Suing China for Covid-19 frivolous and immoral

Md Enamul Hassan

Ever since the beginning of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan in late last December, China has simultaneously been fighting a war on two fronts against the virus and the Western propaganda. China has shown tremendous success in fighting the coronavirus. But it is still beset with a large scale propaganda war by Western politicians. Many media outlets from the West also love to dance to the tune of their politicians. And they are going hand in hand with pernicious smear campaigns against China over the coronavirus.

When China was totally exhausted in curbing the outbreak at its very outset, many Western media ran reports to make the efforts of China in combating the virus questionable. They blamed China for taking unnecessary harsher measures in its war against the outbreak. They even held China responsible for violation of human rights while fighting the coronavirus.

As the world's second-largest economy has reaped the dividends of its strategies for defeating the virus, Western politicians have eventually changed their tune and come up with new allegations against China. The media outlets have also joined the new chorus of their politicians to tarnish the image of China.

Amid such hectic smear campaigns, an article titled 'COVID-19: The feasibility of making China legally responsible' has recently caught my attention. The article was published in the largest circulated English daily of Bangladesh.

The author of the article, a lawyer of the country's apex court, has incorporated several provisions and articles of some international laws in his write-up to show how China might legally be made responsible for the global spread of the coronavirus. The write-up even goes over the possibilities of holding China responsible before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for its role in the pandemic and for making reparation for the damage caused thereby.

As I am not a lawyer, I won't try to give legal explanations of the mentioned provisions and articles. But, as a journalist, I have professional responsibilities to let the world know the fact which must prove China has never breached the provisions and articles of any international laws while tackling the outbreak.

The lawyer has mentioned that China has failed to abide by two international obligations to notify the WHO within 24 hours of the discovery of the new coronavirus and to share information on such an unexpected public health event under articles 6 and 7 of the International Health Regulation 2005 (IHR) respectively.

Citing that the pandemic has been affecting the right to life and the right to health of millions of people globally, the author further mentioned that it could be argued that China breached the human rights of its citizens and millions of global citizens by not respecting the IHR and International human rights law. Because the article 3 of the IHR states that the IHR principles shall be respected with full dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms.

As China has breached the obligations of the IHR, the author has said, China could be held responsible for committing international wrongful acts under some articles of the Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA). Thus China is liable to full reparation for the injury caused by the internationally wrongful act.

What I could understand by reading the aforesaid arguments is that the lawyer has pointed out that China has breached the obligations of the IHR by concealing the information of the outbreak with the WHO. The concealment didn't allow the world to find enough time to make preparations for preventing and controlling the coronavirus resulting in the pandemic. Thus China breached human rights and committed internationally wrongful acts. China is, therefore, liable for damages for the pandemic and it has to compensate affected countries around the world.

But the fact says the other way around. On December 27, 2019, a hospital in Hubei Province of China reported three cases of pneumonia of unknown causes for the first time. Two days later, relevant authorities carried out an epidemiological investigation and notified the WHO office in China on December 31. On January 3, 2020, China formally reported to the WHO and the virus was separated on January 7. On January 12, the whole genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus was shared with the WHO. Since then, China has been keeping contact with the WHO and other countries.

The aforesaid timeline proves that China has never concealed information about the outbreak. Rather it has notified the world this incident in an extremely speedy, open, transparent, and responsible way. China even didn't breach the obligation of the IHR to notify the UN health agency within 24 hours of the discovery of the new virus. Because the country informed the WHO about the novel coronavirus on the very day it got confirmed about its discovery, December 31. As a result, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the speed and scale of China's move were rarely seen in the world.

Even US President Donald J Trump himself has praised China for its transparency and management of the outbreak. CNN identified at least 37 separate instances where Trump praised China from January to April 1.

In a tweet on January 24, Trump said, 'China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!'.

 'Just finished a very good conversation with President Xi of China. Discussed in great detail the CoronaVirus that is ravaging large parts of our Planet. China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!’, Trump tweeted on January 29.

The US president again took to Twitter on February 7 to say that 'he (President Xi) will be successful, especially as the weather starts to warm & the virus hopefully becomes weaker and then gone. Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation. We are working closely with China to help!'.

The write-up has also referred to the interpretations of several provisions of the WHO Constitution to show how any state can drag China to the ICJ for the alleged breach of its IHR obligations. But the writer has admitted that the WHO Constitution does not contain any substantive obligations of the international health law. I should refrain from making any comment on this argument as it makes no sense after such an admission by the writer himself.

The lawyer has also argued that a state could claim that China has defeated the object and purpose of the WHO Constitution— "the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health" under the Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties (VCLT). Because the VCLT states that a state is obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty.

In reply to this argument, I would like to assert that China has never tried to defeat the object and purpose of the WHO Constitution. Rather China has always been in cooperation and communication with the UN health agency from the very beginning of the outbreak. The above-mentioned timeline is more than enough to prove the veracity of this claim.

The write-up has also tried to hold China responsible for breaching provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention. It said that Article I of the Convention restricts China to undertake in any circumstances to retain microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for protective or other peaceful purposes. But the writer has stopped short of saying clearly how China has breached the obligations of the convention. That's why I couldn't make any point about this argument.

Finally, the international community and the medical professionals, in particular, praised the speed and intensity of China’s prevention and control measures at the outbreak, which effectively prevented the spread of the virus and saved tens of millions of innocent people in China and the world. In my eyes, the information sharing was also highly transparent and China’s efforts provided valuable time and experience for the international community to fight the pandemic. That's why blaming China for the coronavirus pandemic is not only unlawful but also immoral.

The author is the China Correspondent of the Bangladesh Post.