Rethinking the International System of Health Governance

Cambridge, Massachusetts
September 15–17, 2017

Symposium: (overview) (agenda) (participants)

The United Nations was born in the last weeks of World War II as a network of states “endowed with strength to keep the peace for generations and to give security and wider opportunity to all men” (Schlesinger 2009:10). It was tied closely to the concept of human rights. U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt, a key early advocate of the UN, promoted the idea as a mechanism for building security through the political, economic, and social development of free citizens rather than military power alone. “Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere,” he proclaimed (Normand & Zaidi 2008:89).

Seventy-five years later, the ability of the international system to deliver on this slogan is increasingly in doubt. Tragically, at the very moment when legitimate international institutions are more needed than ever to address the growing pains of a global society, those institutions are badly weakened. The crisis of legitimacy stems not only from the UN’s inability to engage effectively in global trouble spots like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also from a succession of profound institutional failures which contributed directly to the violation of highly vulnerable people’s basic human rights. These failures have led, among other things, to deadly environmental contamination and other recent public health disasters: mass lead poisoning in Kosovo, epidemic spread of cholera in Haiti, Ebola disease in West Africa, and drug-resistant tuberculosis worldwide. These cases highlight the difficulty in applying existing transnational accountability mechanisms to the UN. Despite the rhetoric that accompanied its founding, the jurisdiction of human rights law over multilateral agencies remains fraught with ambiguity.

This interdisciplinary symposium will gather a select group of experts and practitioners to consider recent crises in health care delivery and population protection—cholera, tuberculosis, and Ebola—and their implications for the ability of the international community to hold the UN and its technical agencies answerable for failure in an increasingly interconnected world. Participants will consider the historical evolution of the UN, gaps that have emerged from its structure and organization, and challenges to pragmatic action over the course of its history. The workshop will conclude by envisioning the road toward accountability and its potential impact on the shape of the international system.