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GOP lawmakers push legislation to preempt WHO global pandemic treaty

Critics say the treaty and related measures vastly expand the authority and resources of the the U.N. health arm at the expense of national sovereignty.

Published: June 1, 2022 9:25pm

Updated: June 2, 2022 11:26pm

Critics of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations' health agency, breathed a sigh of relief last week when legally binding international health rules proposed by the Biden administration weren't adopted.

However, concerns remain about ongoing efforts to establish a sweeping global agreement to combat future pandemics, leading Republican Reps. Chris Stewart and Ronny Jackson, of Utah and Texas, respectively, to introduce legislation on Tuesday to preempt U.S. participation in such an arrangement.

Stewart's legislation would prohibit the use of funds to propose amendments to either the International Health Regulations (IHR) or a so-called "global pandemic treaty," or any other agreement among member states of the WHO.

The Biden administration has proposed controversial amendments to the IHR, an instrument of international law that is legally binding on WHO member countries, including the U.S.

The treaty — currently being drafted — is a separate but related initiative to create a globally binding accord on pandemic preparedness.

Supporters argue the treaty and IHR changes can address the holes exposed by the world's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"A pandemic treaty and IHR reform can only make the world safer from fast moving infectious diseases," Georgetown University law professor Lawrence Gostin told Just the News. "After all we have suffered during the pandemic, isn't that what we all should want?"

Critics say the measures vastly expand the authority and resources of the WHO, which they argue would be given greater control to dictate how nations respond to future pandemics and undermine national sovereignty.

"President Biden must be stopped from handing power to a corrupt body of international bureaucrats," Stewart said in a statement. "If he gets his way, the WHO will have the power to unilaterally declare a public health crisis in America. Yes, the same WHO that actively covered for China by denying their role in the origins of COVID-19. If an American citizen didn't vote someone into office, they have no business telling us how to live."

Stewart's bill would prohibit the use of funds to propose any amendments to the WHO that would supersede or modify authorities under the U.S. It would also halt U.S. WHO funding, unless the global body takes certain steps, including holding China accountable for its alleged role in the origin and spread of COVID-19.

"Congress must now pass my legislation to hold China accountable and keep American decision-making where it belongs: with the American people," said Stewart.

Jackson's legislation, meanwhile, would prohibit the use of funds to implement any obligations of the U.S. under a pandemic treaty.

"Since the onset of COVID-19, the WHO has proven to be as corrupt as its leaders are incompetent," said Jackson, former physician to the president under both Obama and Trump. "The WHO was complicit in helping the Chinese Communist Party cover up COVID-19's initial spread and origin, yet Joe Biden wants to give them control over public health matters in America. It's an insult to every American citizen who has been affected by the pandemic, and I will not stay silent as this farce of a treaty is negotiated behind the American peoples' backs."

Experts and lawmakers in recent weeks have shined a spotlight on the WHO's checkered record during the COVID-19 pandemic, warning the public health measures under discussion would centralize too much power in the hands of the WHO.

The House bills were introduced days after Republicans in the Senate unveiled similar measures last week.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) introduced legislation requiring any agreement resulting from the work of the WHO's intergovernmental negotiating body to be deemed a treaty per U.S. law, requiring the advice and consent of a supermajority of the Senate.

"The WHO, along with our federal health agencies, failed miserably in its response to COVID-19," Johnson said in a statement. "Its failure should not be rewarded with a new international treaty that would increase its power at the expense of American sovereignty. What the WHO does need is greater accountability and transparency. This bill makes clear to the Biden administration that any new WHO pandemic agreement must be deemed a treaty and submitted to the Senate for ratification. The sovereignty of the United States is not negotiable."

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) introduced his own bill to prevent the WHO from unilaterally imposing public health restrictions on the U.S.

Proponents of the WHO's initiative dismissed such concerns about undermining American sovereignty.

"There is considerable disinformation and even conspiracy theories about the IHR reforms and the pandemic treaty," said Gostin, who works as director of the WHO's Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law. "It does not allow WHO to make any decisions about U.S. health policy. WHO powers are currently weak. They need to be stronger, but it is crystal clear that WHO will not have any power to dictate U.S. domestic health policy."

Last week, the World Health Assembly, the WHO's decision-making body comprised of 194 member countries, convened in Geneva, Switzerland. Topping the agenda was the WHO's push to create a pandemic treaty.

The current working draft of the treaty would give the WHO more power to impose its recommendations to combat pandemics, potentially including lockdown measures and travel restrictions. It also calls for the WHO to establish a "new global system for surveillance" and "to deploy proactive countermeasures against misinformation and social media attacks."

Additionally, the accord includes provisions for the development of digital vaccine certificates and contact tracing "in the international context."

The WHO's intergovernmental negotiating body will meet multiple times this and next month to continue on the working draft of the pandemic treaty. The goal is to deliver a progress report to the World Health Assembly in 2023 and adopt the agreement by 2024.

Also topping the World Health Assembly's agenda was voting on America's proposed amendments to the IHR.

The Biden administration quietly submitted the proposed amendments in January, but they weren't made public until last month and only received major attention ahead of the World Health Assembly.

The administration's proposed amendments to the IHR would, among other changes, expand the power of the WHO to declare pandemics and other health emergencies. The U.S. proposal specifically deleted a key line from the old version of the IHR that required the WHO to consult with and attempt to obtain verification from countries in whose territory the public health issue in question is allegedly occurring before declaring an emergency and pushing certain recommendations.

The U.S. proposal would also establish "compliance committees" in each WHO member country to gather information and promote compliance with regulations.

Critics were concerned the measures would be adopted at the World Health Assembly and empower the WHO in significant ways.

However, the only IHR amendments actually adopted at the gathering "appear to be very minor in scope," according to Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford University.

Most notably, the changes shrink the time period in which a country can oppose amendments to the IRH from 18 months to 10 months and shrink the time lag after which new amendments come into effect after adoption from 24 months to 12 months.

The Biden administration's original proposal — which met with opposition at the assembly from dozens of countries, especially from Africa — was effectively deferred. A committee was formed to review the U.S. amendments and recommend adoption of some or all the measures at a later date.

"There is no current consensus on IHR reform, and there is also considerable opposition to the Biden administration proposals within the U.S., especially among conservative Republicans," said Gostin. "Yet, I am optimistic that some reforms will probably be adopted next May," the date of the next World Health Assembly.

Still, U.S. critics of the WHO hailed the delay as a victory — but a temporary one.

The WHO didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

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