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Why the WHO Pandemic Treaty Threatens Freedom of Expression

February 16, 2024

Despite the immense influence wielded by the United Nations, attention to its rumblings is typically rare outside the international crisis du jour. Breaking from this trend, the ongoing negotiation of a pandemic treaty at the World Health Organization has captured the global spotlight long before reaching its anticipated conclusion. Yet, despite this heightened attention, the public debate on how to head off future pandemic threats has largely overlooked the potential impact of the WHO Pandemic Agreement on fundamental freedoms, notably freedom of expression.

Underway since March 2023, the pandemic accord negotiations seek to establish legally binding rules to enhance international cooperation and to strengthen the role of the WHO in preventing, preparing for, and responding to future pandemics.

To purportedly achieve these objectives, the draft text currently under consideration would commit parties to “tackle” such things as misleading information, misinformation, or disinformation, without offering a definition for these terms or specifying how this would be done. It would also require the “management” of so-called “infodemics,” defined as “too much information, false or misleading information, in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak” causing “confusion” as well as “mistrust” in health authorities. These provisions cast a looming shadow of censorship that should alarm anyone who values open discourse and transparent governance.

Everyone agrees that life is precious and that states have an interest in protecting public health. But some of the most grave and systematic human rights abuses of the last century unfolded during public emergencies and we must be vigilant to protect hard-won rights – especially in times of crisis. And while the pandemic agreement proclaims recognition of respect for human rights as one of its general principles and its assurance of non-conflict with other international obligations, this falls short of resolving the inevitable concerns for freedom of expression raised by its text. Moreover, the recent dismissal by the WHO’s director-general of criticism regarding the pandemic agreement’s implications for sovereignty and personal freedoms as “a torrent of fake news, lies, and conspiracy theories” validates the fear that important debates might be stifled under the guise of protecting the public from information.

As a fundamental human right, freedom of expression cannot be forfeited on the pretext of a public health emergency, nor unjustly sacrificed in the face of the challenges of verifying information in a globalized, tech-driven world. It is unequivocally clear under international human rights law that although some restrictions may be lawful, they must always be implemented with the utmost restraint and in the least restrictive manner possible, including in times of emergency. The overbroad and ambiguous wording of the current draft can only be seen as a dangerous deviation from this established norm, potentially legitimizing the egregious free speech violations observed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is no right to be shielded from information that authorities may subjectively label as “misleading,” or simply “too much.” Conversely, the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds is a core aspect of freedom of expression, protected under international law. As such, it should be safeguarded as the cornerstone of a truly open and resilient society, enabling much-needed scrutiny and accountability over critical public health decisions, as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated.

With the May 2024 deadline for the agreement’s adoption swiftly approaching – a timeline that negotiators view with increasing skepticism – will member states heed the call to ensure that the public health imperative of effectively preventing and responding to pandemics does not come at a cost for our fundamental freedoms?

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Giorgio Mazzoli serves as Director of UN Advocacy for ADF International.

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