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An Academic Summary of the International Seminar Series on “State Responsibilities for the Protection of Human Rights in Public Health Crises”
January 05,2021   By:CSHRS
An Academic Summary of the International Seminar Series on “State Responsibilities for the Protection of Human Rights in Public Health Crises”
 
ZHAO Jianzhou*
 
Abstract: On June 8, 2020, an international video conference on “State Responsibilities for the Protection of Human Rights in Public Health Crises,” co-organized by the Human Rights Center of Jilin University, the Law School of Jilin University, the Theoretical Law Research Center of Jilin University and Saint-Petersburg State University of Russia, was successfully held under the guidance of the China Society for Human Rights Studies. Chinese and foreign experts and scholars from universities and research institutions at home and abroad participated in the discussion. In the context of a public health crisis and against the background of a complex international situation,the seminar discussed the responsibility of a state to protect human rights from the perspective of the rights and obligations of states regulated by international laws and the international cooperation exhibited by international relations. It fully demonstrated the importance of multilateral cooperation and promoted the concept of a community with a shared future for human beings.
 
Keywords: public health crisis · the Covid-19 pandemic · human rights protection · conference overview
 
On June 8, 2020, the fifth session of the series of international seminars on global epidemic prevention and control and human rights protection and the state’s responsibilities for the protection of human rights during a public health crisis was held. It was jointly sponsored by the Human Rights Center of Jilin University, School of Law, Jilin University, the Theoretical Law Research Center of Jilin University, and the Saint-Petersburg State University, headquartered in Russia, under the guidance of the China Society for Human Rights Studies. Around 40 Chinese and foreign experts and scholars from universities and research institutions at home and abroad, including Jilin University, Saint-Petersburg State University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China University of Political Science and Law, Southwest University of Political Science and Law, Wuhan University, City University of Hong Kong, and Moscow State University, as well as representatives of the media took part in the discussions.
 
I. Responsibilities for Protecting Human Rights within the Context of a Public Health Crisis
 
The state’s responsibilities for the protection of human rights durring a public health crisis is a topic worthy of in-depth discussion because it is not an individual problem in a certain field or country but rather an issue concerning the social stability of the international community and the overall well-being of people around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most threatening and challenging public health crises that the international community has encountered. The deadly COVID-19 pandemic has struck every sector at the international and domestic levels, producing shock waves that far surpass the fields of public hygiene and health. In the field of public health, the sharp surge in the numbers of infected persons has caused a run on medical resources and supplies and put severe pressure on the healthcare system of every country to meet the increasing demands for medical supplies and medical professionals. So far as economic development is concerned, the international economy having been recovering slowly since the subprime crisis in 2008 suffers another blow;anddue to the restricitons onpeople and resource flowas a result oftaking the epidemic prevention measures, domestic production and consumption have experienced a steady decline in every country and the financial indicators as the barometer of the economy have also fallen sharply. In the field of social politics, the sweeping quarantine measures implemented in certain countries have aroused much dispute, social unrest has been intensified with the increase of unemployment as a result of suspended production, and issues of race and religion have come to the fore and there has been an increase in crimes. In addition, populism has also increased tensions between countries.1 Faced with the complex factors of the pandemic, the international community should have met the crisis facing global health and economic development with a joint response in the spirit of solidarity; nevertheless, some countries and organizations have harmed international laws and impeded the protection of human rights during the crisis by trying to pass the buck for their own mistakes and making groundless accusations instead.
 
At the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly, held via videoconference, China’s top leaders expounded on the overall attitude and stance that China has taken as a responsible large country during the COVID-19 pandemic and raised six suggestions for the fight against the pandemic, including strengthening global public health governance, and enhancing multilateral international cooperation.2 These suggestions were based on China’s practical experience in fighting against the pandemic and the concept it has proposed of building a community with a shared future for human beings. In reality, every country must shoulder its responsibility for protecting human rights at various levels and in various fields in the face of such a major public health crisis no matter whether it is the international community or domestic society. 
 
