Australia

Australia wants a global inquiry into coronavirus - but how would it work?

Australia is leading the global charge for an international investigation into the COVID-19 pandemic. But China is unhappy and details remain scant.

The Federal Government is being urged to clarify its proposal of an independent review into the coronavirus outbreak, or risk its failure.

Since last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other ministers have pushed for what they call an "absolutely critical" international investigation into the origins and handling of COVID-19.

But they have offered little information about what it could look like, how it would be undertaken or what role Australia would have.

"We have a concept rather than any great detail about how this would move forward," Australian National University international law professor Donald Rothwell told SBS News.

"The key challenge for the government is to put some content around its proposal and then seek to diplomatically advance that in the best way possible."

Staff wearing face masks outside the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) in Camperdown, Sydney.
Staff wearing face masks outside the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) in Camperdown, Sydney.
AAP

Labor spokesperson for foreign affairs Penny Wong told SBS News the opposition supports the inquiry but said questions were left unanswered.

"It remains to be seen exactly how the government plans to rally much-needed international support for the inquiry, including how to get China to the table," she said.

"We've already seen pushback – this is exactly why the foreign minister needs to be front-footed to secure buy-in from as many countries as possible."

Since Foreign Minister Marise Payne first floated the idea, China has aggressively opposed it and this week threatened to boycott Australian education, tourism and agriculture.

People wear protective masks and suits at Beijing Railway Station.
People wear protective masks and suits at Beijing Railway Station.
Getty

The virus emerged from the Chinese city of Wuhan last year and the country's government has faced criticism for how it handled the early stages of the outbreak.

"We need to move quickly from words to actions, so this doesn't happen again," Senator Wong said.

SBS News contacted the office of Senator Payne and the office of Health Minister Greg Hunt about the inquiry. Neither would provide any information about who they thought should undertake it or if there were any previous examples that could guide it.

It also remains unclear how the inquiry fits together with the government's separate calls for World Health Organization reforms and an investigation into wildlife wet markets.

A United Nations inquiry?

Federal Liberal MP Dave Sharma, who has been strongly advocating the inquiry, told SBS News it was not incumbent on the government to lay out specifics yet.

"It would be wildly premature if we were to land a fully-cooked proposal on the desks of other world leaders now," the former ambassador to Israel said.

"You need to socialise the idea to begin with, you need to get nations conformable with it before you start going into detail."

Liberal MP Dave Sharma.
Liberal MP Dave Sharma.
AAP

But, stressing he was not speaking for the government, Mr Sharma shared his thoughts about what the inquiry could look like.

"My view would be that in an ideal world, we'd be best-off having it done under the auspices of the United Nations," he said.

"Because that gives it the broadest buy-in, it gives it the neutrality that the UN conveys and means that it has legitimacy in interacting with all member states."

He said the UN secretary-general could appoint a panel to spearhead the investigation, or if not, other bodies from the UN system such as the General Assembly or the World Health Assembly could do so.

"You'd want to appoint a panel of eminent elders of the international scene, you could have former well-regarded director-generals [from the UN system], a former prime minister, a former UN secretary-general.

"[We need] people of international stature who are well-known around the world, whose credibility is well-regarded, who are seen as independent and honest ... They would not be doing the investigations themselves but would be the board overseeing it."

United Nations Headquarters in New York.
United Nations Headquarters in New York.
AAP

Professor Rothwell also said the UN should conduct the inquiry.

"The type of inquiry that is required is one of such significance that it does require the imprimatur of a body like the UN."

But, he said, certain UN routes would be problematic.

"The most obvious precedent is the tried and tested method of working through the United Nations Security Council, which often orders inquires into major international incidents.

"Whilst that is a well-established mechanism, the presence of China on the Security Council creates an impediment."

China, along with four other permanent members of the Security Council, has the power to veto resolutions.

Similarly, he said there are issues if the World Health Organization conducts it.

"For it to conduct an inquiry at the moment would pervert the WHO from continuing to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and, of course, one of the grounds for these calls for this inquiry is to review the role of the WHO."

He said another route is for a number of governments to come together to establish their own independent commission of inquiry and circumvent the UN processes.

"The issue that would immediately arise is even if you had a number of governments involved, or if the Australian government was to lead it, would they have the backing of China?

"Would it have the standing at the end of the day because only a certain number of governments were backing it?"

He conceded "the WHO will inevitably conduct an inquiry, but whether it's the kind of inquiry that the Australian government is calling for is very doubtful".

"Australia needs to indicate that this is not, at the end of the day, about China," he said. 

"It's about trying to learn lessons from the pandemic in terms of trying to ensure that we do not repeat some of the errors and missteps."

Chinese anger

For now, China has shown no sign of coming around to the Morrison government's proposal.

Senator Payne has said her level of concern about transparency from China is at a high point and its role in the pandemic should be a key part of the inquiry.

But Mr Morrison has said, "it's not pursued as an issue of criticism, it's pursued as an issue of importance for public health".

China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hit back, telling reporters over the weekend, "at such a critical juncture, it is highly irresponsible to resort to politically-motivated suspicion and accusation".

"We advise the Australian side to put aside ideological bias and political games, focus on the welfare of the Australian people and global public health security, follow the international community's collective will for cooperation, and contribute to the global cooperation in fighting the virus, instead of doing things to the contrary."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
AAP

Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye said Australia's support for the inquiry could result in Chinese tourists having "second thoughts" about visiting.

"Maybe the ordinary people will say 'why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?'" he told the Australian Financial Review.

SBS News contacted the Chinese embassy in Canberra with questions about the inquiry but has not received a response. 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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