An international pandemic treaty must centre on human rights

The proposed International Pandemic Treaty could be undermined by political posturing and national protectionism—or it could be an opportunity to chart a different global future based on human rights. [1] Those in charge of drafting the treaty must begin with a clear look at the grave abuses that have characterized the covid-19 pandemic: authoritarian power grabs; continuing monopolies in diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines; failure to resource health systems; staggering setbacks for women; and an upsurge in violence, including covid-related hate crimes. [2] Poorer and marginalized communities have borne the heaviest burden of policing; unemployment; and lack of food, health services, and security. [3]

States have all-too-easily sidelined the international human rights framework under cover of emergency responses. [4] This cannot continue. Any treaty should address these key issues:

The right to health—Most of the world lacks covid-19 diagnostics, medicines, and vaccines. [5] A new treaty should uphold the right to physical and mental health, and acknowledge the right of everyone to the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, including through intellectual property waivers. 

An end to weaponizing pandemics—Any new treaty should protect individuals from threat of criminal sanctions linked to infection and reaffirm the Siracusa Principles, which set out clear limits on restrictions of rights during an emergency. [6]

Workers’ rights are human rights—Workers who gave the most in 2020 were protected the least. States should ensure the physical security of health care workers, community health workers and other essential workers, and respect their right to form and join trade unions. [7] Informal sector workers should have the right to continued employment or social security.

Combat gender inequalities—The pandemic has placed a disproportionate burden on women as healthcare professionals, educators, and caregivers; as well as on transgender people and sex workers. [8] States should prioritize social protection, including childcare and sexual and reproductive health services, as well as prevention and response to gender-based violence.

Uphold rights in the digital age—Digital health has boomed during covid-19. A treaty should address the need for universal access to the internet and digital technology, while upholding rights to digital privacy and non-discrimination, and promoting strict regulation of use of health data. [9]

Transparency and trust—The covid-19 response has been weakened by corruption. [10] A pandemic treaty should ensure states publish detailed information about budgets, expenditures, and procurement on a live portal; as well as the evidence basis for restrictive measures such as lockdowns; and for diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccine approvals. The International Health Regulations require information-sharing about outbreaks: this has been impeded by states silencing whistleblowers. Any treaty must reaffirm the rights to freedom of expression and opinion.

Accountability and community—Any new treaty should not undermine existing human rights. Human rights obligations related to pandemics should be independently monitored by a multi-stakeholder oversight body that meaningfully incorporates civil society. Community expertise and leadership are vital to effective pandemic response: any treaty should recognize, fund, and enable safe environments for community and civil society at all levels. 

The covid-19 pandemic starkly widened inequalities. We must seize this opportunity to reassert the principle of human equality, which must never be compromised; draw on lessons learned from the past year, and chart a better future. 

Sara (Meg) Davis is senior researcher, Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.

Competing interests: none declared

Sara (Meg) Davis on behalf of co-signatories: Philip Alston is professor, New York University School of Law and former UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, New York, USA. Joseph J. Amon is Clinical Professor and Director of the Office of Global Health at Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA. Edwin J. Bernard is executive director, HIV Justice Network in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Sarah M. Brooks is programme director, International Service for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. Gian Luca Burci is professor in the International Law Department of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland. Naomi Burke-Shyne is executive director, Harm Reduction International, in London, UK. Georgina Caswell is programme manager, Global Network of People Living with HIV in Cape Town, South Africa. Mikhail Golichenko is senior policy analyst, HIV Legal Network in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Anand Grover is director, Lawyers Collective and the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Physical and Mental Health in Mumbai, India. Sophie Harman is professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London, in London, UK. Lu Jun is director of Beijing Yirenping Center in Beijing, China. Rajat Khosla is senior director of research, advocacy and policy at Amnesty International, London, UK. Kyle Knight is senior researcher, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Program, Human Rights Watch, New York, USA. Allan Maleche is executive director, Kenya Ethical and Legal Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN), Nairobi, Kenya. Tlaleng Mofokeng is UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Physical and Mental Health. Moses Mulumba is executive director, Center for Health, Human Rights and Development, in Kampala, Uganda. Sandeep Nanwani is chief medical officer, Yayasan Kebaya in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Mike Podmore is director, STOPAIDS in London, UK. Dainius Puras is a professor at Vilnius University and former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Physical and Mental Health in Vilnius, Lithuania. Nina Sun is deputy director, Global Health and assistant clinical professor at the Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University, Philadelphia, USA. Nerima Were is deputy director, Kenya Ethical and Legal Issues Network on HIV and AIDS (KELIN), Nairobi, Kenya. Competing interests: none declared. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations


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