UPDATE: Researching Global Health Law

By Julienne E. Grant

Julienne E. Grant currently serves as Instructor & Reference Librarian at the Louis L. Biro Law Library at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law. She previously spent almost eighteen years as the Foreign & International Research Specialist at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law. Ms. Grant has contributed to published guides on Mexican and Cuban law, and she recently co-authored a chapter (with Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns) in Latin American Collection Concepts: Essays on Libraries, Collaborations and New Approaches (McFarland, 2019). She is a member of the FCIL-SIS of the American Association of Law Libraries and has served as Chair of its Latin American Law Interest Group. Ms. Grant earned a B.A. magna cum laude in Spanish from Middlebury College, an M.A. in Ibero-American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an M.A.L.S. from Rosary College (now Dominican University), and a J.D. cum laude from DePaul University. In 2019, Ms. Grant earned a Certificate in Editing from the Graham School at the University of Chicago, and she is a freelance editor, writer, and translator.

Published May/June 2023

(Previously updated by Chenglin Liu in January/February 2010 and by Julienne E. Grant in May/June 2018)

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1. Introduction

As the 2018 precursor of this update explained, the terms “international health law” and “global health law” are often used interchangeably, although some scholars distinguish between the two.

For example, Professor Jennifer J. Prah (University of Pennsylvania) views global health law as a much broader field than international health law: “International health law connotes a more traditional approach derived from rules governing relations among nation-states. Global health law, on the other hand, is developing an international structure based on the world as a community, not just a collection of nation-states.”[1] On a similar vein, Professor Lawrence O. Gostin, Faculty Director of Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law, views the topic of global health law as including the roles of both state and non-state actors (e.g., NGOs), national health legislation, and international legal regimes that interact with public health (e.g., human rights, trade, and intellectual property).[2] The overall goal of global health law, in his view, is to develop an international normative framework that strives for health equity.[3]

Drawing on these descriptions, the topic of global health law is indeed quite broad, effectively encompassing the relationships and interplay among public health, “hard” and “soft” law instruments, and state and non-state actors. Since this guide’s 2018 update, the area of global health law has unsurprisingly been dominated by the subtopic of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is generally (but not thoroughly) covered here. Other GlobaLex articles explore (and will explore) the pandemic in more detail (see, e.g., “The Execution of the International Public Contract during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Comparative Perspective” [Nov./Dec. 2022]).

This 2023 update will again include a wide array of resources, ranging from primary international law instruments to databases that contain domestic health-related legislation. Also included are suggestions for researching the relationships between global health law and international human rights, trade, and intellectual property. In terms of format, the guide emphasizes electronic sources, but some print monographs are also mentioned. All of the listed resources are available in English, although several are multilingual. The aggregate purpose of the guide is to provide a comprehensive roadmap for researching the highly complex and dynamic field of global health law, which now includes the COVID-19 pandemic within its topical scope.

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2. Recent Books & Articles

The following are books and articles (published 2020–2023) on the general topic of global health law and its fledgling subtopic, the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. Electronic Research Guides

The research guides listed below, hosted on academic library sites, collectively cover global health law and the related field of global health. Also noteworthy is the annual Guide to International Legal Research (George Washington International Law Review, LexisNexis), which contains a lengthy chapter on “Public Health” (ch. 27 in the 2022 edition) and a subsection on COVID-19 (sec. 27.02[4]). The guide is available in LexisNexis (and in print).

4. Locating Secondary Sources

Secondary materials on global health law are plentiful, particularly as they pertain to the COVID-19 pandemic. Traditional reference sources in the forms of encyclopedias, compendiums, and handbooks include lengthy entries and chapters of value for researchers. Useful monographs and journal articles, as well as unpublished theses and dissertations, are also available. Various “current awareness” tools, such as online newspapers and blogs, follow developments in global health, the COVID-19 pandemic, and their associated norms. Several excellent commercial and free databases are available to assist with research in this area. Note that secondary sources on “medical law” may also yield relevant information despite their different focus; medical law traditionally pertains to the interactions between doctors and their patients.[4]

4.1. Encyclopedias, Compendiums & Handbooks

The following reference materials are pertinent to global health law research. Some were published during and following the COVID-19 pandemic.

4.2. Books

Searching on the following Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) in online library catalogs will yield books related to the general topic of global health law as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Note that snippets of books are often available on Google Books.

4.3. Journals & Periodical Indexes

Several English-language law journals focus on global health law. Articles on this topic also appear occasionally in journals that concentrate on health law generally or on the topic of global health. The following is a selected list of periodicals that cover the field of global health law. Many of the titles are open access.

Medical journals can also be useful for researching the area of global health law. Examples are the subscription-based New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and The Lancet. Some medical journals are available full text in interdisciplinary commercial databases like JSTOR. For general guidance on medical research, consult an online electronic guide such as A Guide to Health & Medical Research (University of Denver Libraries). Also noteworthy is Elsevier’s SSRN, which is an excellent resource for locating open access working drafts and published pieces related to health law and policy in the international context.

The following online journal databases and indexes can also help identify and locate relevant articles.

4.4. Theses & Dissertations

Often overlooked by legal researchers, theses and dissertations contain exhaustive research and extensive bibliographies, and can be useful sources of information on global health law. Along with the web platforms listed below, many universities post digital copies of their own students’ theses and dissertations.

5. Databases & Websites

The following databases and websites are useful for identifying and accessing primary and secondary sources related to global health law, global health, COVID-19, and associated topics.

6. Current Awareness: News Sources & Blogs

Newspaper and news websites, as well as blogs, can be excellent sources for information on international developments in health law and public health. The following is a list of selected news sources and blogs that cover these topics. Note that a comprehensive collection of links for legal-related blogs is available in JUSTIA’s BlawgSearch; the lists there are organized by practice area, geographic focus, and by law school sponsorship. Try both the “Health Care Law” and “International Law” categories for blogs that may be useful for global health law research.

A hodgepodge of legal instruments constitutes the framework of global health law. These norms encompass both “hard” (binding) and “soft” (non-binding) law and are enacted by state and non-state actors. Both types of norms were frequently issued during the COVID-19 pandemic at the international, national, and local levels.

7.1. The World Health Organization (WHO)

The WHO, which is a specialized agency of the United Nations, is the world’s foremost health IGO. Established in 1948, it plays a major role in promulgating health law instruments, which it does primarily through its World Health Assembly (currently, 194 members). More specifically, the Constitution of the WHO provides for the adoption of conventions and agreements (Article 19), regulations (Article 21), and recommendations (Article 23). A compilation of the WTO’s basic documents (current through May 31, 2019) is available in PDF format via the WTO website.

The WHO played a central role during the COVID-19 pandemic—providing information and data about the spread of the disease, issuing technical and scientific guidance, coordinating a global response, and distributing vaccine doses. WHO materials related to the pandemic, including a timeline of WHO activity, are posted on the WHO website. For more on this topic, see Müller, Gustavo, Melanie Ruelens, and Jan Wouters, "The role of the World Health Organization in the COVID-19 Pandemic," Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies (2021).

Although the WHO has tremendous law-making power, it has only negotiated three binding, “hard” law instruments since its inception, which are listed below. The WHO, however, is currently sponsoring and coordinating the drafting of a treaty “to “strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.”[5] WHO documents related to this process are posted on the WHO website.

In addition to “hard” law, the WHO enacts “soft” norms, such as recommendations, under Article 23 of its constitution. Prominent recommendations include the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes (1981), the WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel (2010), and the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework (2021). Other “soft” law WHO instruments are resolutions, decisions, annexes, action plans, and various global strategies. These documents, as well as WHO General Assembly and Executive Board materials, are available on the organization’s website via the main “Governance” tab or via the WHO’s IRIS database (Institutional Repository for Information Sharing). For more on the WTO and its normative powers, see Chapter 4 (“Fulfilling the Promise of the World Health Organization”) in Professor Lawrence O. Gostin’s Global Health Law (Harvard UP, 2014).

7.2. Non-WHO Instruments

Also, part of the developing global health law framework are norms promulgated outside the WHO context. These include “hard” law international instruments, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1976), which guarantees the individual’s right to the highest possible level of physical and mental health.[8] In general, for multilateral treaties that address health and health-related matters, conduct keyword or subject searches in the United Nations Treaty Collection. See also the 2010 version of this guide under “Basic Documents-Treaties of International Health Law” and the Annex in Fact Sheet No. 31 on “The Right to Health” (WHO and OHCHR, 2008).

8. International Human Rights, Trade & Intellectual Property

The scope of global health law includes peripheral areas that impact public health, including international human rights, trade, and intellectual property law. The “right to health” itself is a fundamental tenet of human rights law that is articulated in a number of international agreements.[9] For an in-depth discussion of the link between global health and human rights, see the above-mentioned Foundations of Global Health & Human Rights (Oxford UP, 2020). For researching international human rights generally, see the GlobaLex contribution “UPDATE: Researching International Human Rights” (Jan./Feb. 2021).