At home, a country has to protect the basic rights and freedoms of its citizens,including the right to know, the right to information transmission, the right to enjoy public health services, the right to medical treatment when infected, the right to basic living conditions on being quarantined, the right of people living in affected areas to not be discriminated against, the privacy rights of those who are infected, the right to personal liberty of those confirmed infected or suspected of beng infected, the property rights of individuals whose property has been requisitioned during epidemic prevention and control work, the right to freedom of expression, participation rights, and supervision rights during the epidemic prevention and control period.3 During the implementation of the epidemic prevention and control measures, some of those basic rights and freedoms have been infringed on, for example, the right to life and health; some rights were potentially impacted by the strict measures implemented for preventing and controlling the spread of the virus, for example, freedom of information, personal freedom, and property rights; and some rights have been affected by conflicts with the rights of others, for example, people’s right to freedom of expression. The responsibilities of the state are not merely to fulfill the duties during the processof carrying out prevention and control measures, and restraining the violation of human rights less actively while it is not just performing duties in providing for the life safety of people activelyby giving them appropriate health care services, they also include the rather arduous task of carefully prioritizing respective human rights so as to guarantee their coordination and coexistence during the pandemic.
 
As for the international community, emerging countries represented by China have an increasingly greater capablity to provide public goods and a stronger desire to participate in international governance and reform of the international system with the gradual status change of the international power structure between developed and developing countries. At the same time, the United States as the leader of developed countries is gradually withdrawing from its promises and multilateral institutions,creating a structural imbalance in international governance and a governance deficit in the field of non-traditional security. It has become evident that when multilateral cooperation is urgently needed, the United States has decided to pursue unilateralism and isolationism instead. On the one hand, it has sought to hinder the coordinating activities of the World Health Organization due to the weakening of US influence in international organizations. On the other hand, it has damaged the already fragile multilateral cooperation by criticizing the measures and contributions made by other countries in conducting epidemic prevention and control work. With problems regularly occurring in the traditional international governance structure, international governance is changing from “capital-oriented” development to “human-oriented” development, from nation-centered governance to the multi-centered governance, and from a focus on traditional security to a focus on development at multiple levels and in diversified directions.4 Throughout such a process, China will play a more significant role in international public health governance, be more active in providing public goods, and be a good protector of the existing multilateral mechanisms and reformer of the international governance system. At the same time, it will advocate a more just and equitable international order and international relations pursuing the core ideology of “a community with a shared future for human beings.”5
 
II. Perspectives of China and Foreign Countries on Protecting Hu- man Rights
 
Professor He Zhipeng, executive director of the Human Rights Center of Jilin University and dean of Jilin University School of Law, pointed out that in the face of the serious global challenge facing the international community in controlling the novel coronavirus, China will continue to adhere to and promote multilateral cooperation and actively shoulder its public health responsibilities. The white paper entitled Fighting COVID-19: China in Action released on June 7, 2020 it documented in detail the difficult experience China has had in fighting the pandemic, and the cooperative combat it launched on the two warzones of preventing and controlling the pandemic on one side and treating and curing the infected on the other side. Thatexhibited China’s ability to rally together forces to fight the pandemic, and its toleranceand resolve to collaborate in building a global community for health for all, and that conference is just an echo to the white paper. Professor Cai Lidong, deputy dean of the Jilin University, pointed out that within the last half-year, we have observed how the the public health crisis has impacted the daily lives of people around the world and witnessed how the international community and domestic society have been challenged by the contagiousness of the virus. It is only during this critical moment that we have become deeply aware of the major significance of protecting human rights during a public health crisis. In order to effectively combat the pandemic and protect the lives and health of the people, each country has put in place a series of measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus, during which problems have emerged in balancing different demands and in combating the challenge of US unilateralism. Analyzing, unscrambling, and reflecting on the problems which have been highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic can help guarantee the welfare of countries and people in the long run.
 
A. Domestic human rights protection
 
As for domestic human rights protection, experts and scholars from home and abroad held discussions on various angles of the state’s duty during a pandemic to protect its citizens, various benefits of balancing and coordinating responsibilities, its obligations in the recovery of enterprise vitality and promotion of economic development, and the norms to be adhered to by the rule of law in a state of emergency, etc. 
 
Professor Sun Shiyan from the Institute of International Law of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences pointed out that the control and prevention measures which the state implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic affected certain humanrights, including the to education, right to life, and health rights. When restricting rights as part of prevention and control measures to curb transmission fof the viru, the government should maintain the right balance. On the one hand, the government should take into account the efficiency of the prevention and control measures implemented when dealing with the pandemicso as to prevent the spread and resurgence of the epidemic; on the other hand, however, it should keep a balance between maintaining the prevention and control work with protecting human rights, not excessively infringingon human rights.
 
