In February 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) positioned itself against the use of vaccination passports for international travel due to ethical and inequity concerns. Yet, in March, Europe and several countries were already planning their introduction. On March 12, 2021, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said vaccine passports might eventually be considered to facilitate the resumption of international travel, but only if there was “reliable scientific evidence” for their effectiveness, as emphasized by the Government of Canada. Besides, some experts believe that “market forces” and independent organization could speed the use of vaccine passports by imposing a proof-of-vaccination system for access to public and private spaces.
This scenario raises urgent questions: To what extent does the WHO influence political decision-making processes on matters of public health? As the only international intergovernmental organization responsible for global health, what leadership does the WHO actually exercise, notably during and after a pandemic?
To what extent does the WHO influence political decision-making processes on matters of public health?
As the only international intergovernmental organization responsible for global health, what leadership does the WHO actually exercise, notably during and after a pandemic?
These questions are at the heart of a research project being carried out by an interdisciplinary team at the University of Montreal, led by Professor Catherine Régis from the Faculty of Law, in collaboration with several international teams. This project will examine the normative leadership capabilities of the WHO, namely:
- (1) The possibility for the organization to develop standards for Member States to guide them in their health-related actions.
- (2) To ensure the implementation of these standards.
In general, it comes down to asking: What is the WHO’s normative effectiveness?
This research will:
- Assess how effectively domestic law considers the WHO’s normative instruments, from a quantitative and qualitative point of view;
- Analyze the process of introducing WHO standards at national level;
- Develop theoretical knowledge on the normative effectiveness of international organizations by focusing on the case of the WHO and;
- Use this data to make recommendations to decision-makers, judges, managers and the WHO in order to improve the mobilization of WHO norms in national law and the development of effective international normative strategies to support global health governance.
This study is carried out in four phases (each building on the result of the previous ones, following an iterative process):
Phase 1. An in-depth study of the literature on the law of international organizations, global health law, standardization, and multi-level governance has enabled the development of a theoretical framework on the landing process of international norms in domestic law and public policy (with a special focus on WHO norms). The aim was to identify factors facilitating or limiting this landing process (and notably the behaviour of States) and to highlight the main stages in the life cycle of an international norm.
Phase 2. This phase consists in a macro-level study of the references to the WHO found in the domestic law (laws, regulations, case law) of 7 countries (Canada, Costa Rica, the United States, France, Israel, New Zealand, and Switzerland). More than 5000 national instruments were selected for the study. For this phase, a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the occurrence of references to the WHO is carried out. This analysis allows to identify the extent to which national authorities rely on the WHO or reject its norms, the actors relying on WHO norms in court decisions (e.g.,experts, judges, parties), which WHO norms are most often cited as well as their characteristics (ex: binding versus non-binding), and which health issues are most often at stake when the WHO is cited.
Phase 3. This phase is dedicated to the conduct of semi-structured interviews with key national and international experts involved in the implementation of WHO norms in the 7 targeted countries. This step aims to better understand the landing process of the WHO norms within national jurisdictions (both in domestic law and in public policy, health agencies, etc.) in order to identify the legal, political, social, economic and organizational considerations that impact this process. It provides information and insights that cannot be found in the literature (Phase 1) and in domestic law (Phase 2).
Phase 4. This final phase is a comparative analysis of the results of the previous phases which aims to enrich the theoretical framework previously created and to develop key global health governance recommendations (both at the national and international level).
This project received the Insight grant by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (file no. 435-2020-0470) and is also financed by the George Stellari Funds.