The Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) and Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth along with the Study Group on International Law and Relations, Ernakulam organised a webinar involving International Law scholars and public policy makers titled “Reading International Law in the context of COVID 19: Narratives and Responses” on May 23, 2020. The speakers were Dr Aniruddha Rajput, International Law practitioner and member of the UN International Law Commission; Dr Elina Cusato, Professor at the Centre for International Law, University of Essex, London and Dr Prabash Ranjan, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Law, South Asian University, New Delhi and an International Economic Law scholar and former fellow at Brookings India. The discussion was moderated by Dr Harishankar K Sathyapalan, Research Fellow at CPPR and an Assistant Professor at Faculty of Law, CUSAT. It was followed by a Question and Answer session.

The webinar revolved around three narratives prevailing in the international order which were discussed in detail. The General Role of the International Law in COVID and the role of institutions in resolving the crisis, specifically the UNO (United Nations Organisation), law of state responsibility and the use of ICJ (International Court of Justice) in deciding culpability; the “War Metaphor”—COVID pandemic as a war and human rights suspension, especially the socioeconomic rights; and the International Economic Law—reversal of the economic globalisation and the prospects for future bilateral trade.

While speaking on the global institutions, their responses and the prospects of deciding the culpability, Dr Aniruddha Rajput reiterated that the idea of war and peace saw fundamental transformations when the UNSC, which is specifically meant for war and peace matters, passed a resolution in 2014 after the Ebola outbreak calling upon the States to act in coherence with the idea of global solidarity. However, the role of the UNSC was limited only to calling a global ceasefire during any pandemic. The structure of the Security Council provides for the UNSC to work in a political manner; however, to do this it needs to have the mandate of equally represented countries. Looking at the prospects of an investigation to decide on the legal responsibility of the COVID-19 crisis, we have International Health Regulations (IHR) of the WHO in which Articles 4, 7 & 8 provide substantial legal routes. For example, Article 4 enlists the duty to notify and Article 7 on the necessity of producing a report of any pandemic which has to be submitted to the WHO. Also, he talked about the principles of customary international law which can show us the path to international solidarity—the first one being the Duty to Cooperate. The ICJ declared it as a customary international law. Under this, every state is under substantial obligation to maintain cooperation with all other countries in cases of crises. The next is the duty to prevent Transboundary Harm. This includes the responsibility to protect Transboundary Harm (Article 21 of the Rio Declaration). Countries need to do everything possible in order to mitigate this harm. The last principle imbibes the idea of the Duty of Due Diligence. This involves the duty of due investigation.

Speaking on the question of moving to the ICJ, he said that this could be difficult as China is not part of the compulsory dispute resolution clause. However, advisory opinion of the ICJ can be sought. He also suggested another option of initiating a Commission of Enquiry, which can prove to be a very effective tool for the international order in order to put a larger pressure on China.

Dr Elina Cusato spoke on the “War metaphors” for the virus. Her current research focuses on the link between nature and violent conflicts. She started with the idea that many leaders around the world have identified the COVID-19 pandemic as a War (threat to peace), according to Article 30 definition of peace imbibed in the UN Charter.

However, according to her, the securitisation narrative also has the potential to expand executive powers and increase hostility, militarise the response and use it to curb human rights and unleash economic violence on the citizens. Moreover, this narrative is a disguised violation of human rights; for example, the most vulnerable sections of the population are the hardest hit. African Americans are disproportionately affected due to the pandemic and similarly, the poor in East Asia. The biggest problem with this narrative is that such a kind of violence is not easily attributed to its perpetrator.

Dr Prabash Ranjan spoke on the question of COVID upending the economic globalisation. He believes that the crisis has been equally exploited in terms of meta-narrative by right-wing scholars and the left-wing scholars. The narrative, which is popular in the West, maintains that globalisation has created a group of losers, the workers who used to work in factories and have lost their jobs. However, according to him, this does not explain the anger against globalisation in developing countries like India.

In the Q&A session, several points relating to global solidarity and its legal procedures were emphasised. Speaking on the binary between international human rights laws and economic laws, Dr Rajput said that in his view this is not viable as the State needs to be held accountable for violations of both of these laws. In international law, he said, States have to keep in mind the larger public interests.

On a question relating to accelerating digital cooperation, Dr Ranjan emphasised that the pandemic has given a phenomenal opportunity for digital cooperation, but needs to have legal obligation for it, just like the GATS (General Agreement on Trade of Services).

On the war narrative, Dr Cusato presented a delightful thought that the COVID-19 pandemic reflects the distinction of separation of humans from nature by portraying the virus as our enemy. On the other hand, what the pandemic indicates is the interdependence of humans on the other species. The pandemic is also reflective of the unsustainability of the development model that the modern humans have developed.

The report is prepared by Katiyayinee Richhariya, Research Intern with the Centre for Strategic Studies.

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