Regarding the relationship between the government and business during the pandemic, Professor Wang Jiangyu, director of the Centre for Chinese and Comparative Law at the City University of Hong Kong, pointed out that the relevant policy model for “what role the government should play in economic development” is already relatively mature and the changes it has undergone can serve as a reference. During his presentation, Professor Wang discussed the relationship between law and commerce in the common law of the state, introduced some economic development policy models, presented several models for government-business relations, and then based on such a premise discussed the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on government and business relations. According to Professor Wang, one of the key points regarding the government-business relationship during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak is probably how the government is able to provide economic relief for contracts which are not able to be carried out during the pandemic outbreak, thus facilitating employment by assisting enterprises to pay their rents and loans, promoting infrastructure investment, and reducing the negative impact on the development of enterprises and the national economy.
 
Associate Professor Aleksei V. Dolzhikov from the Saint-Petersburg State University headquartered in Russia discussed lawmaking based on the experience of Russia, and he summarized the elementary principles of delegated legislation and protection of primary rights. According to the Russian Constitution, investigations must be conducted on emergencies by following the principle of proportionality. In the Constitution of Russia, importance is placed on protecting people, human rights, and freedom; the attitude toward restricting liberty on the basis of public grounds is always cautious. He introduced the series of legislative mandate measures that the Russian government has implemented at different levels from the central government to local governments since the COVID-19 pandemic started to break out. He summarized the source of basic human rights laws that were involved in the prevention and control work of the pandemic and their range of derogation and limitations. He then elaborated on issues that included the advantages of delegated legislation (professional, flexible, and meticulous) and its disadvantages (lack of transparency and supervision). After that, he explained the limitations of the Constitution on delegated legislation, including the norms of parliamentary supervision, judicial reviews, public participation, and the essential principles of establishing the Constitution.
 
Professor Yu Jun from the Human Rights Center of Jilin University presented his in-depth analysis on the two difficult choices countries face in maintaining mobility in the context of a public health crisis. Taking a historical perspective, he introduced the “mobility” dilemma created by social distancing and home quarantining measures in the epidemic preventation measures, pointing out the contradiction caused by people’s negative response to the “lack of mobility”. From the perspective of “the protective rsponsibiliies of the state”, he believes there have existed examples of taking measures to limit mobility in history. But from the perspective of “production responsibilities of the state”, the rapid development of information technology and transportation science and technology have reduced the costs of restricted flows of capital, labor, and cargo, gradually replacing traditional liquidity standards. According to Professor Yu, spatial mobility, social mobility, and economic mobility are three aspects of a state. The conflict between the social and economic polarization and spatial mobility has resulted in a separation of the center, the contradiction between social mobility and spatial mobility has given birth to populism, and the tension between social and economic polarization and social mobility have together created a trend of stratified awkwardness. Since the triangulation of the state is rooted in mobility, dissolving the contradictions and conflicts is inseparable from the restoration of mobility. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state should try to maintain a balance between production and survival and take an appropriate position on spatial mobility issues.
 
Associate Professor Alexander Molotnikov from Moscow State University introduced the potential impact of emerging technology on human rights from the perspective of laws and ethics. He pointed out that in addition to the convenience and progress which emerging technologies have brought to people’s lives, they have also brought legal and ethical challenges. Big data technology has been utilized during the COVID-19 pandemic for monitoring people’s movements, and each country’s government has attempted to utilize this means to increase the efficiency of preventing and controlling the epidemic. But at the same time, the large-scale application of big data technology is to have certain impact on people’s privacy rights. Therefore, while new technologies continue developing, an appropriate and ingenious balance must be maintained between human rights and public benefits.
 
Professor Alexander Zezekalo from Saint-Petersburg State University pointed out in his presentation that not only has the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the protection of many primary human rights, but it has also sparked discussion on how to strike the optimum balance between limiting human rights and protecting people’s lives and health as well as the obligation to limit human rights within reason while forcing every country to implement corresponding prevention measures to control the spread of infectious diseases. The government’s obligation to provide the public with relevant information involves guaranteeing public health and welfare and protecting social stability, and thus it is a crucial part of the epidemic prevention and control work. Taking into consideration ensuring the dissemination of information in early cases of domestic laws of various countries, International Human Rights Convention, and international human rights judicial bodies, the duty of the government was forbidden to limit the freedom to disseminate free information or protect the environment of public opinion in which information was freely disseminated. Later human rights practices revealedthat such a duty gradually included the information provided to public institutions by the public and the media, and it also included the responsibility of the government to collect relevant information and actively disseminate it to the public. Fulfilling that responsibility during a pandemic is very important.
 
B. International human rights protection
 
The participating experts and scholars conducted discussions on various aspects of human rights protection with regard to multilateral cooperation and international legal rights and obligations, etc.
 
