By Anita Gholami
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which brings together parliamentarians from 46 member States, has been a vigilant guardian of respect for the European Convention on Human Rights and other international standards throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The Assembly has adopted a number of resolutions and recommendations seeking to equip parliaments in our European member States and beyond with the relevant tools and expertise to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law. It has been an important forum for enabling States to address the fault lines in national public health systems, bridge gaps in global health security and policy, and strengthen collective efforts to build back better.
In June 2023, the Assembly adopted Resolution 2500 (2023) on “Public health emergency: the need for a holistic approach to multilateralism and health care.” The report supports the ongoing processes taking place at the international level to transform global health governance. It considers that States must build on the principles of equity and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms during public health emergencies, and thus makes specific and productive reference to the Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Public Health Emergencies (“the Principles”).
The Assembly’s report came in response to States’ failed preparation for, prevention of, and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of particular concern for the Assembly is the lack of civil society participation and consideration for human rights in the ongoing drafting process of a new pandemic treaty. As cornerstone institutions of democracy, parliaments play a crucial role in moving the global health agenda forward. As such, an active role must be defined for parliamentarians to implement and oversee the much-needed consultative processes, taking into account the proposals of civil society, non-governmental- and human rights organizations, in line with PHE Principle 7 on the right to meaningful and effective public participation in decision-making processes.
Against this backdrop, the Assembly’s report underlines the critical importance of mainstreaming human rights in this treaty drafting process, as well as in potential amendments to the International Health Regulations. As reaffirmed by both the report and the Principles, it is a fundamental tenet of international law that all human rights are indivisible and interrelated. Of particular concern to the Assembly in the context of public health emergencies are economic, social, and environmental rights (such as housing, social protection, adequate nutrition and a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment), which are essential to the enjoyment of the right to health. These critical global health law reform processes must be grounded in human rights and, in doing so, would do well to draw substantially on the comprehensive Principles.
Indeed, many global bodies, including the Assembly, had warned of the world being woefully ill-prepared to handle international public health emergencies. In 2016, the Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the existing worldwide health-system architecture to be strengthened with an empowered, well-governed, sustainably financed, and accountable World Health Organization at its apex, and efficient, equitable, and resilient national health systems at its foundation.
Unfortunately, the pandemic hit the world largely unprepared and laid bare the fault lines in our national health systems, as well as our global health policy and security. The Principles clarify the obligation of states to strengthen and develop sustainable health systems – in general and in anticipation of inevitable future public health emergencies. The two Assembly reports on “Lessons for the future from an effective and rights-based response to Covid-19” and “Public health emergency: the need for a holistic approach to multilateralism and health care” provide states with policy recommendations in this regard. With threats from infectious diseases linked to climate change, coupled with dwindling biodiversity and the consequences of armed conflicts presenting one of the primary international health challenges of our times, states must accelerate efforts to ensure universal health coverage for all and commit to realizing the right to a safe, clean, healthy, and sustainable environment.
Moreover, the Principles reaffirm the critical notion of international solidarity. The pandemic demonstrated, once again, that viruses know no borders, and that it is in our collective interest to ensure equitable access to public goods, facilities, services, and technologies for all. Regrettably, this has been one of the major failures of the response to the pandemic – calls from the Assembly and other stakeholders to ensure equity, not only within member States, but also at the global level, were ignored. Instead, rich countries stockpiled vaccines and undermined multilateral efforts to ensure global equitable distribution through the COVAX mechanism by outbidding poorer countries and entering into bilateral agreements with vaccine developers.
The Assembly supports a reform of international trade agreements with the aim of correcting and preventing inequities in accessing health goods, facilities, services, and technologies that are critical to preventing, preparing for, responding to, and recovering from public health emergencies. Supply chains must be strengthened, diversified, and kept open during public health emergencies. These imperatives flow from States’ obligation to regulate activities, monitor, and protect against abuses by non-state actors and companies operating within their jurisdiction (including extraterritorial activities), in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the Council of Europe CM Recommendation on Human Rights and business, and PHE Principle 5.
COVID-19 has demonstrated the devastating impact of public health emergencies, in particular on vulnerable groups such as refugees and migrants, children, young people, and the elderly. The pandemic has been a major setback to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, gender, equality, and non-discrimination, as well as to the global economy, deepening already-existing socioeconomic inequalities. During times of public health emergencies, democracies are put to test. In order to mitigate the damage, states must respond with prompt and effective measures. Any measure which interferes with fundamental rights and freedoms must be foreseen by law, strictly necessary, proportionate, and limited in time. The decision-making must be transparent and subject to parliamentary and judicial oversight. Far from being an afterthought, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law must always be respected and upheld.
Anita Gholami is a lawyer and political adviser, working in the Secretariat of the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe