The government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the rich countries split in the negotiations for the creation of a new international treaty that aims to establish rights and obligations for governments around the world in the face of a possible new pandemic. For diplomats, if established, the understanding would be historic and would be one of the greatest legacies of the post-covid-19 world.
Confidentially, the negotiation process for the agreement that will regulate how the international community will react in the face of a possible health crisis began this month in Geneva. The treaty was a proposal by the European Union and allies who, at the height of covid-19, saw the complete breakdown of trust between governments, the race for vaccines and accusations of lack of transparency on the part of China.
It was also clear during covid-19 that the world lacked clear rules about what the obligations of governments were to inform the international community about outbreaks, nor how to ensure a fair supply of vaccines.
The idea, therefore, was to start negotiating a treaty that, for many, could be a milestone in world diplomacy.
In the specific case of Brazil, the government of Jair Bolsonaro was always resistant to any gesture that could strengthen international coordination or give powers to the WHO. Now, the new government has made it clear that it is willing to engage in negotiations and strengthen multilateral structures.
For emerging countries, the process became an opportunity to denounce and correct the imbalance in the distribution of vaccines. Between 2020 and 2021, while rich countries bought enough vaccines for five times their populations, dozens of poor economies went months without receiving immunizer doses. At WHO, the finding is that thousands of lives could have been saved if there had been a fairer distribution of vaccines.
US vetoes civil society participation
The negotiating process, however, has proved to be more complicated than many expected. If for months governments and the WHO collected proposals from all countries on how the new treaty should be, it was only last week that, closed and confidential, negotiators began the process of discussing how the international agreement would be.
But the controversies did not take long to appear. When the first draft of the text was presented, the US government barred the possibility that the document could be shared with civil society, causing outrage.
For Thiru Balasubramaniam, representative of the entity Knowledge Ecology International, the gesture is a “dangerous precedent”. The fear of civil society and developing countries is that the content reaches the pharmaceutical industry. But not for human rights activists, creating a major imbalance in the negotiating process.
But the lack of transparency was just the beginning of the misunderstandings and frustrations. The Brazilian government did not disguise its concern at the European delegation’s announcement that it had no political instructions on how it should act in the negotiations.
The proposal to negotiate an agreement had been launched precisely by Brussels, putting emerging countries in an awkward situation at the height of the health crisis. Now, the complaint of diplomats is that, after the governments’ investment in the subject, it is the Europeans who signal a hesitation.
The Europeans warned their interlocutors that there is no reduction in the bloc’s ambition on what the treaty should be. Meanwhile, the EU is still struggling to find a common position among its 27 countries.
Another obstacle is the fact that the EU does not consider the draft text as a suitable starting point for a real negotiation.
There is also a feeling from developed countries that, as such, the negotiations and proposals are “unbalanced”. They would like to see more commitment and agreement on preventive measures against a future pandemic, as opposed to the focus on access to medicines and technology, favored by Brazil.
Sanctions x Remedies
According to sources in Geneva, the first negotiating meeting ran into real problems.
During the talks, it became clear that the Europeans and other developed countries were not willing to accept a treaty that required, as Brazil wants, “unimpeded and equitable” access to medical products, vaccines and treatments.
For Europeans and Americans, the term “unencumbered” could be used by governments as a tool to question and fight the trade sanctions imposed on them. Having a treaty with such powers, in this case, would mean a weakening of the sanctions regime.
Another obstacle was identified when the EU, Israel, USA, Japan and Australia opposed the idea of Brazil and other emerging countries to include a reference that the international community has “common and differentiated responsibilities” in the face of a new pandemic.
That is: in a possible health crisis, everyone has responsibilities. But those with more resources, production and conditions must act to guarantee the supply of vaccines and other products to the rest of the world.
For Europeans and Americans, this is a concept used in climate talks and should not be placed in a pandemic treaty.
Canada also showed no flexibility in accepting a proposal supported by the Brazilian government to include a reference to indigenous peoples in the future treaty.
One of the main elements of disagreement, however, was the insistence of Brazil and the Asian, African and Latin American governments to ensure that the treaty also established rules on “benefit sharing”.
Emerging countries would be willing to share virus samples and other specimensif assured that the medical products developed from that collection would reach them.
The fear of the developing world is that, after being forced to provide samples of an alleged virus to an American or European laboratory, they will then have to allocate billions of dollars to buy the immunizer that will be produced from what they have discovered.
But for developed countries, including European ones, this is a concept that should be limited to the discussion on biodiversity. And not for pandemics.
US: We will not relinquish sovereignty
Developing countries were still surprised this week by a statement by Joe Biden’s government, rejecting any treaty that could give WHO greater powers or force them to make new commitments.
“We are also aware of the concerns of some that these negotiations could result in diminishing United States sovereignty,” the White House statement said.
The United States will not support any measure at the World Health Organization, including in these negotiations, that in any way undermines our sovereignty or security.”
“Any agreement resulting from these negotiations would be designed to increase the transparency and effectiveness of cooperation between nations during global pandemics and would in no way empower the World Health Organization or any other international body to impose, direct or supervise national actions,” warned.
For the US government, no agreement will be accepted that could “compromise the ability of American citizens to make their own decisions in terms of health”.
Faced with the high number of disputes, negotiators already admit that the deadline given by the WHO to reach an agreement may not be enough. The goal is to have a new treaty by May 2024.
The next round of negotiations will take place in April. But the latest session ended with many delegations claiming the draft had been “defaced”, with diplomats struggling to understand what still stood and what had been deleted.
At the WHO and the Brazilian government, the fear is that, at the height of the pandemic, multilateralism was instrumentalized to send internal political messages and to create a smokescreen.
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