From addressing social, economic, and commercial determinants of health to linking health to the notions of human rights and justice, law plays a wide range of roles in the realization of public health objectives. However, the power of law to help achieve desired health outcomes can be limited if not supported by the relevant technical expertise. 

Earlier in March of this year, I compiled a short brief note on the establishment of a WHO-O’Neill Institute Commission on Global Health and the Law, an idea conceived/recommended in the Lancet–O’Neill Institute Commission report on Legal Determinants of Health. Legal determinant 4 of this report states that building strong legal capacity is key to improved global health and sustainable development. Recommendation 7, in particular, recommends:

“WHO and The Lancet should partner with legal and health experts to create an independent standing commission on global health and the law that would advance the health-related SDGs by proposing evidence-based legal interventions for addressing major global health challenges, reforms of the global health architecture and international law, and strategies to build and strengthen global and national health law capacities.”

Taking on this recommendation, I wrote a couple of paragraphs on the background, functions, membership, and partnerships of this Commission on Global Health and Law. I thought of bringing those ideas (in the sections you see below) to this blog post partly because I believe that one of the matters the Commission’s future works would significantly impact is the global response to pandemics. 

Membership, Mandate, and Partners

While the Commission on Global Health and the Law is expected to provide the required technical support on health matters within the functions of the WHO, it is also crucial to ensure that the legal solutions it presents are analyzed and shaped by legal, political, scientific, and other considerations. To this end, membership to the Commission needs to reflect representation from politicians, experts in public health science, global health law scholars, and experts in international law.

Depending on the health matter it aims to find a legal solution for, the Commission may partner with academic institutions, civil society groups, United Nations agencies and commissions, government institutions, and other stakeholders. Within the WHO, the Commission will collaborate with other commissions such as the High-Level Commission on NCDs, Commission on Social Determinants of Health; Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth; the Commission on the Status of Women; Commission on Health and the Environment, etc. Tasks could also be carried out for common objectives such as the prevention and control of NCDs; health equity; gender equality and women empowerment; the effects of environmental change on human health; etc. 

Considering the impacts of travel on the climate system, and the need to ensure timely response with constant assistance, the Commission can carry out tasks digitally. When needed, meetings will be held in selected locations.


Focusing on improving public health through laws, the commission can:

  1. Respond to technical assistance requests from WHO Director-General on the roles of the law to advance the various functions of the WHO and help realize its objective to ensure all people have the highest possible level of health.
  2. Since the WHO has commissions established to focus on specific health matters, this Commission on global health and the law can serve as an umbrella commission to coordinate activities and pool resources among commissions to provide need-based technical legal support.
  3. Provide legal solutions to pressing health matters, which the WHO has not established a commission for, such as climate change, emergency response and preparedness, etc. Individual working groups could be established to provide the Commission with comprehensive study, review, or report on selected health topics. 
  4. Serve as a bridge that draws on and communicates (to the WHO) the public health law community’s analysis/ recommendations for international standards or legal frameworks needed for an on-time response to emerging health concerns.
  5. It could be a hub that coordinates resources and takes on comprehensive health law-related projects for the WHO, such as drafting a Framework Convention on Alcohol Control, revisions to the IHR, etc.

These being the initial thoughts I had, I hope to see them expanded and actualized soon. I believe they will quickly become one of the thousands of accomplishments of the O’Neill Institute in its mission to advance global health.