International Cooperation and Human Rights Protection in the Fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic
May 29,2022   By:CSHRS
International Cooperation and Human Rights Protection in the Fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic
ZHAO Shukun*
Abstract: The protection of human rights through international cooperation has a long history. Core human rights conventions, regional human rights treaties and other human rights instruments have continuously developed the meaning and scope of international human rights cooperation. The modern risk-laden society with a high degree of complexity and uncertainty has changed the world pattern, which calls for the building of a community with a shared future for human beings with cooperation as the starting point. Under the constant threat of the novel coronavirus, we must continue to deepen the concept of a community with a shared future for human beings, adhere to a “human rights-oriented” approach, and pay particular attention to the current supply and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as an important global public good. Only through solidarity and cooperation can mankind finally win the battle against this pandemic and protect human rights.
Keywords: international cooperation · protection of human rights · fight against the Covid-19 pandemic · public goods
At the Global Health Summit on May 21, 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping made it clear, “This pandemic once again shows us that we humanity rise and fall together with a shared future. In the face of a pandemic like COVID-19, we need to uphold the vision of building a global community of health for all, tide over this trying time through solidarity and cooperation, and firmly oppose all attempts to politicize, label or stigmatize the virus.” President Xi also announced five specific measures China would take to support global solidarity against COVID-19, including providing an additional 3 billion US dollars in international aid over the next three years to support COVID-19 response and economic and social recovery in other developing countries. Having already supplied 300 million doses of vaccines to the world, China will provide still more vaccines to the best of its ability. China supports its vaccine companies in transferring technologies to other developing countries and carrying out joint production with them. Having announced support for waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines, China also supports the World Trade Organization and other international institutions in making an early decision on this matter. China proposes setting up an international forum for the vaccine developing and producing countries, companies and other stakeholders to explore ways of promoting fair and equitable distribution of vaccines around the world.1 These proposals and measures are a vivid demonstration of China’s promoting of international cooperation in the fight the pandemic and solid practice in China’s implementation of human rights protection. Starting from international cooperation in human rights protection, this paper discusses the necessity of international cooperation in the context of the fight against the pandemic and the protecting of human rights during the pandemic, and discusses some issues needing attention in international cooperation against this background.
I. International Cooperation is Essential and the Only Way to Protect Human Rights
The protection of human rights through international cooperation has a long history. Long before the creation of the United Nations, the international community had engaged in international cooperation on issues such as the prohibition of the slave trade, the improvement of the conditions of the wounded in war and the protection of the rights of workers.2 After World War II, when drawing up peace plans, the victorious nations gave special consideration to how to ensure peace, security and protection of human rights through international cooperation.3 This consideration is embodied in the Charter of the United Nations. According to item 3 in Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations, it is specified that one of the United Nations’ purposes is “to achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” In order to achieve this purpose, Chapter IX of the Charter of the United Nations, under the title of “International Economic and Social Cooperation,” specially requires that “all members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action” in cooperation with the United Nations (Article 56) to promote “solutions to international economic, social, health and related problems; and international cultural and educational cooperation”, and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.” (Article 55).
The protection of human rights through international cooperation is also a frequent presence in core human rights conventions, regional human rights treaties and other human rights instruments. Articles 2 and 22 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights define international cooperation on human rights as a means for States parties to fulfill their obligations. In 1990, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights devoted General Comment No. 2 to international technical assistance measures. The American Convention on Human Rights and its Additional Protocols, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, etc., stipulate the obligations of States parties for international cooperation on human rights.
Whereas international cooperation is “a recognized means of contributing to the realization of human rights,”4 the scope and meaning of international cooperation on human rights are both developing rapidly. In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action also affirmed in its opening paragraph “to strengthen international cooperation in the field of human rights is crucial to fully realizing the purpose (respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms) of the United Nations,” then “international cooperation,” “cooperation,” “assistance,” “coordination,” etc. are mentioned many times in the following paragraphs, and in the second part, a special chapter is set up to emphasize “cooperation, development and strengthening of human rights.” Based on all these, some scholars have pointed out that international cooperation to promote and protect human rights has become a consensus of the international community. This consensus has three dimensions. First, states should cooperate in the protection of human rights based on moral and ethical considerations, so as to safeguard human dignity. Second, states should view international cooperation as an indispensable and important means of promoting international protection of human rights. Third, for most states, international cooperation is a legal obligation based on international human rights treaties.5
China has always believed that human rights should be promoted and protected through cooperation and dialogue rather than confrontation and conflict. In 1991, China’s first white paper on human rights stated that “China stands for strengthening international cooperation in the field of human rights on the basis of mutual understanding and seeking common ground while shelving differences.” China’s three National Human Rights Action Plans all emphasize that the Chinese government stands for strengthening international exchanges, dialogue and cooperation on human rights, working with other countries in the world for the sound development of the world human rights cause, and making due contributions to the building of a harmonious world of lasting peace and common prosperity. China’s above-mentioned position is also supported and applauded by many countries in the world.
