To claim compensation from China for COVID-19 losses has no legal basis

By Huang Jin
Since March, some US senators, officials, media outlets, think tanks and non-governmental organizations have been accusing China of spreading the novel coronavirus, demanding the so-called compensations from China. Their instigation has resulted in multiple lawsuits filed against the Chinese government over the COVID-19 pandemic that demand China be held accountable and request huge amount of compensations.
It is reported that Missouri Attorney General in April filed a lawsuit in US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, demanding that the Chinese government take responsibility for the global pandemic and make compensations. This is an extremely rare case that a local government of a country attempted to hold a sovereign state accountable through a domestic court.
At present, relevant scientific issues revolving around the COVID-19 pandemic are gradually turning into some political topics requesting China to take responsibility and make compensations, and are becoming a weapon for some international anti-China forces to manipulate international public opinions.
All the lawsuits filed against China in US courts over the COVID-19 pandemic, be them non-governmental or government-led, are based on the presumption that the Chinese government is responsible for the spread of the disease. Those who filed these lawsuits just arrogantly assume that the virus came from China, and the global spread of the virus was caused by the Chinese governments inaction and failure to report the disease to the world. They also hold that the Chinese government should compensate for the losses because of its improper and inhumane response measures.
What they believe is just groundless and has no basis in the international law.
Although China was the first to report the COVID-19 disease, there is not a conclusion yet that the virus indeed originated in the country. Neither the World Health Organization (WHO) nor the global scientific community has confirmed the source of it. The tracing of the virus should be an issue studied by scientists, not something to be politicized.
Besides, according to the international law, countries shall not be held accountable for a disease no matter its origin is confirmed or not. There is no regulation in the international law that a country where a virus starts shall compensate the losses suffered by other countries. Even if Wuhan reported the disease first, China does not have to take the state responsibility in the international law, let alone the fact that the origin is still up in the air. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was firstly spotted in the US and then spread to the rest of the world, and Washington has never been requested to shoulder the losses.
Chinese governments notification on and response to COVID-19 conform to the International Health Regulations (IHR). As a member country of the WHO, China shall observe the IHR revised in 2005 and report timely to the WHO when epidemic happens.
According to the Articles 6 and 7 of the IHR, the core responsibility of member countries is notification.
Each State Party shall notify WHO, by the most efficient means of communication available, and within 24 hours of assessment of public health information, of all events which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern within its territory in accordance with the decision instrument, as well as any health measure implemented in response to those events,” the Article 6 stipulates, adding that “Following a notification, a State Party shall continue to communicate to WHO timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed public health information available to it on the notified event, where possible including case definitions, laboratory results, source and type of the risk, number of cases and deaths, conditions affecting the spread of the disease and the health measures employed; and report, when necessary, the difficulties faced and support needed in responding to the potential public health emergency of international concern.
And the Article 7 notes that “If a State Party has evidence of an unexpected or unusual public health event within its territory, irrespective of origin or source, which may constitute a public health emergency of international concern, it shall provide to WHO all relevant public health information. In such a case, the provisions of Article 6 shall apply in full.”
According to a timeline of China releasing information on COVID-19 and advancing international cooperation on epidemic response released by the Xinhua News Agency on April 6, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Central Chinas Hubei Province detected cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in late December 2019, and the WHOs information system received report on the cases on December 31.
Starting January 3 this year, China has been regularly informing the WHO, relevant countries and regions and Chinas Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan about the pneumonia outbreak, and began to inform the US of the pneumonia outbreak and response measures on a regular basis. Facts speak louder than words. China has fully, timely and effectively fulfilled its obligations in the IHR.
Based on the state responsibility in the international law, a country must take the legal consequences for its wrongful acts in international activities. The law of state responsibility is of great significance for protecting the legitimate rights and interests of victims, for safeguarding the international legal order, and for preventing and rectifying international wrongful acts.
According to the international law, there is an “internationally wrongful act of a State” when conduct consisting of an action or omission: “attributable to the State under international law;” and “constitutes a breach of an international obligation of the State.”
China has well fulfilled the obligation in the IHR and done nothing illegal, so it shall not take the state responsibility for the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US and the rest of the world.
As a matter of fact, the severe situation in the US today is totally caused by the US government itself. In early January, China began to inform the US of the pneumonia outbreak and response measures on a regular basis and has always kept the information updated. Besides, the WHO also made decisive response from the very beginning, sending an alarm to the world. It declared the epidemic a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) on January 30.
Therefore, the US should have enough time to take effective measures to cope with the health crisis. However, it failed to exploit the window of opportunity and took no effective measures, which finally led to the explosive spread of the virus in the US. The losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic should be attributed to the failure of the White House, and have no causal relationship at all with Chinas pandemic response.
(Huang Jin is president of the Chinese Society of International Law.)