• Legis Scriptor

International Medical Law

Authored By- Munis Nasir

Keywords- Interstate relations, international treaties and conventions, contagious diseases, health emergencies


International medical law is a part of International Law. Its main sources are the UN Charter and the WHO Constitution. Most importantly there are legal norms that give medical professionals and patients certain rights.


The right to access health, just like other human rights has now become a legally enshrined right, including, in constitutions, countries of the world community. Among the vast number of rules in international law governing interstate relations, there are many issues related to health and medical issues. Such relations work for the improvement of the health of all people on the earth which constitutes international medical law. The term “health”, as stated in the preamble of the Charter of the World Health Organization means “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not only the absence of disease or infirmity.”

International medical law is a part of international law, which controls interstate relations on health and medicine. Further, it follows the sources just like the sources of international law which are international treaties and conventions whose norms are related in improving the health of people both in peacetime and even protecting the health of people in the event of war. However, the main sources of international medical law are the UN Charter and the WHO Constitution. The United Nations Charter in its most general form states that United Nations should promote international cooperation in the field of health care and resolution of emerging problems accordingly whereas the provisions of the Charter of the World Health Organization are much more developed. The provisions of the WHO Constitution, refer to the International Health Regulations, adopted in 1951 at the WHO, World Health Assembly, with the aim to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. Moreover, sources of this branch of law are the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961 and a number of bilateral agreements on cooperation in the field of health.

World Health Organization

The World Health Organization provides global leadership with respect to public health within the United Nations system. Founded in 1948, WHO works with 194 Member States with the sole aim to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.

The goal for 2019-23 remains to ensure that a billion more people have universal health coverage, to protect a billion more people from health emergencies and provide a further billion people with better health and wellbeing.


The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) works with the objective to lead and inspire the world in achieving zero new HIV infections, zero amount of discrimination and zero amount of AIDS-related deaths. UNAIDS works with the united efforts of 11 UN organizations- UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP, UNDP, UNFPA, UNODC, UN Women, ILO, UNESCO, WHO, and the World Bank. All organizations work effectively to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

COVID-19 position in International Medical Law

Under International law, every internationally wrongful act or omission of a State amounts to the international responsibility and accountability of that State. Further, there are two constituent elements in order to consider an act or omission internationally wrongful. The elements are: First, the act or omission, in question, must be attributable to the State under the relevant rules of attribution in international law. Second, the act or omission must constitute a breach of an international obligation in force for that State at that time.

With the recent pandemic situations, the allegations pertain to the actions of local Chinese government officials in concealing the necessary information about the coronavirus in its early stage of the outbreak. Even though those officials may belong to the local/provincial government, a State is unitary in respect of international law and thus no differentiation will be made between provincial and union governments. In terms of treaty law, the International Health Regulations, 2005(IHR) is adopted by the World Health Assembly an entire body of the World Health Organization(WHO) which is responsible for the protection, prevention, and control of “international spread of diseases”.

Article 6 along with Article 7 of the IHR makes States bound in respect to assess events occurring within their territory and notify the WHO within 24 hours of any event including any “unexpected or unusual public health event” within its territory, regardless of its origin, which may further constitute a “public health emergency of international concern”.Since China is a member of the WHO, it is bound by the obligation in passing the information about a highly contagious virus having necessary information that can be seen as direct violation of international obligations.

Under the customary international law, there is no direct obligation upon States to report an epidemic outbreak. However, the legal effectiveness and customary status of such an obligation under international law remain unclear.

Ethics in Medical Law

“Medical law is a legal discipline, a subject restricted area of law, which regulates the relationship between the patients and the medical staff pursuant to legal norms as well as medical activity in general,” said J. Radisic.

Legal norms aimed to control the conduct of legal professionals. The objective of legal norms is to protect the rights and interests of not only patients but also the community as a whole. Even in modern time, medical ethics and law have become complementary and on the event of its failure of health professionals which is not in accordance with rules is subject to sanction.

In Chester v. Afshar[1], the House of Lords ruled that to succeed in case of negligence, the patient need not have to prove that they have rejected the treatment that had been inadequately explained to them, only then they have to seek further advice to reflect before making a decision.


There is no doubt that the knowledge and linking of ethics and medical law in delivering justice to citizens to be aware of legal rights and regulations and the quality of health care.

[1] 2004 UKHL 41 References