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Published On: Mon, Jul 20th, 2020

COVID-19: Why suing China is a distraction

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By Charles Onunaiju

Recently, there was a report that a purported “coalition of Nigerian legal experts” have filed a class action suit against the Peoples Republic of China over the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on Nigerians.
The report added, that the “coalition” is demanding 200 billion U.S dollars damage for the “loss of lives, economic strangulation, trauma, hardship, social disorientation, mental torture and disruption of normal daily existence.
A statement by the lead counsel, professor Epiphany Azinge, former director-general of the Nigeria Institute of legal studies, (NIALS) whose law firm “Azinge and Azinge” is championing the suit, was further reported to say that, “the team of legal experts planned to two-phase line of action, first is with the federal high court of Nigeria and secondly to persuade the government of Federal Republic of Nigeria to institute a state action against the People’s Republic of China at the international court of justice at Hague”.
It is to be noted that despite the futility of the action sought by the “Coalition of legal experts,” it however, provides some comic relief at such intense moment of global public anxieties. But is also an enormous distraction to the focused global effort against the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nonetheless, as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to take its toll on the global economy, some entities like the one Nigeria within some other countries have also sued China for allegedly causing financial problems and health crisis in their countries. This is notwithstanding the fact the COVID-19 which caught the whole world by surprise had China, as every country as a victim. And it is no doubt that China when hit by the formerlyunknown virus, whose origin can only be ascertained through scientific investigation devoid of any political interference, acted both promptly and responsibly to safeguard its peoples life and health.
China, apart from been the first country to report cases of the new, previously unknown virus to the world Health Organization was equally the first to sequence the genome of the virus and share it with the world, in a record time. China also followed up, with publication of detailed guidelines for the treatment and containment of the virus. And, once the country got to grips with the severity of the new virus, it took a very stern measure, and lockdown its city, Wuhan, then, the epicenter of the outbreak, thereby cutting the route of transmission in the shortest time possible and stopped the fast spreading virus in its tracks. This no mean feat was actually achieved at an enormous cost and sacrifice and the anti-virus campaign of the Chinese are in the open, with clear timelines and solid facts.
Therefore, some entities that are clamouring for the so-called “accountability and compensation” from an obvious victim of the vile virus are clearly distracting global efforts and its implicit solidarity to defeat the pandemic, and restore the world economy to normalcy.
The Chinese embassy in Nigeria averred in its recent statement, that “China and Nigeria have always been a community with a shared future.” And “in the fight against Covid-19, solidarity and cooperation is our most important weapon.” The statement continued that “at this critical moment, we once again urge some Nigerian legal practitioners to do more things to enhance mutual trust and help pandemic prevention and control in both countries…”
But back to lawsuit, it is important to note that under the international law, such legal move is impossible and it is both conceptually and strategically deficient because it did not accommodate a key fact that China is a major power unlikely to succumb to bully or intimidation, and with enomous wherewithal to dispense commensurate reprisals to the offending entities. And more importantly and even wisely too, in a time of crisis like the current pandemic, instead of blame games, nations and entities within countries should foster international cooperation rather than orchestrate legal attritions that have no chance of success.
The futility of such legal action against China, apart from the moral deficit of seeking to traduce another victim of a global disease outbreak, rest on a principle developed during the early days of English monarchs that “the king can do no wrong,” called the Sovereign immunity principle that prevent the government or its political subdivisions, departments, and agencies from being sued in civil or criminal litigation. In the current day, the principle means country cannot be sued without its consent in domestic and international court. This means China would need to consent to have litigation filed against it, before it could be successfully sued. As Natalie Klein, a law professor at the University of New South Wales argues, “if China choose not to consent, which is the mostly likely option, there would be no case against it.
Also, a 19th century treaty on the global spread of infectious diseases had rules requiring payment for damages in other countries associated with violations of treaty rule. However, the international Health regulations signed in 2015 and now the world’s main contemporary health treaty has no provisions on the issue.
Strategically, blaming China is myopic or shortsighted. China is the world’s biggest manufacturing country as well as the world biggest creditor. This means much of the world is dependent on China. Countries are either trading more goods with China or receiving more investments from Beijing and while China certainly needs other countries to achieve economic recovery, the world is also dependent on China for its recovery. As one of the world biggest leaders, China holds about 20% of the total debt in Africa. Demonizing China is to risk creating a situation where poor nations may have troubles getting loans in the future. China concessional loans, grants and investments are critically-needed financial oxygen that many developing countries would desperately want, in other to tidy over the disruptions of Covid-19 pandemic in their respective economies and therefore engaging to shadow-box China is completely injudicious.
Additionally, and very important too, is that China is world’s leading source of medical supplies needed to control the virus, including surgical masks. If a vaccine is ever developed, China will also be a major player in its production, distribution and may be, its invention, and it would be no use to demonize such a global key partner in the fight to defeat the new and formerly unknown virus.
The Covid-19 pandemic should be a moment for the international community to reflect in the virtues of working together. There is already international collaboration to deal with climate change, refugees and other global problems and it is equally very vital for countries to develop solid cooperation to tackle Covid-19.
The 20 member countries in the G-20 have already provided good example when the group suspended debt repayment form the world poorest countries until the end of the year and it is noteworthy that China played very pivotal and crucial role in the decision.
To blame or sue China as entities in some countries are doing, will only shift the focus away from making real and concrete efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus and to cure those who are already infected. Pursuing the path of blame game or futile litigations would only distract from what should be the utmost priority to “flatten the curve.”
Nigerians and other Africans cannot afford the luxuries of such distractions as Covid-19 challenge mounts on a daily basis.

Mr. Onunaiju is director, Centre for China Studies, (CCS) Abuja.

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