Juridical Principles to Sustain Planetary Health
2022 is the year States must find consensus about what norms are needed to attain the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) before 2030, to avert or manage the next emerging infectious, zoonotic disease, to safeguard Earth’s remaining biological diversity, and to prevent climate change from disrupting the wellbeing of all nations. Implicit agreement on the duty to sustain biological and social resilience need to be made explicit, by formally recognizing the Principle of Resilience as well as clarifying the “Duty of Care” as a principle, would assign priority to caring for the Earth, or “Mother Earth”. States should distill the legal principles needed to attain a “One Health” and safeguard biodiversity and the shared climate of the Earth. One Health is a blueprint for drafting a set of General principles of international law to meet the crises of 2022, as was done in 1972 and 1992.
All countries across the world crashed together in 2020. We share a tragic loss of life and continuing illnesses, disrupted economies, and social fabrics torn apart at every level, in families and communities, across nations globally. Among the many lessons that the Covid-19 Pandemic teaches is the agreement that none of us wish to experience this again.
Consensus, however, is not action. Could a future pandemic wipe out civilization as we know it, like the Black Death did in the 14th century throughout Eurasia, North Africa and Europe? Right now, States would do well to strengthen international cooperation and law in order to ensure that we can avert another pandemic. In 2021, while we still struggle with Covid-19, some might say governments have little patience to agree on the fundamental principles of law necessary to prevent another novel coronavirus from infecting us tomorrow. But states have no choice: they must agree to take preventive measures or all will suffer the consequences. Why is this so and what must we do?
The first step is to acknowledge scientific reality: Earth’s environment provides a common home for all our diverse societies and governments. The oceans and atmosphere, the hydrologic cycles and migration of species, follow “the laws of nature.” Humans coexist with other animals, and can share the same illnesses. Viruses and bacteria living with wild or domesticated animals spill over to infect humans, and we humans then infect each other. This biological exchange is zoonosis. Perhaps 700,000 viruses exist in wild animals, most not yet discovered, capable of infecting humans. While animals are healthy, living apart from humans, these viruses do not seek out new hosts. When humans disturb their habitats, viruses can spill over into human hosts, starting humans infections. This sharing of emerging infectious diseases happens all the time, and is increasing in frequency.
Here are some recent examples: AIDS, caused by the Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV; two types infect humans HIV-1 and HIV-2), emerged in humans shed from primates in the 1920s, and became a pandemic; in 2019, 38 million people worldwide were infected with HIV and 690,000 died. Hendra (Hendra henipavirus), is shed from bats and is highly fatal for horses and humans. It was identified in 1994 in Hendra, Australia. Hantavirus, conveyed via rodents, was identified in 1993 in the south-west United States, and causes hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS); just last 7 December 2020, Hanta killed a 20 year old man died in Nevada, USA. Avian Influenza caused the 1918 Pandemic (H1N1), and emerged as a new strain in Asia in 1957 (H2N2), and again in 1968 (H3N3). As 2020 ended, Avian Influenza killed thousands of farmed and wild birds across North America (H5N1 andH5N8), and France was obliged to kill 600,000 poultry (H5N8). Even as countries combat Covid-19, the threat of human infections looms. From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, the Pandemic of African Swine Flu (the H1N1pdm09 virus) caused some 60.8 million cases, with 274,304 hospitalizations and 12,469 deaths. Today A(H1N1) subtype influenza viruses are spreading as an epidemic in the swine population in China, Viet Nam and The Philippines, with reports that a new strain (G4 EAH1N1) is shared among humans working with the pigs. Veterinarians today urgently seek a vaccine for domesticated mink, which are afflicted by Covid-19. Bacteria also can produce infectious diseases, as illustrated by the rapid spread of Lyme Disease (bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi).
Pandemics and epidemics have afflicted humans for 5,000 years. We remember only a few, like the Black Death (Bubonic plague) shed from rats. Zoonotic diseases are increasing in frequency for four reasons: (1) humans now number more than seven billion (2) taking ever more lands to develop, disrupting the habitat of animals which shed viruses and bacteria, which (3) find new human hosts to infect, and (4) these humans infect each other and travel globally in planes, ensuring a wide spread of the diseases. Governments devote their priorities to this fourth dimension: vaccines, their manufacture and distribution, and issues of transport. Some attention is given to epidemiological studies at the point of spill-over, the second and third dimensions. Far too little attention is paid to keeping wild nature healthy, so that spill-over would not happen. (See The Lancet, S. S. Morse, et al., “Prediction and Prevention of the Next Pandemic” 380:1956 2012).
After the Pandemic of 1918, which killed more people than World War I did in armed conflict, the social thirst for returning to “normal” eclipsed concerns about preventing new viral infections. The economic revival of the “roaring ‘20s” supplanted public policy debates about public health, and replaced concerns about possible new pandemics. People wanted to forget. As Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay “On Being Ill,” (1925): “Practically speaking, the public would say a novel devoted to influenza lacked plot.” When Albert Camus wrote The Plague (1947), he described bubonic plague for what it revealed about the human condition, not as a call for enhancing public health. So, will economic recovery post-2022 usher in another era of neglecting emerging infectious diseases? How can a political declaration of States keep us from forgetting, and move us to acting to cooperate together?
A century ago, microbiology and the science of virology barely existed. An optimistic hubris accompanied advances in medical research. Yet, as Dr. René Dubos wrote in 1959, “Modern man believes that he has achieved almost complete mastery over the nature forces which molded his evolution in the past and that he can now control his own biological and cultural destiny. … But this may be an illusion. Like other living things, he is part of an immensely complex ecological system and is bound to all its components by innumerable links.” Dubos warned that medicine could not hope to manage infectious diseases: “at some unpredictable time and some unforeseeable manner nature will strike back.” (Dubos, The Mirage of Health, 1959).
Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, States and their societies have revised and progressively developed international law to reflect what the environmental sciences are continuously revealing. The 1992 Declaration of Rio de Janeiro on Environment and Development is a stunning example of this progress. Most Rio Principles have been implemented and applied in national legislation and governance. For example, environmental impact assessment (Rio Principle 17) is now the norm, and is recognized by the International Court of Justice as customary international law (The Pulp Mills Case, Argentina v. Uruguay, 20 April 2010). It is time for another “update.”
Consultations among UN Member States, under UN General Assembly Resolution i73/333 (30 August 2019) currently are exploring how States can build upon the success of the 1992 Rio Declaration and the earlier 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment. The Covid-19 Pandemic offers a universal argument in favor of agreeing on the “next” global, intergovernmental declaration. 2022 is the year States might – must – find consensus about what norms are needed to attain the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) before 2030, to avert or manage the next emerging infectious, zoonotic disease, to safeguard Earth’s remaining biological diversity, and to prevent climate change from disrupting the wellbeing of all nations.
Principles already agreed in the Convention on Biological Diversity or in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change need to be elaborated in a further, new Declaration. Implicit agreement on the duty to sustain biological and social resilience will need to be made explicit, by formally recognizing the Principle of Resilience. Moreover, clarifying the “Duty of Care” as a principle, would assign priority to caring for the Earth, or “Mother Earth” as contemplated in UN General Assembly Resolutions on “Harmony With Nature.” See the 2021 UN report “Making Peace With Nature: A Scientific Blueprint to tackle climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies.” The United Nations Environment Assembly has recognized that “biodiversity loss is a health risk multiplier.” To avert future pandemics, States will need to do more than implement SDG 15; they must “mainstream the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity to enhance ecosystem resilience.” (UNEP/EA.3/Res. 4, 2017).
Law is contributing by fashioning procedures for integrating all disciplines around attaining the 17 SDGs, and capacity building to gain the benefits of “the environmental rule of law” is provided by UNEP and by the IUCN’s World Commission on Environmental Law. Much more is needed, for example to unite medicine, veterinary science, and conservation biology, as René Dubos urged, within a shared framework. In their next declaration, States should distill the legal principles needed to attain a “One Health” and safeguard biodiversity and the shared climate of the Earth.
One Health is “the universal policy and practice of care for the integrity, stability, resilience, and beauty of Earth’s biotic community through nurturing the interdependent health links that are shared among humans, wildlife, domesticated animals, plants, ecosystems and all nature.” One Health transcends and unites the contributions of the life sciences for stewardship of ecosystem integrity and biodiversity to sustain the health and wellbeing of life on Earth. One Health is a blueprint for drafting a set of General principles of international law to meet the crises of 2022, as was done in 1972 and 1992.
Covid-19 reminds us that society today is still far from embracing “One Health.” Each nation has much left to implement the SDGs before 2030. The UN’s sixth Global Environment Outlook (Geo-6), documents that every nation already suffers measurable socio-economic and ecological harm from environmental degradation. Today’s deficit in international cooperation persists only at our common peril. A political declaration in 2022 will unite nations behind their common purpose, for the “future we want.”