II. Fighting the Pandemic and Protecting Human Rights Calls for International Cooperation in Particular
With the process of modernization, mankind has entered the so-called “risk society.”6 Natural disasters, wars, plagues, refugees, cross-border crimes, cyber information security, nuclear security, financial risks, environmental pollution, climate change... These events in the risk society, with their high complexity and high uncertainty, have changed the pattern of the world and turned mankind into a community with a shared future with the ubiquitous risk pressure. A community with a shared future for human beings should be based on the concept of the symbiosis and co-existence of countries and civilizations. In the pursuit of this symbiosis and coexistence, cooperative action is the starting point and basic principle and the required mode of action and the realization of a community with a shared future for human beings is the goal.7
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a threat to all countries, and a major test for international cooperation and global governance. Since the end of World War II, there has not been an incident like this pandemic, which has made all countries appreciate how closely linked they are to one another and that all countries share a common future. The fierce COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent mutations of the virus have made people realize the importance and urgency of building a community with a shared future for human beings. On one hand, the transmissibility of the virus has made it more difficult for countries to control the virus alone. On the other hand, countries are so interconnected that the ultimate control of the pandemic no longer depends on the prevention and control effects of a certain country, but on that of the whole world. This is why President Xi Jinping’s vision of building a community with a shared future for human beings has won wide recognition and response in the international fight against the pandemic. In the face of this far-reaching global public health crisis, “mankind cannot completely defeat the virus until the virus gets eliminated in each and every country. All parties should unite as one and strengthen cooperation.” Only through unity and cooperation can we win this struggle that concerns the future and destiny of mankind.
One concept that must be introduced when it comes to international cooperation to fight the pandemic and safeguard human rights is global public goods (GPGs).8 Within a country, public goods, which usually refer to national defense and highways, can be provided independently by a sovereign state. With the deepening of globalization, human society faces more and more common problems, and the concept of global public goods came into being. The current relatively wellrecognized definitions of global public goods are those developed by the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank respectively. The former emphasizes the temporal and spatial extensibility of global public goods. On the one hand, their benefits lie in “strong public characteristics” and their consumption is non-competitive and non-exclusive. On the other hand, their benefits are fundamentally universal, accruing to all countries, peoples and generations, and the beneficiaries include mankind as a whole. The World Bank emphasizes international collective collaboration and identifies global public goods as “goods, resources, services, rule systems or policy systems with actual transnational externalities, which are very important for development and poverty reduction and can only be fully supplied by developed countries and developing countries through cooperation and collective action.”9 Obviously, the fight against the pandemic and the protection of human rights, such as regional public health emergency liaison, outbreak early warning and information sharing,10 require coordination among countries. Targeted and regular epidemic prevention and control and emergency response, ensuring of economic and social development, minimizing of the risk of cross-border spread of the epidemic, and building of multiple defense lines against the epidemic through joint prevention and control, all these “global public goods” need to be supplied through international cooperation and collective action.
In short, in the context of the continuing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, only by working together and resolutely seeking and achieving international cooperation can mankind finally win the battle against COVID-19 and protect human rights. “Unity”, one of the common values for building a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for human beings, has become the most frequently used word in the international community. This is the first time since the end of the Cold War that the international community has been deeply aware of the importance of the value of “unity” in maintaining the international order.11
III. The Path of International Cooperation to Fight the Pandemic and Protect Human Rights
In recent years, anti-multilateralism, exclusionary foreign policy and withdrawal from international cooperation mechanisms have cast a shadow over international cooperation against SARS-CoV-2. In the past two years of the fight against the pandemic, there have been arguments and actions that run counter to the trend of international cooperation. In order to overcome shortcomings in the practice of human rights protection and enhance the effectiveness of international cooperation, special attention should be paid to the following two points.
First, deepen the vision of building a community with a shared future for human beings. The virus knows no borders, and the pandemic knows no race. Only through solidarity and cooperation can the international community defeat the pandemic. In a telephone conversation with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on March 12, 2020, President Xi Jinping pointed out that the outbreak of COVID-19 once again shows that humanity is a community with a shared future. In the era of economic globalization, such a major emergency will not be the last. Traditional and non-traditional security issues will continue to bring new challenges. The international community must foster a sense that it forms a community with a shared future for human beings, help each other and work together to address the risks and challenges and make our planet a better place. Zero-sum thinking leads nowhere. We need to overcome the inertia of industrial society and the competitive culture of capitalism. All countries should share their experience in prevention, control and treatment without reserve, provide support and assistance to countries in need, and work with the international community to defeat the pandemic. Only by deepening and consolidating the concept of building a community with a shared future for human beings can it play a guiding role in international cooperation and promote the effectiveness of the international fight against COVID-19.
