This is the second part of an interview with Alfred de Zayas, professor of international law, former secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee, and the UN’s independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order from 2012 to 2018. In this segment, he looks at the need for international cooperation as the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.
To read Part 1, click here.
Adriel Kasonta: Is China responsible for the ravages of Covid-19?
Alfred-Maurice de Zayas: No. China is a victim of the pandemic like everyone else. Although China was the first country to sound the alarm, it is not certain that the virus actually originated in Wuhan, as there have been numerous reports that the virus had already emerged elsewhere. Investigations are in progress and we are learning more about its origin and why it became so contagious.
This is the time for cooperation and international solidarity. Not a time for blaming others, nor for wasteful, frivolous and distractive litigation.
Obviously Chinese officials needed time to observe the pneumonia outbreak, study its development, identify the new virus, evaluate the danger to China and to the world. They did inform the WHO in December and the WHO sent its agents to China. As far as I can see, the International Health Regulations were observed. We may have preferred earlier identification of the virus – but we always know better with hindsight.
All responsible governments must have contingency plans to address unexpected events, such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes but also pandemics. If the United States had not defunded hospitals and the health infrastructure, if the profit-seeking obsession had not led to the privatization of much of the health sector in the United States, we would have been better prepared.
The problem lies in the wrong priorities – the US Congress has prioritized the military and approved a trillion-dollar military. We also have a worldwide “mass surveillance” program revealed to us by the whistleblower and former CIA operative Edward Snowden (read his book Permanent Record, 2019).
All of that money could have been devoted to research and development in the health sector – both to tackle diseases, develop vaccines, build better respirator machines, etc. Prevention and preparedness should have been US policy – instead of running in panic when an emergency arises.
Alas, the United States has an “I’ll sue you” culture that serves that infantile desire to “punish” the “bad guys” and to instrumentalize the law against others – instead of seeing the law as a common duty to constructive cooperation.
The pertinent provision in the IHRs is Article 56 on settlement of disputes before the WHO Health Assembly. But back in 2005 the US did not even want to envisage liability. In one of its reservations, the US made clear its understanding that the “provisions of the Regulations do not create judicially enforceable private rights.”
In this context, however, it would appear reasonable for states parties to discuss whether the sanctions imposed by the United States on Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, etc have not significantly weakened the capacity of these countries to effectively combat Covid-19, and whether the Health Assembly should not call upon the United States to lift the sanctions at least during the pandemic, because the sanctions clearly contravene the spirit and letter of Article 44 IHR.
AK: Following the narrative of “state responsibility,” if the US truly believes that China should be held responsible for allegedly not sounding the Covid-19 alarm earlier, perhaps China (and other countries) should consider holding the US responsible for dragging the world into the 1929 depression and the 2008 financial crisis?
AdZ: The world depressions triggered by US reckless economic policies have harmed the world far more than Covid-19. Surely US insider trading, corruption, market manipulations, wild speculations caused the 1929 and 2007-08 meltdowns, worldwide unemployment, despair, suicides. No one was held accountable.
As far as the harm caused in the US by Covid-19, Trump displayed at least “contributory negligence” for failing to react in a timely fashion. It is bizarre that the US government accuses China of “covering up,” when the US itself did cover up the contagion on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Captain Brett Crozier was relieved of duty after requesting US military brass to allow his corona-infected crew of 5,000 to disembark and quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus.
Crozier’s letter read. “Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset: our sailors.”
AK: What about the Iraq war in 2003? Does the doctrine of state responsibility for internationally wrongful acts apply to this illegal invasion based on lies? Was it not deliberate?
AdZ: Of course the 2003 Iraq invasion was contrary to the UN Charter, as secretary general Kofi Annan said on various occasions – when asked by a BBC journalist he frankly said, “This war is illegal.”
What is shocking about Iraq is not that the United States led a frontal attack on international law, but that he dragged 43 other countries in complicity, the so-called “coalition of the willing.” In my honest opinion, the illegal 2003 war on Iraq constituted the gravest violation of the UN Charter and of the Nuremberg Principles since 1945. It was nothing less than an assault on the very core of international law – a joint venture of 43 countries bound by the UN Charter.
The US policy of “extraordinary rendition” condemned by the UN Human Rights Council generated moral and economic damage in many countries. US systematic torture in Guantanamo Naval Base, where citizens of 44 countries were held in indefinite detention, has also remained unpunished.
There has been no reparation to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – a crime against humanity for purposes of Article 6 c) of the London Agreement of August 6, 1945. It is hard to conceive of a greater violation of international humanitarian law – the two key rules: prohibition of the use of indiscriminate weapons (like nuclear weapons), and the principle of proportionality.
No reparation either for the victims of agent orange in Vietnam, white phosphorus in Fallujah, depleted-uranium weapons in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan.
But what tribunal would take a case against the United States, or for that matter against NATO countries? Back in 1985 president [Ronald] Reagan withdrew the declaration under Article 36 of the ICJ Statute recognizing the ipso facto jurisdiction of the Court. Of course, the US could agree on an ad hoc basis to submit a legal matter to the ICJ – but I do not see that happening under Trump – not even under [presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe] Biden.
There is an ingrained fantasy in the US that we Americans are, by definition, the “good guys.” That only other countries can be put on the dock – but not the US or American citizens.
Thus I propose the establishment of People’s Tribunals like the Bertrand Russell Tribunals on Vietnam in the 1970s.
AK: How would you envisage the post-Covid-19 world? What “We,” and “Others,” have to do to draw a correct conclusion from this shared tragedy in order to leave this planet a better place for the coming generations?
AdZ: Either we cooperate or we go under together.
The post-Covid-19 world cannot and must not go back to “business as usual.” We need a paradigm change away from the neoliberalism that has significantly contributed to the unpreparedness of so many countries to combat the pandemic. We need a true commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes, to multilateralism rather than unilateralism.
We must reject the “exceptionalism” of the United States and something fundamentally contrary to human dignity, contrary to human rights, as an anachronism, an aberration. I feel moral vertigo when I read what Trump says and tweets about Covid and about China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.
The post-Covid world should operate on the basis of Virginia Dandan’s Draft Declaration on the Right to International Solidarity.
Trump says he wants to make America great again. I say: To make America credible, to make America loved again – all we have to do is to revive the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Professor Alfred de Zayas studied history and law at Harvard University; he obtained his JD at Harvard and a PhD in history from the University of Göttingen in Germany. He served as UN independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order 2012-18 and was before that secretary of the UN Human Rights Committee and chief of the Petitions Department at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. He has published nine books and more than 200 scholarly articles. He is a retired member of the New York Bar and the Florida Bar. Currently he serves as professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy.