Australia has stepped into an international minefield by demanding an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
Its reasonable request has suited the “blame China” game being played by the White House (as an early theme of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign) and has infuriated China, its officials have taken to “wolf diplomacy”, threatening trade and tourism reprisals.
The British & German Ambassadors to the United Nations have cautiously agreed but pointed out that now is not the right time.
How did Scott Morrison come to be seen as a “Trump’s patsy” and is it still possible to put a much-needed expert fact-finding mission in place?
The importance of such an exercise, for the world’s future, can hardly be questioned.
There have been several lethal viruses already associated with wet markets and exotic animal trading in China, and there are questions (to which China may have good answers) as to whether it complied with the International Health Regulations about timely sharing of information.
Similarly, the World Health Organisation must face external scrutiny over its responses because an internal investigation will never be accepted by its critics. A multilateral mission might also examine worst-hit countries, including America and Britain over the reasons for their lack of preparation. We must learn lessons from this catastrophe before something similar happens again, as it no doubt will.
China is behaving as if it has something to hide and may come to realise that rejecting an inquiry is not in its best interest, certainly if it wants to avoid international fury, including from some countries it has been sedulously cultivating with “belt and road” assistance.
The world wants not revenge but honest explanation, and an independent inquiry might well exonerate China from the un-evidenced theories being peddled by the US about the virus emerging from its laboratory in Wuhan. It might find that it was as transparent in January and February as the WHO rules required. If China refuses to present evidence, the assumption may have to be that it is attempting a cover-up.
How should Australia advance its proposal? The UN has a charter obligation “to protect the peace and security of the world” and, under article 55, to resolve health problems that threaten the globe’s “stability and well-being”.
This duty devolves on the Security Council: it should set up an objective fact-finding investigation, not to apportion blame but to provide an accurate history of the pandemic with recommendations that will help cope with future emergencies. China, in its present frame of mind, will use its power to veto any action.
Australia is, however, a member of the Human Rights Council, on which China is not represented, and the inquiry is necessary to protect the right to life. It was the council that sponsored the most effective recent fact-finding inquiry, Michael Kirby’s investigation of human rights abuses in North Korea. That country did not co-operate but there was sufficient evidence available, from defectors, local media and online postings, to enable Justice Kirby to reach compelling conclusions.
This offers a way forward, so long as those chosen to be fact-finders have unassailable reputations and are untainted by any partiality to either China or the US.
The WHO, as a UN institution, would be bound to co-operate and China as a UN member would have a similar duty under article 56 of the charter. If it did not, it would suffer diplomatic isolation and anger from other states, but sufficient information could be gathered, especially from online sources, to make findings as to whether China obeyed the International Health Regulations by communicating “timely, accurate, and sufficiently detailed” information to the WHO about a public health emergency of international concern.
There are plenty of under-employed lawyers threatening to take China to various courts for negligent failure to disclose information or to close wet or wildlife markets which had foreseeable risks of bat-virus transmission. These are all doomed to failure because sovereign states have immunity in international and domestic law. China does not accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice, foreclosing that possibility of making it accountable.
Although President Trump says he will demand reparations ($US 10 million for each American death – 60,000 so far) this is a “Mexican wall” promise for his base at the November elections.
Australia must beware of becoming exploited in such hokum or of allowing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to boast, as he did last week, that he was Australia’s best defender against Chinese reprisals.
Eventually, however, China will need to lay bare the truth about what happened in Wuhan. My own suspicion is that the health authority in Beijing did notify the WHO immediately when it heard about the virus but local Communist Party officials had by that time already delayed by several weeks before telling Beijing.
This delay was not because of negligence but because of fear – a fear common among apparatchiks in an authoritarian state of punishment for being bringers of bad news. The best early warning systems cannot exclude human error, especially errors caused by a political culture.