening around us. This is but one illustration of the universal nature of this crisis. It has affected us all. Our situations may be different, but our experience is shared.

Many are now beginning to ascribe meaning to our collective experience. We ask questions and we have ideas. And we do so with imperfect information and much uncertainty. Ambiguity presents both an opportunity and a challenge in moments of crisis. An opportunity because it can prompt action which transcends existing paradoxes, but also a challenge because it can entrench existing biases.

As Daniel Kahneman famously observed in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, we have two principal modes of thinking. In a crisis our survival instinct is to think fast, to simplify, and to jump to conclusions. But in doing so, we risk neglecting how our think-fast world may have lit the match for the COVID-19 disaster and future crises to come – whether through under-regulation of dangerous trade and environmental practices, under-funding of public health institutions, or under-planning for the current pandemic. We have, in fact, had plenty of warning about the potential for a highly infectious viral outbreak. So while it is natural to think fast in survival mode, we also need to think slow, to reflect, and to anticipate.  

COVID-19 knows no borders, and neither should our response. Whether these borders are international frontiers, disciplinary boundaries, or industry sectors, it is clear that we need to work together to understand the wide-ranging implications of COVID-19.  

In recent days and weeks our international law community has, like many other communities and in its own way, been scrambling to make sense of the situation in which we find ourselves. It has offered understanding, it has revealed hidden realities, it has cautioned about the various risks at stake, and it has begun to speculate about how to remedy the challenges we face. It is indeed encouraging to see a growing number of voices contributing to the debate. We are convinced that pooling intellectual resources, collaboration, and communication are central in navigating crises. Since announcing this symposium on social media, we have tried to collate and share as much of this new thinking as we can.

Through this symposium we aim to facilitate the dissemination of expertise and insights at a critical time. If we have learnt anything in the experience of the last few weeks, it is that failing to appreciate, understand, and act upon information can have devastating consequences.

Each contribution appraises the impact of COVID-19 from different perspectives of international law. With over 30 contributions, some of which feature as part of complementary clusters of analysis around a given topic area, we are delighted that the symposium is as broad as it is deep. Many of the authors in this symposium question whether international law, or its failure, is complicit in the COVID-19 crisis. Others ask how international law can or should respond to the pandemic.

We hope the contributions will help catalyse the conversation beyond the parameters of this symposium. Moreover, we hope that these pieces will form part of a broader constructive response to COVID-19, to alleviate its impact, to prevent similar crises occurring again, and to re-make the international order in a more equitable, more just, and more environmentally-conscious way. 

We have been honoured by the response to this symposium. All authors have written their pieces in record time and under invariably challenging circumstances. They have done so because they appreciate the significance of this moment. If the collegiality we have experienced in assembling this symposium is a reflection of the state of our profession and its desire to offer help when it is needed most, we can be hopeful about its future and the contribution it can make.

Philip Allott once observed: ‘In law-making society speaks to its future, intending that, when the time comes, its future will listen to its past’. We now need to imagine our best future, and remember that for our imagination to become reality, we must make it so.

Here is a running list of contributions, with links:

Philippe Sands: COVID-19 and International Law

Frédéric Mégret:  Returning “Home”: Nationalist International Law in the Time of the Coronavirus

Leslie-Anne Duvic-Paoli: The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Limits of International Environmental Law

Pedro Villarreal: “Can They Really Do That?” States’ Obligations under the International Health Regulations in Light of COVID-19 (Part 1 and Part 2)

Mark Eccleston-Turner: The Declaration of a Public Health Emergency of International Concern in International Law

Dina Lupin Townsend: COVID-19 and the Human Right to Water and Sanitation

Martins Paparinskis: COVID-19 and the Foundations of International Law

Elizabeth Stubbins Bates: Article 2 ECHR’s Positive Obligations: How Can Human Rights Law Inform the Protection of Health Care Personnel and Vulnerable Patients in the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Tim Fish Hodgson and Ian Seiderman: COVID-19 Responses and State Obligations Concerning the Right to Health (Part 1 and Part 2)

Barrie Sander and Luca Belli: COVID-19, Cyber Surveillance Normalisation and Human Rights Law

Toby Cadman: The Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Prisoners

Tara Van Ho: A Time to Kill ‘Business as Usual’–Centering Human Rights in a Frustrated Economy (Part 1 and Part 2)

Ntina Tzouvala: The Combined and Uneven Geography of COVID-19, or On Law, Capitalism and Disease

Mona Pinchis-Paulsen: Thinking Creatively and Learning from COVID-19–How the WTO can Maintain Open Trade on Critical Supplies

Douglas Guilfoyle: Teaching Public International Law in the Time of Coronavirus—Migrating Online

Matt Pollard, Mathilde Laronche and Viviana Grande: The Courts and Coronavirus (Part 1 and Part 2)

Nina Sun and Livio Zilli: The Use of Criminal Sanctions in COVID-19 Responses—(Exposure and Transmission, Part 1, and Enforcement of Public Health Measures, Part 2)

León Castellanos-Jankiewicz: US Border Closure Breaches International Refugee Law

Priya Pillai: COVID-19 and Migrants–Gaps in the International Legal Architecture?

Marcos D. Kotlik and Ezequiel Heffes: COVID-19 in Conflict-Affected Areas–Armed Groups as Part of a Global Solution

Solon Solomon: Israel and its International Law COVID-19 Obligations Towards Gaza

Craig D. Gaver and Nishadee Parera: Will the UN Security Council Act on COVID-19?

Fabricio Guariglia: COVID-19 and International Criminal Law

Martin Scheinin: To Derogate or Not to Derogate?

Sam Zarifi and Kate Powers: Human Rights in the Time of COVID-19–Front and Centre

Gayle Manchin and James Carr: Don’t Let Religious Freedom Become a Casualty of Coronavirus

Margherita Melillo: The Right to Enjoy the Benefits of Scientific Progress at the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Alonso Gurmendi: COVID-19 and the ‘Western Gaze’

Marina Aksenova: Quantum Leaps of International Law

Gina Heathcote and Michelle Staggs Kelsall: Law in the Time of Corona (or: Dear Dr…)

Matiangai Sirleaf: COVID-19 and the Racialization of Diseases (Part 1 and Part 2)

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