The World Health Organization (WHO) and Understanding International Health Law

International health law, or global health law, are rules governing nation-states regarding the ethics and governance of threats to global health. It began in 1851 and has evolved into what is known today as the World Health Organization (WHO), a specialized agency of the United Nations responsible for international public health.

Of course, each individual nation is responsible for setting its own policies regarding the health of its population, but the WHO provides leadership and guidance to those nations when issues of public health arise. The WHO has been a leader in many public health achievements, including the eradication of smallpox, the near-eradication of polio, and the development of the Ebola vaccine.

Who sets international health policy?

The World Health Organization has a governing body called the World Health Assembly (WHA), which is composed of health ministers from 194 member states (nations). The WHA meets yearly in Geneva, Switzerland to decide major policy, set a budget, and elect members to their executive board.

The WHA developed the International Health Regulations (IHR) in 1969, a legally binding framework that defines countries’ rights and obligations in handling public health events and emergencies that have the potential to cross borders. The regulations serve as a guide for when global health events occur, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

What if there is a violation of international health law?

Legal professionals have discussed whether the WHO has the authority or the legal grounds to enact punishment if a nation violates international health policy. In the end, the consensus is that the WHO puts forth rules and framework with the hope that nations participate out of good faith. In other words, there are no legal repercussions if nations violate international health law. Instead, by being a member of the WHO, nation-states voluntarily abide by the laws and regulations for the benefit of overall global health.