Plans by the World Health Organization to better respond to pandemics have been condemned by some as an attack on democracy. But that misrepresents the powers of the WHO.
Over the next few years, the members of the World Health Organization (WHO) want to conclude an agreement to better manage pandemics.
The WHO meeting in Geneva next week (May 22 to 28) will also deal with global health emergencies. In the meantime, however, disinformation about a pandemic agreement planned by the WHO is circulating on social media and is also reaching members of the Bundestag on a massive scale. On Twitter, the deputy leader of the FDP parliamentary group, Konstantin Kuhle, recently called the emails a “coordinated propaganda campaign”.
Claim: The WHO is planning a treaty that would result in the abolition of democratic structures in the nation states.
Facts: The planned WHO pandemic agreement does not even exist as a draft. Rather, it still has a very long way to go: on December 1, 2021, the 194 WHO members decided to reach an agreement to better manage pandemics in the future. Up for debate are, for example: better tools to detect pandemics early, new decision-making bodies and more money. The WHO does not plan to adopt the new agreement or contract until May 2024.
But what exactly this will look like is currently completely open. It is not even certain whether the treaty will also become a treaty – that is, whether it would be binding for all signatory states. A resolution with recommendations would also be possible. The European Union and around 40 other countries stand behind an agreement as a contract. The US and China have been skeptical so far.
The public debate about the planned pandemic agreement is now wrestling with how much power the WHO should be given. However, claims that the WHO Treaty could repeal the German Basic Law or that compulsory vaccinations threatened are false.
With the International Health Regulations of 2005, the WHO already has the right and obligation to declare a “health emergency of international concern”. This can be linked to recommendations – but not mandatory instructions – for restrictive measures. The WHO made use of this right during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the end, however, the member states decide on measures to combat the pandemic.
Similar WHO agreements always contain references to the fact that the signatory states must apply the agreement within the framework of their national constitutional order. This is stated in Article 19 of the WHO Constitution. In principle, this ensures that an international treaty cannot undermine the democracy and parliaments of a WHO member. If someone doubts that in a specific case, constitutional courts could decide.
Facts deliberately twisted
Ahead of the WHO annual meeting May 22-28 in Geneva, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized misinformation about the plans for the pandemic agreement. A minority make misleading statements and deliberately twist facts. “Our mandate is 100 percent determined by the member states and what they agree on,” Tedros said in Geneva on Tuesday. The WHO constitution of 1948, like the current proposal for a pandemic agreement, does not mean that the WHO undermines the sovereignty of its member states.
The topic of the pandemic treaty is not even on the agenda at the World Health Assembly next week: The negotiating group should not report on its results for two years, as WHO chief lawyer Steven Solomon recently explained in Geneva.
Instead, proposed changes to the International Health Regulations will be discussed at a conference in Switzerland. Changing them would be another way for the world to recognize and fight pandemics more quickly. The current proposal comes from the USA. It is about stricter regulations to report health emergencies faster and to react to them.
But the scope of this US application is also overestimated: It is still unclear whether the WHO members will accept the proposed changes in the form during the World Health Assembly. According to experts, further discussions and amendments are more likely. Because in the end the countries have to agree. The WHO represents “what the sovereign 194 member states want it to be,” said Director-General Tedros.