Global Health and the Law

Lawrence O. Gostin

Georgetown University - Law Center - O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law

Devi Sridhar

University of Oxford

May 1, 2014

The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 370, pp. 1732-1740, 2014

The last two decades have brought revolutionary changes in global health, driven by popular concern over AIDS, novel influenzas, and maternal mortality. Given the rapid globalization that is a defining feature of today’s world, the need for a robust system of global health law has never been greater. Global health law has been defined as the legal norms, processes, and institutions designed primarily to attain the highest possible standard of physical and mental health for the world’s population. Global health law is not an organized legal system, with a unified treaty monitoring body, such as the World Trade Organization. There is, however, a network of treaties and “soft” law instruments that powerfully affect global health — many of which arise under the auspices of the World Health Organization. See Lawrence O. Gostin, GLOBAL HEALTH LAW (Harvard University Press, 2014).

The WHO is the most important institution for negotiating international health agreements. Despite WHO’s normative powers, modern international health law is remarkably thin, with only two major treaties adopted since the agency’s creation, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and the International Health Regulations. Despite the potential of “soft” and “hard” instruments to set norms and mobilize multiple actors, global health law-making has major limitations: states are loath to constrain themselves and, therefore, often reject international law or agree only to weak norms; high-income states are reluctant to finance capacity building in lower-income states or provide un-earmarked funding to WHO; and compliance mechanisms are often weak or non-existent. However, global health law, despite its limitations, remains vital to achieving global health with justice.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 10

Keywords: global health, WHO, international health regulations, health law, global health strategy, global health challenges

JEL Classification: K30, K32, K33, K39

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Date posted: May 22, 2014  

Suggested Citation

Gostin, Lawrence O. and Sridhar, Devi, Global Health and the Law (May 1, 2014). The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 370, pp. 1732-1740, 2014. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2439625

Contact Information

Lawrence O. Gostin (Contact Author)
Georgetown University - Law Center - O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9038 (Phone)
202-662-9055 (Fax)
Devi Sridhar
University of Oxford ( email )
Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom
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