Apr 6, 2020

COVID 19 - The Liability of China under International Law For Damages Suffered



In the period of 20 years, China has taken the World through a gruesome path, twice. After being criticized for a slow response to SARS, China is once again facing global scrutiny for its handling of the new 'Coronavirus'. China repeated the obstruction of information that worsened the SARS crisis 18 years earlier. In that case, China tried to cover up the SARS epidemic, which led WHO member states to adopt the new International Health Regulations in 2005. In both cases, China and the world would have been spared thousands of unnecessary deaths had China acted forthrightly and in accordance with its legal obligations. 

The events to date has shaken confidence in the Chinese Communist Party at home and abroad. China’s initial response to the crisis was less than impressive. The Wuhan government was secretive and self-serving. The Chinese state made evidently intentional misrepresentations to its people concerning the outbreak. Reports showed that the Chinese Government silenced doctors who raised the alarm of the virus, minimizing the danger to the public even as they were bewildered and overwhelmed. State media also suppressed information about the virus. Although authorities closed the Wuhan “wet market”, the epicenter of the contagion, they did not take further steps to stop the wildlife trade, where scientists traced the virus to.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all systems. Financial markets have shuddered and have been pulled into all kinds of uncharted territories, commodity prices have fallen, especially oil prices. According to the International Monetary Fund, the global economy is now in a recession. Schools have been closed globally, religious and social gatherings have been restricted. There is now this new trend of 'Working from home'. Summarily, the whole world is in a lockdown, mildly say- a compulsory holiday.

This article addresses the possible arguments that International law imposes an obligation on China to make reparation for COVID-19-related harms or say damages.



The scale of the damage, Worldwide, has prompted arguments of whether or not, China bears international legal responsibility for the pandemic and should compensate countries harmed by the outbreak.

China is one of the 194 states, party to the 2005 International Health Regulations, which is legally binding. China has a duty to rapidly gather information about and contribute to a common understanding of what may constitute a public health emergency with potential international implications. The legally binding International Health Regulations were adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1969, to control six infectious diseases: cholera, plague, yellow fever, smallpox, relapsing fever, and typhus. The 2005 revision added smallpox, poliomyelitis due to wild-type poliovirus, SARS, and cases of human influenza caused by a new subtype, set forth in the second annex.[1] Annex 2 of the IHR provides for: "Any event of potential international public health concern, including those of unknown causes or sources and those involving other events or diseases than those listed". Obviously, Covid-19 falls under this category.

States are expected to provide expedited, timely, accurate, and sufficiently detailed information to the  World Health Organization about the potential public health emergencies identified in the second annex in order to galvanize efforts to prevent pandemics, according to Article 6 of the IHR. Article 7 also provides that "any unexpected or unusual public health event within a country's  territory, irrespective of origin or source", should be reported to the WHO. The body (WHO) also has a mandate in Article 10 to seek verification from states with respect to unofficial reports of pathogenic microorganisms. States are required to provide timely and transparent information as requested within 24 hours, and to participate in collaborative assessments of the risks presented. Yet China rejected repeated offers of epidemic investigation assistance from WHO in late January (and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early February), without explanation. The Washington Post concluded in a story on February 26 2020 that China was not sending the details that WHO officials and other experts expected and needed.


It can be seen that China had violated international law on infectious diseases and, under the International legal principles of state responsibility, has an obligation to make full reparation for the harm done. None of the treaties addressing the international spread of infectious diseases dating back to the nineteenth century have rules requiring payment of compensation for damage in other countries associated with violations of treaty rules. The leading contemporary treaty, the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR), has no provisions on this issue. This situation is not unusual. Most treaties do not address whether the violation of their rules creates an obligation to compensate those states parties adversely affected by harms caused by the violation.[2]

A state violating international law has “an obligation to make full reparation for the injury caused by the internationally wrong act", under Customary international law on state responsibility.  This customary rule has played no discernable role in disease outbreaks over the long history of international health cooperation, even when states have argued that countries violated applicable treaties. States have not seriously pursued compensation against countries accused of breaching treaty obligations to report disease events or refrain from imposing trade or travel measures that have no scientific basis.

States have not been keen to use 'customary law on state responsibility in the infectious disease context' because of how political and epidemiological considerations align. Fulfilling treaty obligations to report disease outbreaks involves challenging scientific and public health questions and difficult political calculations. Pathogenic threats with the potential for cross-border spread can appear in any country. For example, although the origin of the devastating influenza pandemic of 1918-19 remains unclear, the United States is on the list of potential countries of origin. The H1N1 virus that caused an influenza pandemic in 2009 was first detected in the United States. This reality creates a shared interest among states not to litigate disease notification issues. Likewise, a state experiencing an outbreak will complain about irrational trade or travel measures, other countries impose. However, next year, that same state might want to implement similar measures when another nation suffers an outbreak, which reveals reciprocal interests among states not to seek reparations for violating treaty rules on trade and travel measures.[3] States understand that, tomorrow, the shoe could be on the other foot, which creates a collective incentive among countries to avoid being legalistic about reporting obligations.

Article 56 of the IHR (2005) requires an injured state to first explore negotiation or any other peaceful means of their choice including good offices, mediation, or conciliation, to settle any dispute involving treaty interpretation and application. Failing that, the parties may refer the dispute to the WHO director general or parties to the dispute may agree to compulsory arbitration in which the arbitral award shall be binding.

Under the principles of state responsibility, States have the obligation to make reparation for the damage caused by their wrongful act. Thus, China may be liable to pay reparations over its failure to promptly notify the WHO about the outbreak. Reparations involve restitution, and where that is no longer possible, the offending state pays compensation “for loss sustained which would not be covered by restitution in kind or payment in place of it” (Chorzow Factory,1927). Such assessment of damages may also come with an award of satisfaction, or a formal apology and an assurance that its unlawful conduct will not be repeated (LaGrand Case, 2001).[4]

However, countries have never used the dispute settlement provisions in infectious disease treaties from the nineteenth century through today — an indication that states have no interest in legal remedies in this area.


Under the principles of state responsibility, separating what damage is attributable to China’s delayed reporting and what harms arose because other governments botched their responses to COVID-19 would be difficult. Such causation issues also help explain why states have, historically, not pursued reparations for damage associated with alleged violations of treaties on infectious diseases.

Many countries now struggling with COVID-19 had time to prepare for the pathogen’s transboundary spread after China reported its outbreak under the IHR. 

At the moment, no state party has alleged that China violated its IHR notification obligations but two class actions have been filed against China for "damages suffered as the result of the coronavirus pandemic" before the U.S. District Court in Florida and Texas, shocking the Chinese legal community.

There have been clamours that China should be held responsible this time, for the Covid-19 pandemic so as to protect the future.

[1] https://warontherocks.com/2020/03/china-is-legally-responsible-for-covid-19-damage-and-claims-could-be-in-the-trillions/(accessed 30 March 2020)

[2] https://www.justsecurity.org/69394/covid-19-and-international-law-must-china-compensate-countries-for-the-damage-international-health-regulations/ (accessed 30 March 2020)

[3] Ibid. 1

[4] https://opinion.inquirer.net/128226/china-international-law-and-covid-19#ixzz6IPMcilCd/ (accessed 31 March 2020)