UPDATE: Research Guide on Global Health Law

By Julienne E. Grant

Julienne E. Grant serves as Reference Librarian/Foreign & International Research Specialist at the Loyola University Chicago School of Law Library. Her previous publications include contributions to “Research Guide to Mexican Law” (Legal Reference Services Quarterly 35.1 (2016): 18-76) and “Guide to Cuban Law and Legal Research” (International Journal of Legal Information 45.2 (2017): 76-188). She also co-authored a book chapter (with Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns) on the history of Latin American materials in U.S. law libraries (forthcoming, McFarland, 2018). In addition, Ms. Grant is a regular contributor to the DipLawMatic Dialogues blog, which is sponsored by the American Association of Law Libraries’ Foreign, Comparative, and International Law Special Interest Section (FCIL-SIS). She is a member of the FCIL-SIS and served as Chair of its Latin American Law Interest Group from 2013 to 2017. 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.

NOTE: This article is a complete re-write of the original by Chenglin Liu.

Published May/June 2018

(Previously updated by Chenglin Liu in January/February 2010)

See the Archive Version

1. Introduction

The original GlobaLex “Research Guide on International Health Law” (Aug. 2006) described “international health law” as a “new field”. Since that time, however, another term has emerged that is often used interchangeably — “global health law”—although some scholars distinguish between the two. For example, Professor Jennifer Prah Ruger (now at the 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]

Professor Lawrence O. Gostin, Director of Georgetown’s O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law, shares Professor Ruger’s view of global health law. According to him, the field is likewise more inclusive than international health law; it extends beyond the relationships between state actors.[2] Global health law, for Professor Gostin, also encompasses the roles of 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).[3] The overall goal of global health law, in his view, is to develop an international normative framework that strives for health equity.[4]

This update will accordingly focus on global health law as defined by such scholars as Professors Ruger and Gostin. Included are a wide array of resources, ranging from primary “hard” 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.

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2. Introductory Materials

The following recent publications (2014-2018) serve as general introductions to global (and international) health law.

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 (The George Washington International Law Review, LexisNexis), which contains a lengthy chapter on “Public Health” (Ch. 26 in the 2017 edition). The guide is available in Lexis (and in print).

4. Secondary Sources

Scholarship on global health law is plentiful and continues to evolve. Traditional reference sources in the forms of encyclopedias 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 and its 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.[5]

4.1 Encyclopedias & Handbooks

The following encyclopedias and handbooks are pertinent to global health law research. Of particular interest is a forthcoming handbook specific to that topic (Toebes and Burci, 2018) (see below).

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. Note that snippets of books are often available in Google Books.

4.3 Journals & Periodical Indexes

Several English-language law journals focus on global health law. Articles on that 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 in 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 sphere.

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, 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.

7. Legal Norms

A hodgepodge of legal instruments constitutes the framework of the developing field of global health law. These norms encompass both “hard” (binding) and “soft” (non-binding) law and are enacted by state and non-state actors.

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). The WHO, however, lacks the authority to enforce compliance, and this role is left to domestic law and policy.[6]

Although the WHO has tremendous law-making power, it has only negotiated three binding, “hard” law instruments. These are:

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 (2011). 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 International 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.[9] 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).

7.3 Foreign Legislation

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: Basic Guide to Researching Foreign Law” (July/Aug. 2016) authored by Mary Rumsey and Brill Reference’s Foreign Law Guide.* Hein’s Multinational Sources Compared: A Subject and Jurisdiction Index* 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 ninety jurisdictions. Also useful is the International Labour Organization’s free LEGOSH database, which contains domestic health legislation within the rubric of labor and employment. Additional sources for foreign health legislation (and judgments) are listed below.

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.[10] For an in-depth discussion of the link between global health and human rights law, see Chapter 8 (“Health and Human Rights”) in the aforementioned title Global Health Law (Harvard UP, 2014). For researching international human rights generally, see the GlobaLex contribution “UPDATE: International Human Rights” (Nov./Dec. 2017).

International trade law and intellectual property law are also closely related to global health. 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.[11] 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.[12] 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 Gosten’s Global Health Law. 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.

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.

11. Libraries with Noteworthy Collections

Along with law school and medical school libraries, a number of special-topic libraries include collections pertinent to global health law research. Below is a short list of these. Note that not all of 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).


[3] Id. at 60.

[4] Id. at 59-60.

[5] See, e.g., MURRAY EARLE, MEDICAL LAW (Law Essentials) 1-2 (2007).

[6] Lawrence O. Gostin & Devi Sridhar. Global Health and the Law, 370 NEW ENG. J. MED. 1732, 1734 (2014).

[7] WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, 2302 U.N.T.S. 166 (entered into force on Feb. 27, 2005) (last visited March 11, 2018).

[8] Five more ratifications are needed by July 8, 2018, to meet the threshold of forty countries. See Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Traffic in Tobacco Products, adopted on Nov. 12, 2012 (last visited March 11, 2018).

[9] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights art. 12, 993 U.N.T.S. 3 (entered into force Jan. 3, 1976).

[10] 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).

[11] See GOSTEN, supra note 2, at 270-71, 278-80.

[12] Id. at 289.