Can Civil Society Have a Seat at the Pandemic Treaty Negotiating Table?

The World Health Organization (WHO) member states are currently negotiating a pandemic treaty to prepare for the next pandemic – but how can representatives of civil society have a seat at the table? What are the rules of civil society participation inside and outside decision-making spaces and what should they be? These questions were discussed during a panel organized by the Global Health Center at the Geneva Graduate Institute recently.

“Today, governments are assisted, influenced and challenged by a variety of civil society organizations, demanding greater transparency, inclusivity and accountability,” said Courtenay Howe, senior advocacy advisor at STOPAIDS and platform coordinator at Platform for ACT-A Civil Society and Community Representatives, who moderated the event.

How it worked in environmental sector

In order to understand what best practices can be implemented in international rulemaking, the panellists shared their experiences about the processes that led to other fundamental treaties in the field of environment, human rights and other sectors, such as the Basel Convention on hazardous waste.

“The Basel Convention is over 30 years old, so I would like to start with what happened at the very beginning,” said Katharina Kummer Peiry, director of Kummer EcoConsult. 

She explained that at the time the field was dominated by one very active NGO: “They were excellent negotiators, better prepared than most governments, and as a result, they almost had more influence than many government negotiators,” she pointed out.

According to Kummer Peiry, the organization focused on protesting outside of the building where the negotiations were happening, as well as “naming and shaming” the negotiators in order to demand change. 

“This has evolved over the lifespan of the convention,” she added. “There are now three categories of observers that are admitted through the process, civil society, which is mostly environmental organizations, but also social development organizations, industry and then academic institutions.”

Today, in the environmental field the goal is to have a variety of organizations involved and encourage them to hold  events and prepare materials for the delegates carrying on the negotiations, she added.


A universal right

“Participating in a decision-making process is a universal desire for everyone, but not only that, it is actually a fundamental human right, protected by international human rights framework,” said Saranbaatar Bayarmagnai from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

Bayarmagnai recalled the process of negotiating the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was adopted in 2006. It currently has 164 signatories.

“There was an intergovernmental working group established to develop and negotiate this treaty, and initially the process wasn’t as inclusive as we wanted,” he said. 

“There was a huge outcry by civil society actors in different regions and globally, especially by persons with disabilities saying that no decision would be made about them without them.”

Eventually, member states became more open and accepted to include organizations working on disability rights.

“They had a very meaningful and inclusive seat at the table,” Bayarmagnai noted.  “What happened as a result of that is that 75% of the legal text of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities came from those actors who were part of the process.”

Increasing participation in negotiations

In December 2021, the WHO established an Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) in order to negotiate the legal framework for pandemic preparedness. 

Asked about what mechanisms have been put forward to ensure civil participation in the process, INB’s Co-Chair Precious Matsoso said making space for non-state actors was a useful tool.

“We are talking about an organization that was established through a constitution over 70 years ago, and this constitution is designed in such a way that the organization is rule bound, so we have to work within those rules,” she said.

“But I also think that the world has changed, it is more complex, more dynamic and more inclusive, so perhaps we have to look at how best we reform these processes,” she also said, adding that the attempt to involve non-state actors, despite some shortcomings, has resulted in a more open process.

Steven Solomon, WHO’s Principal Legal Officer, also offered his perspective on the ongoing negotiations for the pandemic treaty.

According to Solomon, these innovations were made possible thanks to the mandate of member states that participation should be expanded and deepened as much as possible.

The WHO official said that in his view, this mandate was due “to the level of confidence that member states had in relevant stakeholders in civil society, confidence in their commitment to constructive engagement.”

“It is remarkable to see what can be achieved,” he said.

However, there is still room for improving the mechanisms for guaranteeing civil participation.

Cedric Nininahazwe from the Global Network of People living with HIV (GNP+) suggested allowing more space for feedback and ensuring that information collected by communities reaches the relevant stakeholders in a timely manner.

“I think for the relevance of engagement and the information that people are providing, it will be great to create some feedback mechanisms where we can really engage on different issues,” he said.

During COVID, many community organizations were out in the field and they collected a lot of information.

“However, there is no way that this information can be shared,” he concluded, asking for a way to ensure that the data that has been collected reaches those involved in the negotiation of the pandemic prevention, preparedness and response treaty.

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