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The Law of the WHO and COVID-19 Pandemic Reformism



Villarreal, P. The Law of the WHO and COVID-19 Pandemic Reformism. German Yearbook of International Law, 64(1), 11-40.
Villarreal, Pedro A. "The Law of the WHO and COVID-19 Pandemic Reformism" German Yearbook of International Law 64.1, 2022, 11-40.
Villarreal, Pedro A. (2022): The Law of the WHO and COVID-19 Pandemic Reformism, in: German Yearbook of International Law, vol. 64, iss. 1, 11-40, [online]


The Law of the WHO and COVID-19 Pandemic Reformism

Villarreal, Pedro A.

German Yearbook of International Law, Vol. 64 (2021), Iss. 1 : pp. 11–40

Additional Information

Article Details


Author Details

Pedro A. Villarreal, Senior Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, Heidelberg, Germany. PhD in Law (UNAM, Mexico).


In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, international law norms on the cross-border spread of disease are under a reformist spotlight. Multiple perspectives have emerged on what the best course of action for better pandemic preparedness is. The legally binding and non-binding instruments from the World Health Organization (WHO) lie at the centre of these reformist debates. Against this backdrop, the current article explores past and current iterations of law-making and reform within the WHO. Currently, a three-pronged legal juncture is in place: creating a new instrument, amending existing rules, or issuing recommendations. The article concludes with a cautionary note regarding the overreliance on legally binding norms as the only worthwhile outcome of pandemic reformism. The prevalent geopolitical setting, always susceptible to major divides, is an inescapable determinant of success.

Table of Contents

Section Title Page Action Price
Pedro A. Villarreal\nThe Law of the WHO and COVID-19 Pandemic Reformism 11
I. Introduction: Grasping Pandemic Momentum for Law-Making and Reform 11
II. WHO Regulations, Conventions, and Non-Binding Codes: A Primer 12
A. WHO Legal Instruments: Stretching the Sources Doctrine of International Law 12
B. Past Law-Making on Pandemics in a Nutshell 15
1. Pre-WHO Conventions 16
2. Enter the Constitution of the WHO: Law-Making Powers on International Health Law 18
III. Past Law-Making and Reforms of WHO Instruments: A Bird’s Eye View 26
A. The Road to a WHO Convention: Expanding Health Law 26
B. Regulations and Adaptation to Changing Times 28
C. ‘Soft Law’ Instruments as a Fail-Safe 30
IV. The Three-Pronged International Law Juncture After COVID-19 32
A. The Uphill Road Towards a New Convention on Pandemic Preparedness and Response 34
B. The Middle-Ground Solution: Amending Existing Regulations 37
C. The Failsafe Option: Legally Non-Binding Recommendations 38
V. Conclusions: Pandemic Reformism in a Fractured World 39