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FACTCHECK

Debunked: Confusion over news article helps spread baseless claims about Pandemic Treaty

A letter sent by Conservative MPs has been used to allege a treaty will cede sovereignty to the WHO.

A PROPOSED ‘PANDEMIC Treaty’ that would see closer international cooperation to tackle pandemics has been the source of much opposition, as well as conspiracy theories and misinformation online.

While many of these claims are outlandish and baseless, one of the more prevalent ones can be traced back to a badly phrased title and paragraph published by the UK daily paper The Telegraph.

The story  was initially titled: “WHO pandemic treaty could impose lockdown on UK, ministers fear.”

It has since been changed to “WHO could gain powers to impose lockdown on UK”, but now includes a standfirst — a short summary of an article — which reads: “MPs fear new treaty designed to increase the organisation’s powers would enable it to enforce border closures and vaccine passports”.

However, the main text of the story does not repeat the claim made in the standfirst, or in the original title.

The text deals with two issues: proposed amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR) and the so-called Pandemic Treaty (its official title is the “WHO convention, agreement or other international instrument on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response” or “WHO CA+”).

While both these are related to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and both were prompted, in part, by lapses in the international response to Covid-19, there is little other connection between them.

“They are entirely separate,” Dr Margaret Harris, a spokesperson for the WHO told The Journal.

“The IHR (2005) are a legally binding instrument adopted and agreed upon by 196 State Parties, including all 194 Member States of WHO, under Article 21(a) of the WHO Constitution.”

The IHR, which are freely accessible online, “defines countries’ rights and obligations in handling  public health events and emergencies that have the potential to cross borders”, according to the WHO, and includes duties to monitor disease outbreaks and inform the international community about certain health emergencies,

The Telegraph’s article describes a letter by Conservative MPs, which they say warns that new regulations (IHR) gives the WHO “sweeping new powers”, including the ability to order countries to go into lockdown.

The letter is not reproduced in The Telegraph.

The Journal has asked all the signatories of the letter for their original text, but has not received it at the time of publication.

Of the hundreds of proposed amendments to the IHR, The Telegraph cites one as the reason for concern that the WHO could order lockdowns.

It reads: “States Parties recognize WHO as the guidance and coordinating authority of international public health response during public health Emergency of International Concern and undertake to follow WHO’s recommendations in their international public health response.”

It is unclear how this can be interpreted to suggest an ability by the WHO to impose lockdowns or border closures.

The article then goes on to say that the pandemic treaty being discussed would “force Britain to spend five per cent of its health budget on preparing for another virus outbreak”.

This second claim is correct (although force may be too strong a word) — the original draft treaty of the Pandemic Treaty does suggest all countries spend at least “5% of its current health expenditure to pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and health systems recovery”.

(More recent working drafts of the proposed treaty have excluded this requirement. However these drafts are likely to change again, and may reintroduce the Zero Draft’s language.)

Sovereignty

The article never claims, as the original title or standfirst does, that MPs fear that a new treaty will allow the WHO to impose lockdowns or border closures.

The draft treaty is publicly available and, rather than giving the WHO powers to override governments, opens with an affirmation that states are sovereign “in addressing public health matters, notably pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and health systems recovery”.

It further goes on to say that sovereignty of states is a guiding principle of the treaty, declaring: “States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to determine and manage their approach to public health”.

(More recent working drafts use different language, but still assert sovereignty of states.)

It is unclear if the mistake is the paper’s — headlines and standfirsts are often written by someone other than the journalist who wrote the main text of the piece, occasionally causing confusion — or if they are accurately reporting the MPs’ claim.

In either case, the claim is incorrect. 

However, despite the lack of any backing for the standfirst’s claim, the article has been shared online to misleadingly lend credence to the claim that the proposed pandemic treaty will give the WHO powers to compel states to do as they wish.

According to Crowdtangle, a social media analysis tool run by Meta, the Telegraph’s story was shared on Facebook more than 1,130 times. The preview of the story on Facebook includes the misleading claim.  

One Irish outlet published a story titled: “MPs warn WHO pandemic treaty will have ‘powers of compulsion’ for lockdowns and more”, using The Telegraph as the only named source for this claim.

However, the phase in quotation marks cited in that headline does not apply to the treaty alone in the Telegraph article.

“The claim that the accord will cede power to WHO is quite simply false,” Dr Harris told The Journal. “It’s fake news.

“Countries will decide what the pandemic accord says, and countries alone. And countries will implement the accord in line with their own national laws.

“No country will cede any sovereignty to WHO.”

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