Associate Professor Fozia Nazia Lone from the School of Law City University of Hong Kong elaborated on her perspective of China’s role and status in the international community during the post-pandemic era. She pointed out that the Chinese government proposed a global governance initiative of international cooperation, signifying that China is willing to take a leading role in dealing with future pandemics. Since dealing with an outbreak of an infectious disease calls for effective multinational cooperation and the highly efficient coordination of national and international institutions, China’s position is sure to transform the present global and regional structure for dealing with infectious diseases. As most countries place importance on protecting themselves, the Chinese government’s attitude toward protecting human rights, that is, placing the top priority on the obligation to protect people’s lives and health and attaching importance to promoting epidemic prevention and control work through international cooperation with multilateral organizations, is of progressive significance. In her presentation, Professor Lone also emphasized that under the leadership of China, a new Asian public health safety system and framework for dealing with infectious diseases will probably gradually take shape. In such a system, the concept of a community with a shared future for human beings proposed by China will play a more significant active role in the field of international public health cooperation.
 
Dr. Peng Qinxuan, associate researcher at the Institute of International Law, Wuhan University, started her presentation with the lawsuit filed by the State of Missouri against China.She analyzed whether China should take legal responsibility for the US public health crisis or not according to international law. Utilizing a question-and-answer format, Dr. Peng proposed and analyzed four key questions: 1. Are the judicial officials from Missouri qualified to conduct an investigation and prosecute China? 2. Should not the issues involved in this case be considered political matters and thus not be handled by a judicial process? 3. Are state immunity and exceptional cases applicable in this case, and 4. Can China use “force majeure” as response to this case? Those four questions together formed a logical argument clearly revealing that regardless of whether you look at the issue from the appropriateness of the people’s identity who filed the lawsuit, or international and national legal norms of sovereign-immunity of states, the lawsuit filed by Missouri State cannot succeed. In addition to fighting against the present pandemic, China should stay on guard against other countries taking advantage of international legislative means to attack China. 
 
III. Conclusion
 
“Openness, inclusiveness, reasonableness, balance, and mutually beneficial” is the core idea and aim of China’s proposal that countries build a community with a shared future for human beings. Such a concept is not only the cornerstone that should be placed at the heart of the international community’s response to the pandemic but also a piece of Chinese wisdom that is indispensable for the future development of human civilization. It is in the spirit of openness, inclusiveness, and solidarity that this conference has been held, and this is a microcosm of all nations coming together to overcome common challenges. Chinese President Xi Jinping has pointed out that the international community faces the four major deficits — in governance, trust, peace, and development — and the response should adhere to the four concepts of reasonableness, consultation, and mutual learning, solidarity, and mutual benefit.6 The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the arduous long-term task of neutralizing those “four major deficits.” Behind the governance deficit is the need to reform the present international public health governance system; behind the trust deficit is isolationism, the high rampart of unilateralism, the damage to multilateralism cooperation and confidence-building measures from beggar-thy-neighbor practices; behind the peace deficit is the lack of importance placed on the non-traditional security issues; and behind the development deficit is the lack of motivation for cooperation among participants in the international economic order whocompete for stock rather than pursue increment. Those four deficits directly impact the human rights and welfare of people in every country, and they are sure to have a direct effect on the future direction of the international community. Faced with the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic, every country should set aside their old ideas and traditional models, cooperate with the international community, exchange needed goods, share information and resources and provide developing and the least-developed countries with the support they need. They should also balance the benefits for their own society, which includes protecting the rights to life and health, while preventing unnecessary violations of other rights.
 
(Translated by HU Huaidong)
 
* ZHAO Jianzhou ( 赵健舟 ), Ph.D candidate at the School of Law, Jilin University, Researcher at the Human Rights Center of Jilin University.
 
1. Zhao Kejin, “Global Governance Challenges and Causes during Epidemic Outbreak”, Northeast Asian Forum 4 (2020): 28-32.
 
2. Xi Jinping, “Collaboration to Win the Battle against the Epidemic, Working Together to Build A Global Community for Health for All”, People’s Daily, May 19, 2020.
 
3. Chang Jian, “Protect Human Rights while Conducing Epidemic Prevention and Control”, Academics 2 (2020): 35-48.
 
4. Shi Benye and Ma Xiaoli, “Rebuilding of Global Governance System and China’s Role in the Post-Pandemic Era”, Northeast Asia Forum 4 (2020): 62 -69.
 
5. Zhang Qingmin, “COVID-19 Pandemic Tests Global Public Health Governance”, Northeast Asia Forum 4 (2020): 44-52.
 
6. Xi Jinping, “Contribute Wisdom and Strength to Make the Earth a Better Home for Us”, People’s Daily, March 27, 2019. 
 
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