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“Technologies of Reflexivity”: Generating Biopolitics and Institutional Risk to Supplement Global Public Health Security

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 December 2017


Critiques of global public health security (GPHS) and proposed solutions tend to overlook the potential of the individuals and groups that are subject to and governed by GPHS – “the governed” – to contribute their “on the ground” knowledge and experience to decision-making in order to improve regulatory responses. This article argues for the development of a more reflexive approach as a way of ensuring the epistemic integration of these knowledges with the scientific-technical knowledges that currently dominate decision-making processes. I identify human rights as the conceptual lens that is most likely to enable reflexivity by the governed and regulators, and understanding and communication between them. The governed can use perceived or actual breaches of human rights to articulate “on the ground” knowledges as institutional risks to reputation and standing and, in turn, threaten the production and legitimation of organisational identity, socio-political orders and projects of rule. The particular sensitivity of regulators to these risks could compel epistemic integration. This more reflexive approach to GPHS promises to improve the knowledge base, efficacy, accountability and legitimacy of decision-making at multiple levels: WHO, EU, national and “on the ground”.

© Cambridge University Press 

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Queen’s University Belfast. Many thanks to the participants in the seminar “Germs, Bioterrorism and Chemical Attacks: Internal and External EU Security Perspectives”, Brussels, 21–22 November 2016, where the earliest draft of this article was presented, and to James Revill for his comments as discussant. Thanks to the editors of this special issue, the peer reviewers and to Richard Ashcroft, Colm O’Cinneide, Markus Frischhut, Colin Harvey and Anne-Marie McAlinden for their comments and suggestions.


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3 Avian influenza or A/H5N1.

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7 International Health Regulations (WHA58/2005/REC/1, 23 May 2005).

8 WHO, Report of the Ebola Interim Assessment Panel (WHO 2015), 13. Emphasis added.

9 This requires all Member States to behave with appropriate responsibility towards the international community in the adoption of travel and trade restrictions. Moreover, this provision also requires that Member States are to inform the WHO of additional measures and to provide a scientific rationale and justification that can be shared among Member States (Art 43(3)). The WHO may request a Member State to reconsider the application of additional measures (Art 43(4)).

10 WHO, supra, note 8, 12. Emphasis added.

11 Ibid, 20. Emphasis added.

12 Council of Europe, The Handling of the H1N1 Pandemic: More Transparency Needed (CoE, 2010), Draft Resolution A1. See further Council of Europe, Resolution 1749, 24 June 2010; Council of Europe, Recommendation 1929, 24 June 2010. Also see Cohen, D and Carter, P, “WHO and the Pandemic Flu ‘Conspiracies’” (2010) 340 British Medical Journal c2912 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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15 Resilience has been described as the “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks, and therefore identity” – see Folke, CSR and others, “Resilience Thinking: Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability” (2010) 15(4) Ecology and Society 20, available at <>. Emphasis addedCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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22 See Bennett and Davies, supra, note 17.

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35 WHO Alma-Ata Declaration on Primary Health Care 1978; WHO Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion 1986; Adelaide Recommendations on Healthy Public Policy 1988; Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health 2011.

36 Or more accurately “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” found in Art 12 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (16 December 1966, entered into force 3 January 1976) 993 UNTS 3. In the European regional human rights system, Arts 11 and 13 European Social Charter (Revised) (3 May 1996, entered into force 1 July 1999, 2151 UNTS 277, ETS 163) are important in that they relate to the treatment of illness. Specifically, Art 13 provides that “anyone without adequate resources has the right to social and medical assistance”. Art 11 provides that “everyone has the right to benefit from any measures enabling him to enjoy the highest standard of health attainable” including through measures which “remove as far as possible the causes of ill-health” and “prevent as far as possible epidemic, endemic and other diseases, as well as accidents”. As for the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (4 November 1950, entered into force 3 September 1953) ETS 5, signature states are required to take reasonable steps to protect life under Art 2 on the right to life (Osman v UK [1999] 1 FLR 193).

37 The right to adequate food, clothing and housing, the right to freedom from hunger, and the right to environmental and industrial hygiene are found in Arts 11 and 12 ICESCR. Other rights, including the right to liberty and security of the person, freedom from coerced labour, liberty of movement, freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom from discrimination, are found in Arts 4, 8, 9, 12, 18 and 26 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR). In the European regional human rights system, the Art 2 European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (4 November 1950, entered into force 3 September 1953) ETS 5 on the right to life provides that signature states are required to take reasonable steps to protect life (Osman v UK [1999] 1 FLR 193). For discussion see Tobin, J, The Right to Health in International Law (Oxford University Press, 2012)Google Scholar; Toebes, B and others (eds), Health and Human Rights in Europe (Intersentia, 2012).

38 In particular through, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “General Comment No 14: The right to the highest attainable standard of health (art 12)” (11 August 2000) UN Doc E/C.12/2000/4, which spells out the content.

39 Art 168(3) TFEU.

40 According to the Explanatory Notes for the CFR in respect of Art 35 – see Explanations Relating to the Charter of Fundamental Rights (2007/C 303/02) OJ C 303/17.

41 See also discussion of “known unknowns” (those risks that we know we don’t know about) and “unknown unknowns” (those risks that we don’t know that we don’t know about) in Zedner, supra, note 31.

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43 Douglas, M and Wildavsky, A, Risk and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental Dangers (University of California Press, 1982)Google Scholar; Luhmann, N, Risk: A Sociological Theory (de Gruyter, 1993).

