International organizations’ action in times of covid-19: Law-making by expertise and questions of soft law

Activity: Participating in or organising an event typesParticipation in workshop, seminar, course


International organisations have been at the heart of perceived changes in the nature and practices of contemporary international law-making. It has been well-known for some time that the acts and resolutions of UN organs, agencies and other international institutions have impacted contemporary law-making, whether in terms of treaty negotiation or customary norm formation. Moreover, international lawyers are increasingly concerned that the normative impacts of the “global governance” activities of international institutions, whether formal and informal, intergovernmental, non-state or mixed/public-private, are “de-centering” the traditional sources of international law in favour of more flexible, “softer” and more fluid regulatory norms.

These trends played a key role during the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic. Recent events have shed light on multiple normative challenges linked to global health problems. The ensuing consequences of the cross-border spread of the disease was coupled with a series of innovative law-making processes at the international level. To name but a few examples, these processes have been at stake in: the medical and public health response to the pandemic, including the global distribution of a safe and effective vaccine; the development of criteria for trade restrictions regarding said vaccine; the mitigation of the devastating economic impact of the pandemic and the public health measures adopted by states; addressing the myriad human rights challenges through authoritative interpretation; tackling the pandemic’s impact on the maintenance of international peace and security; and fostering new and existing mechanisms for humanitarian assistance.

These issues raise a number of questions over the legitimacy and normative authority of law-making processes during the pandemic in all of the areas mentioned above, and beyond. What cuts across is a discussion on the role that experts effectively play and should play in institutional law-making processes. It is a complex debate, the theoretical and practical importance of which cannot be emphasised enough. Given how the COVID-19 pandemic affected all areas of life, multiple types of expertise have been required for facing the manifold challenges. As a result, a number of possible enquiries come to the fore: how is expertise given legal effect during pandemics? Are certain types of expertise favoured over others? How should expert knowledge be valued against other forms of knowledge, for instance, indigenous and traditional knowledge? Given the current wave of suspicion towards experts in many parts of the world, to what extent can expertise, prevailing in law-making processes, accentuate the legitimacy deficits of pandemic responses? How has this scepticism against expertise undermined the work by international institutions in responding to COVID-19? How do lawyers, politicians, or diplomats measure and test expertise in considering the authority of institutional acts, resolutions and other normative output during pandemics?
Period8 Sept 2021
Event typeWorkshop
LocationStockholm, SwedenShow on map


  • International Organisations
  • International Health Law
  • International Law-Making
  • Soft Law