ILJ Blog

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International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and Covid-19: Is It Really an Unprecedented Time?

By Sally Alghazali

We are all tired of hearing the term “unprecedented times” after months of fighting this pandemic with all its “unprecedented” challenges. However, can all the challenges Covid-19 imposed on people worldwide really be fairly characterized as “unprecedented”?

October 17th marked the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, an international observance day declared by the United Nations in its resolution 47/196 as an official day to raise awareness on poverty and call for stricter eradication measures from governments worldwide.

Although the declaration was made in 1993 to address the alarming rates of poverty worldwide when signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared poverty as a human rights violation, we still observed its 27th anniversary while witnessing the same rates, if not higher.

People living in poverty not only suffer from economic hardships but are also stripped away from the right to live in dignity by lacking basic capabilities and essential resources. The implications of poverty reach different aspects of their lives, directly or indirectly, including unsafe housing, limited access to health care, lack of nutritional food, lack of sanitation, and more. Not to mention the effects high rates of poverty have on national and international levels such as dying economies, poor quality of education and quality of healthcare, and, ultimately, world hunger. 

According to the United Nations, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have the highest number of people living under the poverty line, with “736 million people below the international poverty line of $1.90 a day in 2015.” This means that around 10% of the world’s population is fighting poverty daily. Unfortunately, children are not exempt from such alarming rates. In fact, according to UNICEF, around 663 million children worldwide live in poverty, with around 385 million living in extreme poverty. Even in the wealthiest countries, “one in seven children still live in poverty.” (See UNICEF).

These numbers reflect a longstanding disaster that countries, including developing nations, have been facing for centuries. There is no dispute that countries have come so far in recognizing that poverty is a worldwide concern that requires immediate actions. However, there is still so much to be done to fully eradicate the problem. While, as an international community, we are doing a lot, so rapidly, in terms of technological and economic developments, we are running short in eliminating the harsh reality for communities living in poverty who are watching such growth and wealth pass them by.

Nevertheless, the responsibility to reach such a goal has increased even more for all countries today with this pandemic. Using the World Poverty Clock, experts estimated that 690 million people would likely be living under poverty lines this year, which is a significant increase from their pre-Covid estimate of 640 million people. Additionally, rates of extreme poverty worldwide will rise to 50 million people in 2020, another significant increase compared to the forecast set in 2019 of 40 million people. Although the jump in rates is alarming, it is not surprising since Covid-19 hit even the richest and wealthiest economies in the world who had lower poverty rates. These rates and estimations reflect a disappointing setback in the world’s efforts in eliminating poverty since now there are at least 60 countries who are off-track in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, “the world’s shared plan” to eradicate poverty. (See also the World Bank estimations).

So, is it really an “unprecedented” challenge that this pandemic imposed on people worldwide? Yes and No. Communities living under the poverty line have already been battling this disaster on a daily basis and are only suffering more with the pandemic. However, it is indeed a new reality for wealthier communities that one can only wish has opened the eyes of many to the struggles the poor face endlessly, and urged governing bodies to strengthen their measures on eradicating poverty as the United Nations outlined. Covid-19 might have increased the global poverty to rates that have not been seen since 1998, but poverty was, and still is, a rapidly growing problem that requires continuous efforts. 

Although the general purpose of this day is to “acknowledge the effort and struggle of people living in poverty, [and] a chance for them to make their concerns heard,” the United Nations as well as various non-governmental organizations and community charities use this day to “actively call for country leaders and governments to make the fight against poverty a central part of their foreign policy.” The United Nations specifically chooses one theme each year that highlights one area of global concern that has a significant effect in eradicating poverty. For instance, this year’s theme is centered around issues of social and environmental justice as dimensions of poverty. The United Nations emphasizes that addressing income poverty is not enough to eradicate the problem and that global measures should focus more on the impact of climate change, environmental challenges, and social injustice on poor people worldwide. The United Nations outlined that its measures “to ensure Member States can achieve the SGDs by 2030, including its proposed socio-economic responses to the global pandemic, must be robustly pro-poor and fully focused on establishing green pathways to recovery.” 

So, when reflecting on the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, let us all remember the words of one of the world’s earliest leaders in ending poverty and the launcher of this day, Joseph Wresinski, when he said:  

“Whenever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”  

Countries around the world might now have a harder job adhering to their duty in eradicating poverty, but it is a critical job that must continue to be one of the world’s highest priorities.   

An International Law Perspective on the COVID-19 Pandemic

In these uncertain times, the Board of the International Law Journal hopes everyone is staying healthy and coping with the recent COVID-19 pandemic. If you are looking for more information on COVID-19, we encourage you to look at the World Health Organization or the U.S. Center for Disease Control websites. If you are interested in learning more about the international law side of a pandemic, or if you have simply run out of things to read and do during your self-isolation and social distancing, we’ve prepared a short editorial into a small portion the topic below.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been leading the charge against COVID-19, the novel strain of coronavirus spreading across the globe. The WHO is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is focused on promoting good health and directing coordination and collaboration on international health work. See Constitution of the World Health Organization, (Apr. 7, 1948). However, the WHO has no enforcement authority. It is intended to help countries keep their citizens safe and to help handle global health threats, but there is no ‘WHO police force.’ See Health Security, World Health Organization. Therefore, countries must voluntarily make the effort to work together to prevent the spread of disease outbreaks.

This is not the first pandemic with which humanity has dealt, and it will not be the last. But our experiences with HIV/AIDS, H1N1 Swine Flu, and Spanish Flu have led to significant developments in healthcare and international cooperation in hopes of stymying such pandemics. Social distancing and international response protocols have been outlined before, but as new diseases pop up and the world becomes increasingly interconnected, new procedures may become necessary. See WHO Interim Protocol: Rapid Operations to Contain the Initial Emergence of Pandemic Influenza(Oct. 2007).

