COVID-19 lawsuits against China are illegal by international law

By Huo Zhengxin Source:Global Times Published: 2020/5/10 17:48:41

Medical workers carry a patient into an ambulance in New York on April 6. Photo: Xinhua

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the political, economic and social orders in many countries. This disruption has raised certain voices in the US and Europe calling for China to be made legally accountable for their losses.  

These international claims against China are mainly being carried out in two ways: First, by filing lawsuits against China in domestic US courts; and second, by appealing to international legal institutions for possible recompense.

Suing China in US courts can be argued as vexatious litigation. As a sovereign state, China is immune from the jurisdiction of any foreign court. This is China's right under international law, not some privilege granted by other countries. Therefore, suing China in a US court challenges the doctrine of sovereign immunity and disrupts the international order.

Such litigation also deviates from basic facts. The uncontrollable COVID-19 spread in the US has absolutely nothing to do with China. At the cost of huge sacrifices in economics and population movements at home, China helped slow down the spread of the virus globally. How can the US, the first country in the world to announce travel restrictions on people coming from China, pass the buck to others for its own incompetence of reining in the virus?

After recognizing that these lawsuits lack basic legal and factual basis, some members of the US Congress have even raised the idea to amend relevant law. They proposed a motion requesting the Congress to amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and were trying to establish an exception to jurisdictional immunity for a foreign state that "discharges a biological weapon." Such an act humiliates US democracy and is contrary to the US doctrine of separation of powers. 

Moreover, there is neither international legal basis nor feasibility to sue China by resorting to international legal institutions. The reason is clear: Viruses know no boundaries or races, and this could happen in any country. There have been many global plagues in human history, several of which broke out in the US and spread worldwide. However, no country has demanded compensation from the US for these. 

State sovereignty means states have complete and exclusive control of all the people and property within their territory. This is a basic principle of international law. Without the consent of a country, no one, no organization, nor any other state can force the country to accept the jurisdiction of an international judicial body. Thus, any attempt to sue China with an international institution will be in vain.

In general, China's COVID-19 fight and its international assistance have improved China's national reputation and are recognized by major international organizations, as well as by most countries and regions worldwide. Some Western people's so-called legal charges against China do not represent mainstream voices of international public opinion. China should not let these shallow voices mislead the international community, but should respond firmly, reasonably and in a timely manner.

Demanding China to pay compensation for other countries' loss caused by the coronavirus pandemic is nothing but a farce to stigmatize China. Facing these noises, China does not need to respond to every single accusation. Beijing needs to show its stance over the case to the world and cooperate with global organizations including the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and most countries worldwide to fight the pandemic. Facts will eliminate these baseless rumors.

Some forces are making ill use of the COVID-19 pandemic to pressure China. This is an external challenge that China has to face as an emerging power. The better China's development momentum is and the faster its international status rises, the more external pressure the country will have to face. 

Thus, Chinese society should view these noises reasonably and objectively and build our own country with more confidence. This is the best response.

The author is a professor from China University of Political Science and Law.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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