The coronavirus pandemic has roiled international relations. The huge global toll of the pandemic, both in terms of deaths and economic implications, has raised the question of Chinese responsibility. This Working Paper analyzes China’s responsibility for Covid-19 under international law. In order for state responsibility to arise, China must have committed an internationally wrongful act. The conduct must be attributable to China and must constitute a breach of its international obligations. An analysis of the timeframe concerning the main measures undertaken by Chinese authorities at different government levels shows a lag in reporting the outbreak to WHO according to the International Health Regulations. Hence, there appears to be a case for injured states to invoke China’s responsibility. The prospects for implementation are nevertheless bleak. A tacit understanding seems to prevail among states not to pursue the spread of pathogens in terms of legal responsibility or litigation. Whether major power rivalry or the enormous costs of the pandemic will change this non-confrontational tradition of dealing with pathogens remains to be seen.

Katja Creutz
Leading Researcher