Pandemic Treaty Opponents Have Bought Time Till a Special Session of WHA in Nov, Supporters Manage to Keep Pressure On

Pandemic Treaty Talks: Special Session in November to Assess The Need for International Instrument

Opponents to the Pandemic Treaty talks have made early gains on deferring commitments to launch negotiations immediately. After several rounds of wrangling on the decision-text into early hours of Saturday last week, WHO member states have now reached consensus.

It is now proposed that the discussions for “an international instrument” will formally be addressed at a special session of the World Health Assembly in November 2021, where countries will decide on the need to establish an inter-governmental process to draft and negotiate a potential treaty (or other international instruments).

The suggested decision text with a operational paragraph now reads:

“to request the Member States Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies to prioritize the assessment of the benefits of developing a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response and to provide a report to be considered at the special session of the Health Assembly referred to in paragraph OP1.2 of this decision.”

The open-ended working group established through the WHO Strengthening resolution (OP1), will assess the process towards a relevant international instrument and present a report at the intended special session, sources said. “The working group set up under this preparedness resolution now has an additional mandate to examine the benefits of a treaty,” a diplomatic source told Geneva Health Files.

Geneva-based sources who witnessed the discussions told us, that the agreed decision-text on the pandemic treaty has to an extent addressed concerns of the opponents while preserving the interests of the supporters of the treaty to maintain “urgency and political momentum”. Countries in the midst of the response to COVID-19 will now have more time. It is debatable whether this additional time is sufficient.

The draft decision is now proposed by Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Fiji, Georgia, Iceland, Indonesia, Kenya, Montenegro, Norway, Paraguay, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Uruguay and Member States of the European Union.

The agreed-text hard won by the opponents, was submitted to the WHO secretariat at the beginning of the Assembly on May 24th. It was published on the WHO website a few hours ago when this story went to print.

The decision-text also asks the DG WHO to:

“to convene a special session of the World Health Assembly in November 2021, and to include on the agenda of the special session only one item dedicated to considering the benefits of developing a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response with a view towards the establishment of an intergovernmental process to draft and negotiate such convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response, taking into account the report of the Working Group on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies referred to in paragraph OP1.1”

It is understood that the US was not comfortable to any references on the mention of “legally-binding instruments.” Any international obligation has to be ratified by the legislature, as a result it is possible that the US likely remain only a signatory without ratification for any such treaty, sources said.

It is also understood that some EU member states were of the view that any potential treaty should have a mandate approved by the World Health Assembly. They were keen on anchoring the discussions towards a potential treaty within the governance mechanisms of WHO to send a strong signal on the political commitment of member states to work on ways to prevent the next pandemic. “It did not make sense to locate these discussions outside of the WHO,” a source said.

In the event, the decision text on the Pandemic Treaty and the Resolution on Strengthening WHO Preparedness and Response to Health Emergencies are adopted at this on-going Assembly, the Working Group will meet ahead of September 2021 according to sources. Countries believe that the adoption of these decisions look very likely at this Assembly.

It will then mean, that a report will be submitted to the Special Session in November assessing the benefits of developing a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument. As per current discussions, countries will then decide at the special session on whether an intergovernmental process to draft and negotiate an international instrument is necessary. (Countries debated at length on the nature of an international instrument, sources said.)

Supporters of the treaty fought back on a proposal to have a “high-level ministerial meeting” and pushed instead the need for discussions around an international instrument. Despite the additional headroom that opponents to the treaty have won, this is being perceived as a major success by the proponents for a treaty.

The negotiated text also requests the Executive Board to determine the conduct of such Special Session of the World Health Assembly in accordance with the Rules of Procedure, during 29 November 2021 to 1 December 2021 at WHO headquarters.

Later today, it is expected that South Africa on behalf of the proponents of the treaty will make a joint statement at the Assembly during the discussion on emergencies, sources told us. (“74th World Health Assembly Item 17 Public health emergencies: preparedness and response Joint Statement on the way towards a WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic preparedness and response”)

The momentum towards a pandemic treaty has also been contributed by the slew of review reports including by the IOAC, the IHR Review Committee and the IPPPR. “The threshold for a legally binding treaty has been set high by these various reports. It will be difficult for member states to settle for anything less,” a delegate from a developed country said.

Image Credit: Photo by Todd Trapani from Pexels

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