New Kiwi Government to Challenge WHO’s Pandemic Treaty

A new ‘national interest’ test will consider whether the Treaty limits government decision-making.
New Kiwi Government to Challenge WHO’s Pandemic Treaty
A sign of the World Health Organisation (WHO) at their headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, on Dec. 7, 2021. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)
Henry Jom

New Zealand’s new tri-party coalition government has flexed its nationalist muscle with plans to implement a “national interest test” that will be applied to any prospective agreements with the United Nations (UN), and related bodies.

The new government’s stance comes as the May 2024 deadline looms for UN member states—of which New Zealand is a member—to adopt a legally binding global treaty, also known as the UN’s Pandemic Preparedness Treaty, touted to “protect and promote people’s health.”

The Pandemic Treaty has faced scrutiny around the world due to the wording of its draft, which would make the treaty binding on all signatories.

The draft also calls for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to be the central coordination authority for future international health responses, particularly after the COVID pandemic.

The “national interest test” proposed by New Zealand’s newly formed coalition—including the National Party, ACT, and NZ First—will be applied before accepting any “agreements from the UN and its agencies that limit national decision-making and reconfirm that New Zealand’s domestic law holds primacy over any international agreements.”

The Pandemic Treaty is one example of a UN agreement.

Currently, a “national interest assessment” is applied to overseas investments and is vetted by the finance minister as to whether aligns with New Zealand’s interest.

Ardern Government Pushed for Treaty, But Citizens Not Convinced

In November 2021, New Zealand and other World Health Organisation (WHO) Member States agreed to establish an Intergovernmental Negotiating Body to draft a Pandemic Treaty.

Then COVID-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall said in October 2022 that the Ardern government was “fully supportive” of the pandemic treaty.

“There is clearly a need to have better rules around how we respond to a pandemic,” Ms. Ayesha said, reported NZ Herald.

“Everything from early sharing of information and the requirements of states to do that, through to how we manage sequences of organisms, the equitable distribution of technology—all of those issues might be captured by a pandemic instrument, what form that takes is currently being debated.”

However, following the conclusion of public submissions on the pandemic treaty on Aug. 11, 2022, a common theme (pdf) was a concern that a new pandemic instrument would require “New Zealand to relinquish control of our domestic decision-making processes during a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) to the WHO, or otherwise reduce autonomy at the individual or country level.”

Additional concerns was that the pandemic treaty may “undermine the obligations of the New Zealand government to Māori” as well as introduce additional costs to the taxpayer.

“Some submissions raised concerns about the effectiveness and accountability of the WHO, including criticisms of the Organization, and its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the summary of submissions stated.

“Overall, the submissions reflected mixed views–both in favour of, and opposing the proposed pandemic instrument and/or Aotearoa New Zealand’s involvement in negotiations.”

Expert Says Concerns Not Valid

Across the ocean in Australia, Australia’s Minister for Finance Katy Gallagher, under questioning from the United Australia Party’s Senator Ralph Babet, said the WHO had no legal authority to force countries to accept any of its recommendations.

“Australia would retain our powers to make decisions on our own borders and on our own public health and social measures, so I think that should give people the assurance that it’s Australia and Australia’s response that will guide future planning and future responses to disease outbreaks,” the senator told the Senate.

However, global health expert Dr. Jeremy Youde argued that the current discourse misrepresented the power of the WHO.

Mr. Youde told RMIT FactLab in May that the WHO was a consultative body that provides advice and information on cross-border health issues. It does not, however, have the power to take over a nation’s health care system to vaccinate people against their wishes.

“The World Health Organization’s powers are those that the member states grant to it. There is nothing in the current working of the WHO, nor in any of the proposals for a pandemic treaty, that would give it the power to override domestic sovereignty,” he said.

“The WHO’s enforcement powers are incredibly limited—and dependent upon the powers that the member states are willing to grant to the organisation.”

He did note that the global body does have the power to strip a member state of voting rights in future agreements or to “name and shame” non-compliant states.

COVID-19 Inquiry Expanded to Scrutinise Clinicians, Vaccines

Meanwhile, NZ First also managed to convince fellow coalition parties to launch a COVID-19 inquiry.

Incoming centre-right National Party Prime Minister Christopher Luxon promised the inquiry “as a matter of urgency” into the previous government’s handling of the pandemic, including issues such as vaccine procurement and lockdowns.

Despite already holding a Royal Commission into the handling of the pandemic, the outgoing Ardern government decided not to examine decisions by clinicians and vaccine efficacy in its investigation.

“We want to broaden the terms of the COVID inquiry so that it considers more things,” incoming Prime Minister Luxon told reporters on Nov. 24, after announcing his coalition deal with ACT and NZ First.

“It’s going to include a range of topics including social but also economic impacts as well.”

Victoria Kelly-Clark contributed to this report.
Henry Jom is an Australian-based reporter who focuses on Australian and health-related news. He has a bachelor's in health science, specialising in rehabilitation, and is currently completing a postgraduate degree in law. Henry can be contacted at [email protected]