Are we ready for a pandemic treaty?

Something important is brewing at the World Health Organisation (WHO). In six months, state parties to the WHO may be signing an international legally-binding treaty for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.

Currently, all countries, including the United States, Russia, China and Iran, are busy negotiating the text. Whether they will eventually sign the treaty is another matter.

An inter-governmental negotiating body, the INB, is tasked with negotiating the treaty. Malaysia is actively negotiating the draft treaty, currently called the WHO CA+.

Unlike other international conventions, such as the Rome Statute, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), the Refugee Convention, or the Chemical Weapons Convention, this time we are there from its inception.

Malaysia negotiated the zero draft that is now at its mature stage. By May 2024, there should already be a final draft document that states can sign on.

This proposed treaty has a recent history. It has been five years since Covid-19 shook the world by surprise, devasted our lives with over 750 million cases, and some seven million deaths worldwide.

We had to close our borders, interrupt schooling schedules, many lost their jobs as businesses closed down and hospitals were filled to the brim as thousands became victims.

From the distant news that we heard of people dying, the fear came closer to our home as neighbours, friends and family members succumbed to the dreadful virus. It is therefore apt that the international community starts to act.

In May 2021, a report by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR), published its findings, "Covid-19: Make it the last Pandemic".

The main goal of this proposed treaty is to protect the world from the next pandemic emergency. Governments have to agree to enhance international cooperation to improve alert systems against health threats, share information on research, production and distribution of vaccines, medical supplies and equipment.

Guided by the principle of collective solidarity, this pending treaty will only work if governments, civil societies and industries, especially the giant pharmaceutical companies agree to give and take. Understandably, our own interests may have to be compromised in the name of the bigger community interest.

As the deadline draws near, fear-mongering against signing the treaty has started. Even in our own backyard. This is not a bad sign. It shows that we are following the issue and want our national interest protected.

Fortunately, as stated by Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa in Parliament recently, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

Malaysia is conscious of the red alerts that appear and reappear in the draft treaty. Contentious issues are not making it easier for the treaty to see the light of day.

Some fear that the treaty will give more powers to the WHO, which can arbitrarily decide when we, a sovereign state, must close schools, do contact tracing or reopen our borders. We have also to prepare ourselves for the possible monitoring and reviewing mechanisms that normally come with an international agreement.

There might be tough subjects that both the North and South countries will not agree upon such as on the transfer of technology, financing, the sharing of knowledge that are linked to intellectual property rights, and international assistance for poor countries that should not come too late, like the vaccine-hoarding that we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Added to these issues is the complementary International Health Regulations (IHR), currently being negotiated back-to-back with the proposed Pandemic Treaty.

State parties are aware that the IHR will not be effective if countries are not willing to share information, ignore WHO guidance on travel and trade restrictions and are only giving lip service to shared responsibilities.

Ironically, we know that states are also not prepared to turn these regulations into a legally-binding instrument that may subject them to sanctions if they do not comply.

When countries of different economic standing are negotiating, certain issues are paramount — equity is more important than equality, and human rights, transparency and accountability must be the guiding principles for a successful negotiation.

Yet, we are still not sure that we will see the birth of a Pandemic Treaty come May 2024. Despite the criticisms, we still need a treaty that will help us prepare and respond better to the next pandemic. To quote one health expert, it is better to fix the roof when the sun is shining.

* The writer is an adjunct law professor at the University of Malaya and a former Malaysian diplomat who has participated in several multilateral negotiations in New York, Geneva, Vienna and The Hague

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