Canada has issued a new policy on October 31 whereby it has stopped issuing visas to residents and nationals of Ebola-affected countries.
According to the WHO, this policy goes against the spirit of the International Health Regulations, even though there is nothing the WHO can do about it. International health law experts have said Canada’s policy is a violation of the International Health Regulations, known as the IHR. That treaty stipulates that in a global public health emergency, countries shouldn’t take actions that impede international trade or travel beyond what the World Health Organization has recommended.
For months the global health agency has been urging countries not to restrict travel to and from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, saying the combination of border closures and the sharp decline in flights to those countries is hindering efforts to contain the epidemic. But the WHO’s official guidance says there should be “no general ban on international travel or trade.”
When Canada announced its new policy, the WHO asked for an explanation, as it is required to do under the IHR. That meeting took place by teleconference on Thursday.
When asked for its justification for going beyond the WHO recommendations, the team from Canada pointed out the new restrictions does not constitute a general ban. The visa policy announcement states that it does not apply to Canadians. The new restrictions do not affect travel between West Africa and Canada by health-care workers who are volunteering to help in the Ebola effort. Likewise, it does not apply to holders of visas that have already been issued but not yet used.
A comment on the meeting sent by email on Friday from Citizenship and Immigration Canada appeared to suggest the WHO was fine with the Canadian visa restrictions.
But on Saturday a senior WHO official said that while the agency must concede the Canadian restrictions don’t represent a general ban on travel, it was not the WHO’s intention that the guidance be interpreted as a green light to impose partial bans.
International health law expert David Fidler who teaches at Indiana University, was opposed to the new Canadian policy.
“The IHR is not just concerned about Canadians travelling to and from West Africa,” said Fidler, “The WHO has been critical of the type of measures Canada has put in place because it stigmatizes, without justification, travelers from these West African countries.”
The representatives of WHO have expressed concern that other countries may use Canada’s approach as a model, or may go further still.
“We will continue to state loudly that WHO is against that, that it shouldn’t happen, but that there’s a real problem because we have no way to stop that, except trying to use our influence and convincing power.”
The International Health Regulations are what is called a non-binding treaty; they have no teeth. Countries that do not honour the treaty can be named and asked to explain themselves, but there are no sanctions that the WHO can levy.
A representative for WHO stated, “The IHR was never conceived with the mechanism of sanctions. There is no such mechanism. And we see that when we’re really in a situation that shouldn’t happen, there are no real teeth in the IHR to make a change.”