Second, adhere to the “human rights-oriented” approach. In its General Comment No.2 on measures for international technical assistance, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights calls for a human rights-based approach to actions related to international cooperation, bearing in mind the “human development dimension” and upholding the objective of protecting the rights of the poor and the vulnerable.12 International cooperation should be conducted in a manner consistent with human rights, and all prevention and control measures should fully take into account the needs of vulnerable groups. For example, measures such as entry and exit restrictions and distribution of epidemic prevention materials should fully take into account the needs of the disabled, the elderly and children and give them proper preference. In addition, it is necessary to explore a special response for the elderly, the disabled and other vulnerable groups in a public health crisis and the dilemma of social support, review whether the resource needs of those who are vulnerable are adequately supported within the framework of international cooperation against COVID-19, focus on strengthening the adaptability and resilience of vulnerable groups, and develop a new approach to human rights protection.13 This is not only a reminder of international cooperation from the perspective of “vulnerability,” but also a “human rights-oriented” approach.
In addition, it is important to note that the most visible and important global public good at present is the COVID-19 vaccines.14 There is no doubt that multilateralism is the only way to improve the effectiveness of international cooperation on vaccines against the pandemic. On one hand, international organizations need to play a bigger role. The World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions should provide prompt and inclusive financing support for vaccine development, production and procurement, and the World Trade Organization should step up research on IPR exemption. On the other hand, institutionalization and implementation are indispensable. All countries should respect the WHO List of COVID-19 Vaccines for Emergency Use and other certification systems, and conduct mutual certification of vaccines and coordination of regulatory policies based on scientific and equitable principles. To be specific, when it comes to international cooperation on the COVID-19 vaccines, first of all, people’s lives and health must be put first, and other considerations such as economic and political interests should not be placed above them. Vaccines must remain the primary global public good and “vaccine nationalism” must not continue to prevail. Vaccines are a life-saving weapon, not a means for a country to seek its private interests, let alone a tool to carry out geopolitical games. Second, we need to step up assistance to developing countries. To address the “production capacity deficit” and “distribution deficitm” we should not only increase supply, but also provide assistance for developing countries through technology transfer and joint production, and ensure the global supply of raw materials. We should step up vaccine sharing efforts and the delivery speed to achieve universal access and affordability of vaccines in developing countries, especially the least developed countries, as soon as possible. Third, vaccines related to specific groups should be considered. Access to and acceptance of vaccines is challenging for certain groups because of social, geographic, political, economic and environmental factors. The vaccine needs and allergic reactions of the elderly, children, persons with disabilities, pregnant and breastfeeding persons, and users of specific medicines should be fully taken into account.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to add “Together” to the Olympic motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” at its 138th session in Tokyo on July 20, 2021.15 In today’s divided world, the Olympics should bring countries “together.” Likewise, fighting the pandemic and protecting human rights also need all countries and peoples to work together.
(Translated by NIU Huizi)
* ZHAO Shukun ( 赵树坤 ), Professor and Doctoral Supervisor at Human Rights Institute, Southwest University of Political Science and Law.
1. Xi Jinping’s Speech at the Global Health Summit (Full Text), Chinese government website, accessed July 1, 2021, http://www.gov.cn/xinwen/2021-05/21/content_5610214.htm
2. Bai Guimei, International Human Rights and Development: Chinese and Canadian Perspectives (Beijing: Law Press, 1998), 84-85.
3. Torkel Opsahl, International Human Rights: An Introduction, Norwegian Institute of Human Rights, 1996, page 4.
4. A. Eide et al., Tutorial on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, translated by China Society for Human Rights Studies (Chengdu: Sichuan People’s Publishing House, 2nd edition, 2004), 386.
5. Mao Junxiang, Theory and Practice of China’s Participation in International Cooperation on Human Rights(Changsha: Central South University Press, 2017), 45.
6. For the proposal and systematic elaboration of risk society, please refer to Ulrich Beck, Risk Society, translated by He Bowen (Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2004).
7. Zhang Kangzhi, “On the Symbiosis and Co-existence of Human in the Risk Society”, Journal of Hainan University (Humanities and Social Sciences Edition) 4 (2021).
8. Wolfgang Buchholz and Todd Sandler, “Global Public Goods: A Survey”, Journal of Economic Literature 2 (2021): 488-545.
9. Inge Kaul et al., Global Public Goods: International Cooperation in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
10. Jin Zining, “The Early Warning System for Public Health Emergencies from the Risk Perspective”, Contemporary Law Review 3 (2020).
11. Su Changhe, “Unswervingly Advancing the Building of a Community with a Shared Future for Human Beings in International Cooperation against COVID-19”, Red Flag Manuscripts 9 (2020).
12. CESCR, GC No.2, para. 9. 
13. Zhang Wanhong and Liu Yuan, “Safeguarding the Rights of Special Groups from the Perspective of Vulnerability: A Case study of the Elderly in a Public Health Crisis”, in Human Rights Studies vol. 23 (Beijing, Social Sciences Academic Press, 2020), 25-33.
14. Gordon Brown and Daniel Susskind, “International Cooperation during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 1 (2020): 64–76.
15. “Settle! ‘Together’ Is Included into the Olympic Motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’, baijiahao website, accessed July 1, 2021, https://baijiahao.baidu.com/s?id=1705787603051273765&wfr=spider&for=pc.
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