International trade law and intellectual property law are also closely related to global health, particularly as observed during the pandemic. The international trade system, for example, can influence the quality and prices of medicine, and the outcomes of trade disputes can have public health implications.[10] In terms of intellectual property, securing patent protection for life-saving drugs can make those drugs prohibitively expensive for some members of the world’s population.[11] For a thorough overview of the complex relationship between global health law and international trade and intellectual property regimes, see Chapter 9 (“Global Health, International Trade, and Intellectual Property”) in Gostin’s Global Health Law (2014). Also valuable is the GlobaLex contribution “UPDATE: Research Guide on TRIPS and Compulsory Licensing: Access to Innovative Pharmaceuticals for Least Developed Countries” (July/Aug. 2016) and the NYU Law Library’s WTO/GATT Research guide. To identify recent scholarship on the relationship between COVID-19 and international trade and intellectual property, combine the latter as search terms in the above-mentioned journal databases or on Google Scholar.

9. International & Regional Organizations

The websites of various international and regional organizations can be useful for locating general information about global health law, as well as relevant research and policy papers. All of the websites of the organizations listed below include virtual collections of materials.

10. Institutes, Centers & Other Initiatives

Listed below are various initiatives that focus on global health law and/or global health policy.

11. Finding Foreign Health Legislation & Cases

National health legislation interacts with international instruments to form part of the global health law framework. For guidance on identifying these laws, see GlobaLex’s “UPDATE: Introduction to Researching Foreign Law” (Nov./Dec. 2020) and Brill Reference’s Foreign Law Guide*. Hein’s Multinational Sources Compared: A Subject and Jurisdiction Index* (2nd ed.) will lead researchers to sources that analyze foreign health law regimes by country. The Global-Regulation.com* database can be searched to locate the texts of health-related laws and regulations from over 100 jurisdictions. Also useful is the International Labour Organization’s free LEGOSH database, which contains domestic health legislation within the rubric of labor and employment. Other resources for identifying foreign health legislation and judgments are listed below.

The COVID-19 Law Lab gathers and shares legal documents from over 190 countries. The site is a project of various NGOs and IGOs, including the UNDP, the WHO, and the IPU.

This free resource was developed by the Lawyers Collective, the O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law, and an international network of NGOs, academic institutions, and private researchers. The database includes domestic judgments related to health law issues, organized by country.

12. Libraries with Noteworthy Collections

Along with law school and medical school libraries, several special-topic libraries include collections pertinent to global health law research. Below is a short list of these. Note that not all these libraries are open to the public, but they may provide assistance via telephone or email.

[1] Jennifer Prah Ruger, Normative Foundations of Global Health Law, 96 GEO. L.J. 423, 424 (2008).

[2] See Lawrence O. Gostin, Global Health Law 59–60 (2014).

[3] Id.

[4] See, e.g., Murray Earle, Medical Law (Law Essentials) 1–2 (2007).

[5] Press Release, World Health Organization, World Health Assembly Agrees to Launch Process to Develop Historic Global Accord on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response (Dec. 1, 2021), https://www.who.int/news/item/01-12-2021-world-health-assembly-agrees-to-launch-process-to-develop-historic-global-accord-on-pandemic-prevention-preparedness-and-response; see also Lawrence O. Gostin, Kevin A. Klock & Sam F. Halab, “Inching Closer to an Essential Pandemic Treaty,” STAT, First Opinion (Aug. 3, 2022), https://www.statnews.com/2022/08/03/inching-closer-to-an-essential-global-pandemic-treaty/.

[6] WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, 2302 U.N.T.S. 166 (entered into force on Feb. 27, 2005), https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IX-4&chapter=9&clang=_en (last visited Mar. 12, 2023).

[7] Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Traffic in Tobacco Products, adopted on Nov. 12, 2012 (entered into force on Sept. 25, 2018), https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IX-4-a&chapter=9&clang=_en (last visited Mar. 12, 2023).

[8] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights art. 12, 993 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force Jan. 3, 1976), http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx (last visited Mar. 12, 2023).

[9] For a discussion of the “right to health” as articulated in international “hard” law instruments, see Roger Magnuson et al., Advancing the Right to Health: The Vital Role of Law (2017), http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/252815/1/9789241511384-eng.pdf?ua=1.

[10] See Gostin, supra note 2, at 270–71, 278–80.

[11] Id. at 289.