Covid-19 and international law - EL PAcCTO
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Covid-19 and international law

25 March 2020

In this article, we are going to explain the consequences that certain events in recent history have had on international law. Among these cases is the so-called Unit 731 in the Japanese imperial army that distributed biological agents in China during World War II, and the posting of anthrax spores through the North American postal service to politicians and the media.

In the field of laws relating to armed conflict, the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction constitutes the legal framework of reference. Its text prohibits the development, production, storage or acquisition of microbial or biological agents and toxins in amounts not justified for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes, as well as the production or use of weapons containing these agents.

The sanctions framework is established in the 1949 Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in War-Time, which prohibits biological experiments being carried out on the population, as well as the use of biological weapons. More recently, the Statute of the International Criminal Court adopted in 1998 attributes the prosecution of certain offences to this body, including those established in 1949, in the absence of a state jurisdiction that is in a position to prosecute these behaviours.

Sanctions related to the propagation of biological elements

Criminal law in some states has established sanctions related to biological elements that may be spread amongst the population. The Spanish Criminal Code sets forth the sanction for the following conduct:

  1. The use of genetic engineering to produce biological weapons or exterminators of the human species, in its Article 160.
  2. The release of substances in contravention of laws or other provisions of a general nature that protect the environment, in Article 325.
  3. The manufacture, handling, transport, possession or sale of materials, including biological materials, in contravention of established safety standards and, in particular, which endanger the life, physical integrity or health of people, or the environment, in Article 348.
  4. The manufacture, marketing or deposit of biological weapons, in Articles 566 and 567.
  5. Carrying out terrorist acts by any means, in Article 573.
  6. Carrying out any act for the purpose of totally or partially destroying a national, ethnic, racial, religious group or one determined by the disability of its members, as a crime of genocide in Article 607.

In the case of genocide, the 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide requires the punishment thereof in all states.

Antonio Roma Coordinator of the Cooperation among Justice Systems component of EL PAcCTO

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