The basis of the duty to cooperate in the disease outbreak

The unprecedented effects of COVID-19 have stirred up international cooperation and commitment among different States to fight the pandemic and combat its socio-economic impacts. Every nation is undoubtedly joining this chorus.

For example, on 2-3 April 2020, the UN General Assembly, in its Resolution 74/270, calls for ‘Global solidarity to fight the coronavirus disease 2019[COVID-19]’.


First off, the UN General Assembly acknowledges the unprecedented effects of the coronavirus pandemic, including the severe disruption to societies and economies, as well as to global travel and commerce, and the devastating impact on the livelihood of people.


As a result, the UN General Assembly calls for intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat the pandemic, including by exchanging information, scientific knowledge and best practices and by applying the relevant guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization.


This call was echoed by Extraordinary G20 Leaders’ Summit on COVID-19, held on 26 March 2020, which also acknowledged the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic as a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness and vulnerabilities. The virus respects no borders.

Combatting this pandemic calls for a transparent, robust, coordinated, large-scale and science-based global response in the spirit of solidarity. The leaders strongly committed to presenting a united front against this common threat.

The G20 leaders further asserted to do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic. They voiced resolute to spare no effort, both individually and collectively, to: “protect lives; safeguard people’s jobs and incomes, restore confidence, preserve financial stability, revive growth and recover stronger; minimize disruptions to trade and global supply chains; provide help to all countries in need of assistance; and coordinate on public health and financial measures”.

So, what’s the legal status of Int’l cooperation?

The general principle of international cooperation applies in various common pursuits and is well codified in the UN Charter under Article 1(3). It notes the need for international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character…etc. Equally, under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which is regarded by many authors as a source of the obligation of States to cooperate in providing disaster relief.

They refer mainly to Article 2(1), of the ICESCR, which stipulates that: “Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures”.

The provision imposes on all State parties a general obligation to cooperate in the realization of the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.

The provision particularly requires State parties and other actors to assist, to provide ‘international assistance and cooperation, especially economic and technical’ which enable developing countries to fulfil their core and other obligations in line with the ICESCR.

A straightforward duty to cooperate in providing disaster relief is contained in Article 71 of the Constitution of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which stipulates “the Organization may, on matters within its competence, make suitable arrangements for consultation and co-operation with non-governmental international organizations and, with the consent of the Government concerned, with national organizations, governmental or non-governmental.”

More precisely, the WHO Constitution envisages that “the health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and is dependent upon the fullest co-operation of individuals and States.”

The above provisions recognise the specific duty to cooperate in the case of disasters and the impact of COVID-19 in that context.

Nevertheless, the interpretation of this duty to include an obligation to provide assistance when requested by an affected State was not considered by many States as part of existing international law.

States stressed the voluntary character of cooperation and emphasised that establishing an obligation to cooperate would amount to intervening in their sovereign decision-making.

But nevertheless, a duty to cooperate in providing disaster relief is implicitly recognized in international law before the spread of COVID-19. It’s, however, worth noting that the duty to cooperate is not a strictly binding obligation incumbent upon states in a sense that non-compliance would trigger a case.

The duty to cooperate is equally reflected in the WHO Resolution in the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), also known as SARS coronavirus, identified in 2003 in China.

In the context of COVID-19, the importance of cooperation between States has dominated the majority, if not all, relevant statements.

To demonstrate this, individual states have engaged in efforts of cooperation, such as providing medical supplies and financial assistance.

Even if the duty to cooperate might not be binding, the action of states to fight the pandemic reflects the acceptance of a duty to cooperate and save lives of people.

Inferring from various statements in respect of COVID-19 referring to the fulfilment of a duty to cooperate between States in the event of disasters, it implies a moral necessity of cooperation in the prevailing circumstances than with the legally binding nature of cooperation under international law.

The writer is a law expert.

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