Some pressing questions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic appeared in the last months. Have the states acted appropriately and reasonably? How did the virus spread? Is it preventable? Were there any successful paths of fighting that we can follow when another pandemic starts to spread? A global commission of inquiry could give us some answers. The World Health Organization has already undertaken steps to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, including China’s handling of the initial outbreak.
The first stage of the COVID-19 pandemic occurred with every state doing its maximum to protect the people from the spreading disease. Now, after a number of states have started mitigating the measures they had taken, we can see another part of the COVID-19 story unfolding. For all of us, it is the first time we can stop and evaluate the past few months and whether the states acted appropriately.
Some states and organisations have already established special commissions of inquiry related to COVID-19, such as the “Special Commission of Inquiry: Ruby Princess”, which was created in April in Australia in order to investigate the events surrounding the Ruby Princess cruise ship and deliver a report. Another example is the special inquiry of the Equality and Human Rights Commission into the impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities.
Australia’s call for a global inquiry on the COVID-19 response
The first one, which called for a global inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly in regard to China’s handling of the coronavirus and the whole process of how other states behaved, was led by Marise Payne, the Foreign Minister of Australia. She called for the investigation of the origins of the pandemic and urged China to allow transparency of information about the process of handling the pandemic. Payne, however, also admitted that this step would need international cooperation. As she stated, “It will need parties, countries to come to the table with a willingness to be transparent and to engage in that process and to ensure that we have a review mechanism in which the international community can have faith”.
Payne called for an inquiry independent of the World Health Organization (WHO) because the organisation has faced international criticism of its handling of the pandemic. This criticism was followed with fierce words between China and the United States and the United States’ threat to withdraw funding for the WHO at the request of President Donald Trump who claimed the organisation was promoting Chinese “disinformation” about the virus. Other countries expressed less radical opinions that China was not transparent about the COVID-19 outbreak and asked for more information.
Investigation mandate for the World Health Organization
In the tense international situation, the European Union joined the ranks of states calling for an independent investigation into the COVID-19 origins and spread to undergo a review on lessons learnt from the international health response to the coronavirus. The result was a draft resolution for the World Health Assembly.
In mid-May, the WHO member states, led by the European Union, China and the United States, held a virtual meeting of the World Health Assembly during which they adopted a draft joint resolution laying down legal foundations for a prompt independent, impartial and comprehensive inquiry into the global health response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The resolution stresses the importance of a multilateral response with global solidarity and coordination.
The resolution gives the mandate to the WHO to investigate the origins of the virus. The resolution should contribute to international cooperation and help the world community to gather the knowledge and lessons learned in order to use them as support for other measures. China agreed to support the investigation after more than 130 countries co-sponsored the motion at the World Health Assembly. Nevertheless, according to past experiences, its willingness to cooperate will be tested in the following months.
COVID-19 and fundamental human rights
Apart from the WHO, there are also other proposals of international commissions related to the issues that emerged due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the potential bodies to be established could inquire into specific questions of whether states have taken unlawful or problematic measures to interpret their human rights obligations restrictively or to derogate from their obligations. The focus point would probably be China and other states that are suspected of using the crisis to suppress fundamental human rights.
These areas could fall within the competence of the UN Human Rights Council, although one could imagine the Council establishing an inquiry commission. The next months will show us if a commission with such tasks will be formed and if there will be a call from the states to establish a body to investigate the adequacy of the governmental measures and their impact on human rights.
Becker, Michael. Do We Need an International Commission of Inquiry for COVID-19? Part I. Ejil:Talk!, 18 May 2020 (https://www.ejiltalk.org/do-we-need-an-international-commission-of-inquiry-for-
Equality and Human Rights Commission. Inquiry into the impact of coronavirus on ethnic minorities. 5 June 2020 (https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/our-work/news/inquiry-impact-coronavirus-ethnic-minorities).
Europost. EU to call for independent investigation into COVID-19 origins, spread. 6 May 2020 (https://europost.eu/en/a/view/eu-to-call-for-independent-investigation-into-covid-19-origins-spread-28671).
Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess web. Special Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess. Accessed on 5 June 2020 (https://www.rubyprincessinquiry.nsw.gov.au/).
World Health Organization. Historic health assembly ends with global commitment to COVID-19 response. 19 May 2020. (https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/19-05-2020-historic-health-assembl…).
Worthington, Bred. Marise Payne calls for global inquiry into China's handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Abc News, 19 April 2020 (https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-04-19/payne-calls-for-inquiry-china-handling-of-coronavirus-covid-19/12162968).