O'Neill Institute Papers

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It has been only recently that scholars have engaged in a serious discussion of "public health law." This academic discourse examines the role of the state and civil society in health promotion and disease prevention within the country. There is an important emerging literature on the international dimensions of health, but no similar systematic definition and exposition of a field we call "global health law." In this article we aim to fill this gap by defining global health law and characterizing the grand challenges. Given the rapid and expanding globalization that is a defining feature of today's world, the need for a coherent system of international health law and governance has never been greater.

We begin with a discussion of the health hazards posed by contemporary globalization on human health and the consequent urgent need for global health law to facilitate effective multilateral cooperation in advancing the health of populations equitably. We then offer a definition of the emerging field of "global health law." After explicating the central features identified in our definition, we turn to an examination of the "grand challenges" – legal, political, and social – to reaching the full potential of global health law to advance human health in just and effective ways.

Our definition of global health law follows, and the remainder of this section explains the salient aspects of the definition:

Global health law is the study of the legal norms, processes, and institutions needed to create the conditions for people throughout the world to attain the highest possible level of physical and mental health. The field seeks to facilitate health-promoting behaviour among the key actors that significantly influence the public's health, including international organizations, governments, businesses, foundations, the media, and civil society. Global health law should stimulate investment in research and development, mobilize resources, set priorities, coordinate activities, monitor progress, create incentives, and enforce standards. The field should be guided by the value of social justice, and seek equitable distribution of health services, particularly to benefit the world’s poorest populations.

The domain of global health law primarily is concerned with (1) formal sources of public international law, including, for example, treaties establishing the authority and responsibility of states for the health of their populations and duties of international cooperation, and (2) formal subjects of international law, including states, individuals, and public international organizations. However, to be an effective global health governance strategy, global health law must evolve beyond its traditional confines of formal sources and subjects of international law. It must foster more effective collective global health action among governments, businesses, civil society and other actors. Accordingly, our definition of global health law is prescriptive as well as descriptive: it sets out the sort of international legal framework needed, but still unavailable, to empower the world community to advance global health in accordance with the value of social justice.