This article talks about various legal actions that people have taken over the past few months against China, in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic. The article aims to analyze the reason behind why the Chinese authorities have constantly been turning a blind eye to such epidemics and pandemics which have originated from China itself. The Article further notes various legal actions taken by different individuals across the globe, and answers the question “If there is any legal recourse available against China’s actions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic?”
People’s Republic of China has achieved tremendous economic growth in the recent past. From being a developing nation, to being one of the fastest growing economies of the world, China has certainly reached unprecedented heights and made its mark as one of the strongest markets across the world. But along with being famous for its glistening cities and technological advancements, China is also infamous for its uncontrolled wild food markets, also known as “wet markets”. Prior to the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, China suffered greatly during the 1957 and 1968 Asian pandemics. In the years after China’s adoption of its “reform and opening up” policies and its 2001 entrance into the World Trade Organization, the 2002 SARS crisis, the 2008 milk processing scandal, and the 2009 H1N1 crisis have beset China and countries around the world. The Chinese wet markets have long been criticized as the birthing ground of such viruses and even though these markets have been directly linked to the originating place of these diseases, the Chinese government has not regularizedit. It is believed that one of the reasons that the government has refrained from making legislations in order to curb the farming of wild animals is because of the huge chunk of contribution by these markets in China’s GDP.
The on-going corona virus pandemic, originated from the Wuhan, Hubei, China. Wuhan is known to host one such aforementioned wet market called the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, and it is allegedly believed that this wet market is the source of the Covid-19 infection. Even after a number of cases were first reported in November, then in December, the Chinese government failed to report of the growing concern. It was only in January that the wet market in Wuhan was ordered to be closed down and the Chinese authorities finally intimidated the World Health Organization. Only after President Xi Jinping’s first recognition of the outbreak on the 20th of January that the virus can be transmitted amongst humans, was Wuhan put under lockdown. The lockdown was initiated on January 22, but by then five million travelers had already left Wuhan through the air, posing a severe threat to the world.This shows clear negligence on part of the Chinese authorities.
As mentioned above, it is believed that China refuses to shut down these markets even after infections such as SARS and now Covid-19 is because they generate huge revenues. In 2003, after the SARS epidemic, China banned the breeding, transportation and selling of civets and other wild animals, but this ban only lasted for six months. Even now after the spread of corona virus, there is only partial ban on the wet markets. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s acting executive secretary has called for a blanket ban on wildlife markets worldwide, including those in China.
The Chinese authorities should have acted on the International Health Regulations (IHR) guidelines by exchanging reliable information on the pandemic with the WHO. But omissions on the part of the Chinese establishment allowed COVID-19 to spread around the world, unprecedently affecting global health and the economy, displaying a deliberate act of mendacity.
In the United States of America, a man in the state of Missouri sued China, alleging that Beijing suppressed information, arrested whistleblowers and denied the contagious nature of coronavirus that led to the loss of lives and caused "irreparable damage" to countries globally. The lawsuit further alleges that during the critical initial weeks of the outbreak, the Chinese authorities “deceived the public” and “suppressed crucial information, arrested whistleblowers, denied human-to-human transmission in the face of mounting evidence, destroyed critical medical research, permitted millions of people to be exposed to the virus, and even hoarded personal protective equipment (PPE), causing a global pandemic that was unnecessary and preventable.”
From India, a Mumbai based lawyer, filed a petition in the International Criminal Court, situated in Hague, Netherlands, suing the Chinese President and four other officials for “criminal negligence”, willful “suppression of information” and “treason against humanity”. The petition demands compensation for the loss of several lives due to the infection and has sought damages which are to be given to the Indian Government and the people of India. the sought damages amount to a total of $2.5 trillion.
LEGAL ACTION WHICH COULD BE TAKEN:
- There have been several lawsuits by now, but it seems as that China will remain immune to such suits due to the concept of sovereign immunity. This means that China can’t sued in other countries, and vice versa.
- China has been constantly criticized for hiding information pertaining to the infection from the world and its overall poor handling of the pandemic. According to Articles 6 and 7 of the WHO’s International Health Regulations 2005, it is important that timely notifications are made and information is shared by the country, where outbreak takes place.
- Under the Roman Statute of the International Criminal Court, China can be held guilty under Article 7(1), which talks about crimes against humanity. Under Article 7(1), sub-section 11, talks “about other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health”.
- Many have voiced their concern whether China can be brought to ICC or not. According to Article 15 of the ICC, authority is given to prosecutor’s office at the ICC to conduct proceedings proprio motu (on its own initiative) on the basis of information relating to crimes within the jurisdiction of the court. The court previously has allowed the prosecution to conduct an investigation against the actions of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, despite the fact that the U.S. was not a member of the ICC, in the appeal of ICC-02/17 OA4.
- Under Article 2of the Draft article on Responsibilities of States for Internationally Wrongful Act 2001, “wrongful acts” has been defined as those acts which are “attributable to the state and that constitute a breach of an international obligation”. Post the outbreak of Covid-19, the chain of command shifted from Wuhan authorities to President himself, and all being organs of the state of China, their acts can safely be attributed to China.
While everyone across the globe has come together in fighting this outbreak, the Chinese authorities need to be held liable for their acts, as Covid-19 is not the first infection arising out of China, and it cannot be guaranteed if it will be the last one. China needs to be held accountable for its actions. China should also put forward legislations for control on wet markets, and wildlife farming. Not only is such a practice proven to be harmful for humans, it also leads to wildlife extinctions. It cannot be certainly pinpointed as to whether the Chinese authorities will be held liable for its actions in the legal avenue, but they can surely be asked to comply with international guidelines and treaties, for the benefit of the international community.