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45 A focus noted as transferred from the United States’ Centre for Disease Control to the WHO and globally by one of its experts, see Ashraf, H, “David Heymann – WHO’s Public Health Guru” (2004) 4(12) The Lancet Infectious Diseases 785 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the roots of this approach, see Henderson, DH, “Surveillance Systems and Intergovernmental Cooperation” in S Morse, Emerging Viruses (Oxford University Press, 1993)Google Scholar.

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47 Dean, supra, note 29, 226. Emphasis added.

48 This approach stems in large part from Ferguson, NM and others, “Strategies for Containing an Emerging Influenza Pandemic in Southeast Asia” (2005) 437 Nature 209 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. Also see Longini, IM and others, “Containing Pandemic Influenza at the Source” (2005) 309 Science 10831087 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

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55 For example: WHO, Pandemic Influenza Risk Management (WHO 2017)Google ScholarPubMed.

56 Art 57(1) IHR 2005 states the IHR and EU Treaties “should be interpreted so as to be compatible”. Art 3(4) states that States Parties have “the sovereign right to legislate and to implement legislation in pursuance of their health policies”, and in so doing they should uphold the IHR.

57 Recital 6 Decision 1082/2013/EU on serious cross-border threats to health and repealing Decision 2119/98/EC OJ L 293/1.

58 These are defined by Art 3(g) Decision 1082/2013/EU, ibid, as “a life- threatening or otherwise serious hazard to health of biological, chemical, environmental or unknown origin which spreads or entails a significant risk of spreading across the national borders of Member States, and which may necessitate coordination at Union level in order to ensure a high level of human health protection”.

59 Art 168(5) TFEU.

60 Art 6(a) TFEU – and it must be of “added value” in order to comply with the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality under respectively Art 5(3)–(4) TEU.

61 Art 168(7) TFEU provides that EU action shall “respect the responsibilities of the Member States for the definition of their health policy…”.

62 Recital 1 Decision 1082/2013/EU, supra, note 57.

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64 Established by Regulation (EC) 851/2004 establishing a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control OJ L 142/1.

65 Decision 2119/98/EC on a network for the epidemiological surveillance and control of communicable diseases OJ L 268/1.

66 Art 8(1) Decision 1082/2013/EU, supra, note 57. Emphasis added.

67 Based on Art 168(2) TFEU and Art 168(7) TFEU. See the documents referred to in supra, note 63 and European Commission, “Interim Document”: Technical Guidance on Generic Preparedness Planning for Public Health Emergencies, 2005. The guidance includes checklists “as a guide that may be used to assist in the development, revision or assessment of comprehensiveness of preparedness plans” (ibid, 3) and facilitates the “inter-operability of national plans, mainly by the creation of co-ordination mechanisms and analysis and communication tools that enhance co-operation between key Member States and Commission players” (ibid, 2, emphasis added).

68 European Commission, Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Planning in the European Community, COM(2005) 607 final, 8 (emphasis added). Also see European Commission, Communication on Strengthening Coordination on Generic Preparedness Planning for Public Health Emergencies at EU Level, COM(2005) 605 final.

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83 Art 26(2) TFEU defines the internal market as “an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured…”.

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117 ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was particularly important among US activists who challenged the biomedical sciences and changed drug testing conventions and licensing to accelerate the development of anti-retrovirals. See Epstein, S, Impure Science (University of California Press, 1996)Google ScholarPubMed.

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129 ibid 218. This responsibility is grounded in virtue theory. For discussion see Fricker, supra, note 97, and Medina, supra, note 128.

130 Medina, supra, note 128, 215.

131 Notably, participation rights have received growing attention. Most relevant to this article is the discussion within EU legal studies and global administrative law, see especially Mendes, J, Participation in EU Rule-making: A Rights-based Approach (Oxford University Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Harlow, C, “Global Administrative Law: The Quest for Principles and Values” (2006) 17(1) European Journal of International Law 187 .

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137 Power, M, Organised Uncertainty (Oxford University Press, 2007) 20 Google Scholar. Emphasis added.

138 ibid 20–21. Emphasis added.

139 Cf Leach, M and Scoones, I, “The Social and Political Lives of Zoonotic Disease Models: Narratives, Science and Policy” (2013) 88 Social Science & Medicine 10 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

140 More broadly, the use of risk assessment in respect of highly unpredictable situations, including convicted criminals within the community, provides a way of reassuring the public – and, therefore, public legitimation of institutions – rather than actually protecting society. See Kemshall, H, Understanding Risk in Criminal Justice (McGraw-Hill, 2003)Google Scholar.

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143 Power, supra, note 137, 21. Emphasis added.

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149 And for examples within the context of EU level GPHS, see European Commission, Staff Working Document on Strengthening Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Security in the European Union – An EU CRBN Action Plan. Impact Assessment, SEC(2009) 790; European Commission, Staff Working Document on Strengthening Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Security in the European Union – An EU CRBN Action Plan. Summary of Impact Assessment, SEC(2009) 791.

150 For discussion, see Flear, supra, note 17, Ch 2 “EU Public Health Governance”, 56–63.

151 Cf Leach, M and others, “Governing Epidemics in an Age of Complexity: Narratives, Politics and Pathways to Sustainability” (2010) 20 Global Environmental Change 369 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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172 Black, J, “Regulation as Facilitation: Negotiating the Genetic Revolution” (1998) 61(5) Modern Law Review 621, 623 CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. See further Habermas, J, The Theory of Communicative Action. Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalisation of Society (Polity, 1986)Google Scholar.

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