China has been accused of downplaying the severity of COVID-19 when it first emerged in Wuhan province. See Did Xi Jinping Know About the Coronavirus Outbreak Earlier Than First Suggested?, CNN (Feb. 17, 2020). This is likely not the first case of China attempting to hide a serious outbreak; China was accused of similar actions during the 2003 SARS pandemic. See Justin Kamen Prosecuting the Pandemic: Strengthening International Public Health Law, 5 Eyes on the ICC 159, 164 (2008). 

Overlooking, for a moment, how these actions are irresponsible and may be catastrophic on a global scale, there are ramifications for disclosing outbreaks. In a mere 2 month period, an outbreak of plague cost India $1.3 billion as a result of other countries’ knee-jerk reactions as they cut off trade. See id. at 163; see also A Louis Evans, Confronting Global Pandemics: Responding to a State’s Refusal of International Assistance in a Pandemic, 34 Conn. J. Int’l L. 1, 6-9 (2018). This can make countries hesitant to disclose such outbreaks. Id. at 163. There are no legal ramifications to withholding such information. The WHO has no sanction authority and international law is not positioned to hold countries accountable for hiding outbreaks. See id. at 167.

In an unusual incident, in 2005 Indonesia refused to share samples of the H5N1 virus (colloquially known as the “bird flu”) with the WHO. Id. at 171. Indonesia hoped to profit off of the outbreak and sought to retain the intellectual property rights to any vaccine that may be developed for the bird flu. See id. Indonesia was hit hard by the bird flu, but was concerned over the fact that “[d]eveloping countries provide[] information and virus samples to the WHO-operated system” for free and then the pharmaceutical companies in developed countries develop a vaccine which they profit from but which developing countries cannot afford. See id. To avoid this problem, Indonesia partnered with a US company to develop a bird flu vaccine and chose not to provide the WHO with virus samples. See Indonesia Refuses to Share Bird-Flu Virus for Research, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 7, 2007). Once again, there were no legal instruments available to the international community to force Indonesia to work with the WHO or to sanction Indonesia’s failure to do so. See Kamen at 163.

To help combat the uncooperative and duplicitous attitude some States have toward outbreaks, several solutions have been explored. The WHO adopted a resolution in 2007 that attempted to address both Indonesia’s concerns over an affordable vaccine with the global need for free disease sample sharing. See Pandemic Influenza Preparedness: Sharing of Influenza Viruses and Access to Vaccines and Other Benefits, World Health Organization (May 23, 2007). However, this resolution is nonbinding and did not create a firm, legal structure within which future disputes could be handled. See id.

Many scholars propose that harsh legal ramifications are necessary. One proposal suggests that “withholding accurate and timely information on dangerous, infectious diseases…should be constituted as a crime against humanity in the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court under Article 5 of the Rome Statute.” Kamen at 160. Kamen proposes that there is an international “right to health” derived from the Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. See id. at 162-63. Kamen suggests that infringing upon this “right to health” constitutes a violation of crimes against humanity as outlined in the Rome Statute. See id. at 179-81. As such, Kamen suggests using the Rome Statute to prosecute, in the ICC, States that hide the seriousness of outbreaks or fail to cooperate with the WHO. See id.

Another proposal suggests using Chapter VII of the UN Charter to “force international assistance on a country in a pandemic.” Evans at 14. Chapter VII gives the UN Security Council the power to “determine the existence to any threat to the peace.” U.N. Charter art. 39. Evans explores both prior uses of Chapter VII’s binding authority to deal with humanitarian crises and past uses of Chapter VI’s nonbinding authority to deal with pandemics. See Evans at 17-26. Evans suggests that pandemics are a threat to international peace and security and the Security Council could use its Chapter VII authority to, essentially, force aid onto an unwilling country in hopes of preventing the outbreak from spreading further. See id. at 27. This proposed solution seems to be more proactive in dealing with ongoing pandemics, instead of hoping to censure uncooperative States after the fact through the ICC.

Scholars Brahmbhatt and Jonas explored the positive steps the international community has taken in the past to combat outbreaks, such as the creation of the WHO, the strengthening of the WHO’s International Health Regulations (IHR) in 2005 after the SARS outbreak, and the creation of the Global Program for Avian Influenza Control and Human Pandemic Preparedness and Control. See Milan Brahmbhatt & Olga Jonas, International Cooperative Responses to Pandemic Threats: A Critical Analysis, 21 Brown J. World Aff. 163, 173 (2015). However, Brahmbhatt and Jonas note that many national action plans to deal with outbreaks are not fully funded and implemented. See id. at 174. Once the impending threat has been dealt with, governments and politicians tend to focus on more concrete, visible threats and lose sight of the serious, lurking danger that outbreaks pose. See id. at 170-71. Brahmbhatt and Jonas propose that, in order to mitigate the impact of outbreaks and avoid a global pandemic, the international community should focus on preventative measures and invest significant financial resources into the underfunded WHO. See id. at 175-76.

            While no amount of funding and preparedness will be able to prevent every outbreak from occurring, international cooperation can help reduce the human and economic toll of outbreaks. If States continue to hide the severity of outbreaks within their own borders, the international community may need to adopt a concrete framework, such as those explored briefly above, to hold those States accountable.

We hope you have enjoyed reading this brief insight into the WHO and international law and cooperation around outbreaks and pandemics. Keep an eye out for Volume 11, Issue 2 and for our article on vaccinations in Volume 12, Issue 1! On behalf of everyone on the International Law Journal, stay safe and stay healthy.

Chad Crowell, Editor-in-Chief