From left: Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, Executive Director, Global Initiative For Economic, Social And Cultural Rights; Saman Zia-Zarifi, Executive Director, Physicians For Human Rights; and Viviana Muñoz Tellez, Coordinator, Health, Intellectual Property And Biodiversity Programme, South Centre
As the world continues to learn the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new set of principles aiming the help guide the future of human rights in global medical emergencies was published and discussed on Tuesday at an event of the 76th World Health Assembly (WHA).
The event, titled “Beyond Panic & Neglect: Building a Human Rights Framework for Public Health Emergency Prevention, Preparedness, and Response,” looked at a new set of principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies, which were developed through a three-year partnership between the Global Health Law Consortium (GHLC) and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ.)
The overarching human rights principles and obligations fall into eight categories:
1 – Universal enjoyment of human rights
2 – International solidarity
3 – Rule of law
4 – Equality and non-discrimination
5 – Human rights duties related to non-State actors
6 – Transparency and access to information
7 – Meaningful and effective participation
8 – Accountability and access to justice for those harmed by human rights violations and abuses
Principles bring together lessons from COVID and previous pandemics, epidemics
The principles, formulated by 150 individuals from other health and human rights organisations and WHO officials, draw upon lessons from past epidemics and pandemics, including cholera, dengue, ebola, HIV and zika. In addition, the experts looked at situations where an inadequate response to effective public health policies and human rights obligations led to devastating outcomes.
“What was needed is a contemporary treatment that also accounted for what needed to be done to ensure a broader rights-based approach to public health emergencies, including upholding the right to health and related rights. These new principles, we believe, represent a breakthrough in the ongoing effort to ensure that human rights are protected and upheld in times of crisis.” Ian Seiderman, legal and policy director at the ICJ, told those gathered.
“This event here marks our first public dialogue on the new principles and guidelines and their subject matter, focusing on the role of international human rights law in guiding approaches to public health emergencies.”
The principles bring together an overarching scope of the universal enjoyment of human rights, including equality and non-discrimination, transparency and access to information and accountability and access to justice for those harmed by human rights abuses or violations.
Principles coincide with pandemic treaty
From left: Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, Executive Director, Global Initiative For Economic, Social And Cultural Rights; Saman Zia-Zarifi, Executive Director, Physicians For Human Rights; Viviana Muñoz Tellez, Coordinator, Health, Intellectual Property And Biodiversity Programme, South Centre; and moderator Gian Luca Burci, Adjunct Professor, International Law, Geneva Graduate Institute
The release of the principles coincided with the release of a new “Zero+” draft of the proposed World Health Organization (WHO) pandemic accord that is currently under negotiation by member states.
“We saw many governments shift from complacency and neglect to rapid action, often in panic mode to respond to a public health threat that was spreading uncontrollably,” stated Roojin Habibi, a co-founding member of the Global Health Law Consortium, who led the development of the principles. “Around the world, we saw countries deploy various measures, from mask mandates to lock downs to quarantines and isolation in response to this public health threat.
“The international community must learn to move beyond cycles of panic and neglect, which leaves human rights at the margins of decision-making and policymaking. The principles developed through a consensus-based and deliberative process amongst 30 of the world’s leading thinkers in global health law and human rights provide an authoritative interpretation of international law to help guide that learning.”
The WHO drafted pandemic treaty states that “all lives have equal value, and that therefore equity should be a principle, an indicator and an outcome of pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response,” and this was a point emphasised by Dr. Viviana Munoz Tellez of the South Centre, an intergovernmental organisation based in Geneva that helps developing countries promote their common interests in the international arena, who brought up the issue of vaccine inequity.
“We could have averted, at minimum, about a million and a half deaths,” Tellez said. “The idea was, when we have vaccine doses, we will distribute at least 20% proportionally and highlight the more vulnerable populations that need to go first. But, unfortunately, that did not happen, mainly because the more affluent countries had advanced marketing commitments.
“We had competition rather than cooperation. That was one of the big problems.”
The role of the private health sector
The private health sector has also come under heavy scrutiny since the pandemic. However, one aspect that the principles address observes that the state must regulate and monitor private actors. The principles themselves put no obligations directly on the remote, non-state actors. Instead, they state that across all pandemic prevention, response and recovery measures, states have the responsibility to ensure that non-state actors do not impair any of the human rights laws and must regulate and monitor ” engaged non-state actors to prevent them from impairing the enjoyment of human rights and provide for redress and accountability.”
Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, executive director of Global Initiative For Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, stated on private actors that, “Something that started happening before the pandemic is the privatization, commercialization, and financialization of public services such as health care, water, sanitation and education. There are many ways in which private actors can be involved in health care.
“We need to act now. We must ensure that everybody has access to a universal resilient health system that is affordable or at no cost for those who need it. And that is included in the principles.”
The hope, the presenters said, is that the COVID-19 pandemic would bring about changes in legislation that would help the world prepare and deal with any future health emergencies.
“We have to use these principles to put in place legislation, rules and regulations to say the next time this happens, we have to think about how we’re going to address this problem,” Saman Zia-Zarifi, executive director of Physicians For Human Rights told the panel. “It can’t just be that we will give money to companies to support their workers who can’t come to the office, but we will keep open the informal sector where the majority of people in most countries live and work.”
The new principles allow actors to play their part in change.
“These principles can act as kind of a North Star for everyone,” Zia-Zarifi stated. “They establish some clear directions of movement. They don’t tell governments what to do but give them a direction of movement and a way of thinking.”
The Geneva Graduate Institute, The Global Health Centre and the International Geneva Global Health Platform, the International Commission of Jurists, the Global Health Law Consortium, the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and Physicians for Human Rights organised the panel.
Image Credits: Screenshot.
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