Team News

As the world grapples with elections, continuing inflation, and political conflicts, world leaders are attempting to negotiate two legally binding treaties aimed at solving global health and environmental challenges. The recent negotiations of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Pandemic Treaty and the United Nation’s (UN) Plastics Treaty – which seemingly went unnoticed in busy news cycles – offer crucial insights on multilateralism and the role that industry can play in shaping global policy.

Update on Negotiations

The Pandemic Treaty is a WHO mandate established in 2021 for Member States to negotiate an agreement to address weaknesses in global cooperation encountered during the response to COVID-19. The mandate established that an agreement should be concluded at the 77th World Health Assembly, which just took place this May. While critical amendments to the International Health Regulations were made, strongly differing perspectives on the Pandemic Treaty’s text prevented a final agreement from being reached. Particularly, a contentious debate on pathogen access and data sharing placed countries on opposing blocks. While more developed countries see pathogen surveillance as key for pandemic prevention and global health security, middle and low-income countries see these demands as overbearing for those that might not have the resources to implement these measures. Intellectual property rights issues also continue to be divisive. With a new mandate that extends negotiations and sets a new 2025 deadline for an agreement, issues regarding global cooperation and the capacity to unite differing perspectives into one global solution remain.

The mandate for the Plastics Treaty came about in 2022 when the UN Member States set out a goal to negotiate an instrument before the end of 2024 that could end plastic pollution. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC), which is tasked with advancing the agreement, just had its fourth and penultimate convening in April. With the fifth and final negotiation session in December approaching, countries are struggling to reach consensus on how, and if, the treaty would seek to reduce plastic production. On one side of the negotiations, countries are advocating for cuts in the manufacturing of plastics and limits in chemical uses. On the other side, oil and gas producers advocate for circular economy measures with a focus, not on cutting down production, but rather on recycling and reusing plastic. Similar to the Pandemic Treaty negotiations, countries are again grappling with how to ensure their national objectives are met while also reaching global cooperation and harmonization.

Lessons and Implications

With the next meeting of the WHO’s Intergovernmental Negotiating Body set for July and the fifth convening of the UN’s INC scheduled for December, what are the prospects for agreement and what do they mean for companies with interests in these areas?  Several broad conclusions can be drawn at this point:

  • For both treaty negotiations, the most politically and technically difficult issues remain to be resolved.  The gulf between the two broad sides in each case are far apart, and the differences are in some cases deeply philosophical.  In the case of the Pandemic Treaty, the issues surrounding access and benefit and intellectual property have been divisive for decades.  Conversely, the Plastics Treaty raises new issues not yet addressed, around which national positions and consensuses are still forming, which present a challenge to a larger global consensus.
  • Past experience in related multilateral negotiations (e.g., the World Trade Organization pandemic intellectual property waiver negotiations) reveal that countries can be very persistent and inflexible on their positions for periods of years.  It is instructive that the issues in the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations remain unresolved and apparently intractable after a 3-year negotiation where very little progress was made to bridge some of the fundamental gaps between countries.  Such intellectual property (IP) issues are only one of the many issues in contention in the WHO pandemic negotiations.
  • Because global treaties are concluded by consensus agreement rather than majority vote, those parties which could live without any agreement at all have a disproportionate amount of leverage.  In a process with hundreds of parties, there is always a decent chance that some country (or coalition) is prepared to hold the entire process hostage. 
  • On the other hand, we can expect pressure on negotiators to intensify in the coming year given the importance of the issues at stake.  If pressure to compromise becomes strong enough, many compromises (and corners) could be cut to secure an agreement. In short, the current impasse in both negotiations is no reason to become complacent (yet).

Looking Ahead

Companies cannot and should not assume that the negotiators are well informed about the issues, even from the larger, better resourced countries.  They should not even assume that one interaction or a well-written position paper will be noticed or considered. Continuous interaction with key countries is necessary to protect key interests and to help ensure that when the time comes for compromise, that it is not your sector or company that is the one being compromised.  Outcomes will be most conducive and acceptable to those companies that are the most tenacious and perseverant.

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