20 January 2015

SHARES Debate: The Ebola crisis: opportunities and limitations of international cooperation

On Tuesday 20 January 2015, the fifth SHARES Debate is organised in cooperation with SPUI25, an academic-cultural centre that offers a forum for among others lectures, debates and book presentations.

SHARES Debates are organised throughout the academic year to provide a platform for discussions with a broader (non-academic) audience on questions of shared responsibility. The upcoming debate is entitled: ‘Ebola crisis: opportunities and limitations of international cooperation’.

The spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa is one of the most severe cross-border epidemics in recent history. Nearly 7,000 people died due to the virus since the outbreak to this date, December 2014.

This epidemic raises important questions about the role and capacity of the international community to prevent such outbreaks or get them under control. Several international organisations are involved in the fight against the virus, including the first United Nations ‘emergency health mission’ (UNMEER). The Global Ebola Response Coalition (GERC) was established to coordinate. But the president of the World Bank noted recently that the international community “failed miserably” in formulating an adequate answer. Especially the World Health Organization has been criticised for underestimating the severity of the epidemic and the slow response.

The SHARES debate on international cooperation regarding the Ebola crisis will discuss whether the international community indeed has failed, and whether future improvements are desirable and possible. It will particularly focus on the question who bears responsibility for preventing and addressing a health crisis of this nature. Questions that will be addressed include:

  • Why did it take so long before international organisations (especially the World Health Organization) recognised the seriousness of the situation and initiated action? Are the current warning systems adequate to initiate action early enough? Who has the responsibility for early identifying the emergence of an epidemic?
  • Has the fact that so many international organisations and states are involved in the response compounded the problem, as it makes it unclear who should do what? Has the Ebola Global Response Coalition succeeded in coordinating action, and can this model be followed in future cases?
  • Is the action or inaction of states and international organisations only a matter of voluntary choice, or is there a moral and/or legal basis for action, such as the principle of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’?
  • One of the problems with the Ebola crisis is a shortage of available vaccines and medicines. Who has the responsibility to produce vaccines and medications that can make a difference, and distribute these? Who can be subject to criticism if this has not happened?
  • Because the virus could not be controlled in the countries initially involved, it has spread to other countries. What measures can be taken, and are morally, legally and politically acceptable, to prevent the virus from spreading further? Is it necessary and legally permissible to put infected individuals into quarantine?
  • The emergence of the Ebola epidemic is largely facilitated by the lack of health systems in the affected countries, particularly in rural West Africa. Some experts have proposed to establish an international fund to strengthen prevention in developing countries. Is there a responsibility for other states and international organisations in this regard, in order to be able to prevent outbreaks in a more structural way?
  • What lessons can be learned from the Ebola crisis that might be taken into account in future international cooperation?

The panel consists of:

  • Frank Cobelens is Professor of Epidemiology and Control of Poverty-related Infectious Diseases at the Academic Medical Center (AMC) and the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development (AIGHD), University of Amsterdam. He has worked for years in infectious disease control and tropical medicine, and has been involved in operational and epidemiological studies on tuberculosis in several countries. He has been member of various expert panels and policy fora including WHO’s TB Strategic and Technical Advisory Group for TB, and is Scientific Director of KNCV Foundation, a Netherlands-based NGO operating in tuberculosis control worldwide.
  • Brigit Toebes is Associate Professor and Rosalind Franklin Fellow at the University of Groningen. She is also honorary lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, and external lecturer at the Universities of Lund (Sweden) and Bergen (Norway). She is a member of the board of the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organisations (IFHHRO). Brigit’s research interests focus on the intersection between health and human rights, and international health law more generally.
  • Katrien Coppens is Delegate General Director at Médecins Sans Frontières/Artsen zonder Grenzen the Netherlands. She studied MSc Cultural Anthropology (1988) and MSc National Law (1996), specialisation: International Law and International Humanitarian Law at Utrecht University. From 1997 to date she has worked in several positions, both in the field and in the office, for Artsen zonder Grenzen. Since 2012 she is the Delegate General Director, representing AzG in the Netherlands, and a member of the MSF Holland Management Team.
  • Chair: Maarten den Heijer, assistant professor of international law at the Amsterdam Center for International Law and member of the SHARES project. He is vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of Experts on International Immigration, Refugee and Criminal law and member of the editorial boards of the caselaw journal European Human Rights Cases (EHRC) and the NYIL. He is also a member of the board of the Foundation for Refugee Students UAF.

Please note that this SHARES Debate will take place in Dutch.

Registration is mandatory through SPUI25.

Further questions can be addressed to Iona Tjiong at: shares-fdr@uva.nl.


See here for a recording of the event (in Dutch).


See here for a blog post (written by Brigit Toebes, one of the speakers) on this topic.


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