The World Health Organization has been the target of conspiracists’ ire throughout the pandemic. The latest rumor lies in a so-called “pandemic treaty” — a wildly popular idea that claims world governments are planning on ceding all legal sovereignty to the U.N. health body. Prominent conspiracy influencers such as James Melville, Robert Malone, and Maajid Nawaz are among those who have warned their thousands of followers that the document will hand over unlimited powers to a group of elite technocrats, with one tweet with 9.5k likes from Nawaz encouraging U.S. citizens to “hold the line” against “globalists.”
The rumor has crossed over into government officials’ mouths too. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been filmed saying that he’ll refuse to sign the treaty. Former U.S. House Rep. Michele Bachmann appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast and on GB News in the U.K., claiming that the proposals outlined in the treaty would grant WHO the authority to impose national lockdowns on participating countries. Social media users have also shared posts and videos claiming that U.S. President Joe Biden intended to “hand over the country’s sovereignty” on public health issues to WHO.
In the U.K., a petition with 146k signatures asks that the government refuse to sign WHO’s prevention and preparedness treaty “unless it is approved via public referendum,” and MP Steve Baker submitted a question to the Health Minister, asking whether the government would sign. The U.K. issued a response to the petition, explaining what the pandemic preparedness treaty actually is.
What’s actually happening?
The rumors exaggerate proposals to amend the International Health Regulations (IHR), originally established in 1969, which lay out the public responses to infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, and smallpox. These regulations include things like compulsory quarantines for infected travelers, as well as guidelines to preserve personal and economic liberty.
The IHR has been amended several times in its history following severe outbreaks of infectious diseases, most recently in 2005 following the 2002–2003 outbreak of SARS. As such, since early 2021, world leaders have been working on further amendments as the COVID-19 pandemic exposed new weaknesses in the existing regulations. A WHO committee is meeting this week to discuss the possible amendments.
Currently, there is no draft text of amendments to the IHR, and no draft is expected until August 2022. Some possible amendments include sharing genomic data of pathogens, ensuring universal access to research and vaccine technology, and investments in national health – but all remain wish-list items rather than future obligations. Most of the conspiratorial claims instead are drawn from the Biden administration’s proposed changes to the 2005 IHR, none of which have been discussed, changed, formalized, or agreed upon by any other country yet. And with treaties this large, it’s extremely difficult to get all 196 countries to agree. It is likely no changes to the IHR will be agreed upon and published until 2024.
When adopted, IHR regulations are legally binding for WHO member countries, but this does not necessarily mean that they are enforceable. The only way that the U.N. can punish member countries for failing to comply with the IHR takes the form of sanctions, which are only effective if member countries agree to impose them. This will also remain unlikely, as the U.S. position is that the regulations should not be legally binding.
Conspiracists believe that once passed, the so-called pandemic treaty would give WHO superpowers, enabling it to impose international lockdowns. Not only does the U.N. lack the legal or practical power to enforce these measures, but nowhere in the current publicly available draft version of the proposals submitted by the U.S. government are these measures even mentioned.
Another focus concerns the ability to declare pandemics based solely on the “personal opinion” of WHO and against the wishes of individual governments. The conspiracy comes into it when they claim that WHO uses this as a pretext to force wealthy countries to send money to developing countries in a sort of protection racket.
The claims concerning vaccine passports come from WHO’s “trust framework,” which would enable countries to verify the vaccination credentials systems of other countries. While that might appear as a step towards techno-dystopia, the reality of this project is less sinister: a WHO news bulletin from June 2021 reported that the framework “will be informed through further consultation with Member States,” i.e., it’s still in development. The U.S. has not pledged participation in this scheme and does not have any sort of national database of vaccines – so it seems unlikely that WHO would be able to impose that internationally either.
Conspiracy theories and misinformation bloom wherever a gap in available information appears.
It is true that some public health measures violate personal liberty – like quarantines, lockdowns, or masks – but it’s also true that some diseases simply won’t go away without extreme measures. As mentioned, the IHR contains guidelines that give advice on how to avoid imposing those sorts of burdens. It can actually be used as a tool to help avoid techno dystopia.
The Great Reset
The conspiracy theories surrounding the World Health Organization and the IHR are best understood in the context of the Great Reset conspiracy theory. Throughout the pandemic, increasing numbers of people worldwide reacted to government lockdowns, imposed restrictions, and vaccine mandates with anger, suspicion, and sometimes by outright denying the reality of COVID-19. In the context of the Great Reset conspiracy, any and all public health measures taken by governmental organizations were framed as part of a grand plan by a shadowy cabal of elites to transform global civilization in line with their own personal interests, divesting individuals of their personal freedom and ability to own money or property in the process. This often manifested as paranoia about vaccine mandates.
Conspiracy theories and misinformation bloom wherever a gap in available information appears. The political processes of large international organizations such as WHO are often opaque to the average person, and conspiracy theories provide straightforward, comprehensible explanations of their inner workings, making villains out of an international political organization and a clean, polarized battle out of multifaceted issues. Unfortunately, the movements and mechanisms of international politics are rarely so simple. The amendments to the IHR, when eventually settled upon, will guide how governments react to future pandemic events. It is therefore particularly important to be aware of the gap between the claims made about the nature of these amendments and the reality of the legislative possibilities.