EXCLUSIVE: Did Some Developed Countries Oust Africa Group’s Key Negotiator, a Forceful Voice on Equity Provisions in INB-IHR Negotiations?
Newsletter Edition #57 [Treaty Talks]
In the three years of reporting on global health negotiations, working on today’s story underscored yet again the high stakes in global health in Geneva.
In today’s edition, we bring you a breaking story from the complex dynamics in global health diplomacy. Did some rich countries pressure an African country to send a star negotiator home? The question we are asking is, if true, then why?
What comes to the fore are a few larger questions: are these negotiations being conducted in good faith, is there even a level-playing field in multilateralism? And finally what are the limitations that ministries of health face relative to the powers that foreign ministries enjoy, even in the context of treaty-making in global health?
It is impossible to peer down definitively into the black box of diplomatic maneuvers, but as always we use time-tested, journalistic methods to understand and sift through interests and narratives in the information shared with us.
As before, it is extremely difficult to name or identify sources in this kind of reporting given the sheer sensitive nature of these discussions. But we take every care to verify and authenticate the information shared with us from multiple sources and to analyse the information in a wider context.
Also, a note on our experience this week: talking down to journalists is not a great way to prove your point or express displeasure about our reporting. We are just doing our job. Ascribing motives to our journalism is counter-productive. We are primarily reader-funded, transparent and independent.
Shooting the messenger, is not the solution. Diplomatic intrigue in Geneva and beyond deserves more, not less scrutiny, especially when at stake is basically the health of people globally.
Thank you for reading. (We updated this story a few hours after publication, to reflect the responses received from Namibian authorities.)
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I. NEWS FLASH
Did Some Developed Countries Oust Africa Group’s Key Negotiator, a Forceful Voice on Equity Provisions in INB-IHR Negotiations?
Delegations of a group of developing countries were taken by utter surprise this week, when it became known that one of their top negotiators from the influential Africa Group, has been abruptly asked to pack up and head home in the midst of crucial negotiations in global health.
This development is striking given the decisive role played by a prominent Namibian diplomat who has been known for taking strong positions on equity related provisions in on-going global health negotiations to reform the governance of health emergencies.
This transpired just as Geneva is gearing up for a crucial week-long meeting where the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body on the Pandemic Agreement will meet at WHO during 4-6 December, immediately followed by the Working Group set up to amend the IHR during 7-8 December.
The ostensible reason was the conclusion of the term of the diplomat from Namibia, but according to several sources knowledgeable about the developments, there has been allegedly intense pressure from the U.S. and the E.U. to “replace the negotiator”. The U.S. responded to our queries and said that this was “categorically false.” (See comments from the U.S. below). The EU said that “We have no knowledge of such incidents.” (See comments from the EU below). No response was received from Namibian authorities by the time this story went to print.
It is learned that the diplomat has been given just days to pack up and leave. It is also understood that despite his deep involvement in the sensitive stages of these negotiations, he has been reportedly “taken off” the negotiating team with immediate effect. (The diplomat is scheduled to leave ahead of next week’s meeting in Geneva, according to sources).
The alacrity of such a response from Namibian authorities seemed odd and has raised eyebrows and much concern among health diplomats immersed in on-going informal consultations on the pandemic agreement, and the amendments to the IHR.
We are given to understand that although the term of the said diplomat concluded in August this year, the Namibian health ministry had tried ensured his engagement till the conclusion of the negotiations in May 2024. It appears the efforts made by the health ministry have failed and the foreign ministry has prevailed, according to sources in the Africa Group.
“This is a very serious matter that needs to be analysed if indeed a few countries put pressure on Namibia,” a senior diplomat from a large developing country told us this week.
For this story, we spoke with a cross-section of countries to get as much understanding of back-door diplomacy as is possible under the circumstances.
PRESSURE AS A TACTIC IN MULTILATERAL NEGOTIATIONS
To be sure, this isn’t just about one country, or even just the Africa Group. The allegation that some rich countries could pressure a developing country to replace a negotiator especially one who is seen as building coalitions, taking tough positions and crafting strategies for negotiations, is serious and not merely coincidental, many diplomatic sources told Geneva Health Files this week.
Negotiators of some countries indicated that diplomatic correspondence from these developed countries communicated the displeasure with the positions taken by developing countries. So, while these kinds of communications are not out of ordinary, the easing out a negotiator will never be discussed in writing, a senior diplomat clarified.
(Sources point out that senior American diplomats met Namibian authorities recently.)
Observers who have tracked multilateral negotiations globally, say that this is a classic, desperate move that some countries apply, if they find some negotiators as “simply too good at their job.”
One expert told us, that unlike in developed countries, developing countries have limited capacity. Successful negotiations for developing countries sometimes hinge on individuals. “There is no institutional capacity in many small countries. So, if you attack a key negotiator, then you just exclude a country and everything that a negotiator can represent – simply because there are not too many of them who could be as skillful,” one legal expert fluent in global health negotiations told us.
During the contentious TRIPS Waiver negotiations at WTO, a key negotiator from a developing country was replaced, again at the insistence of some developed countries that opposed the waiver proposal, sources in trade circles pointed out.
Even in the current context of on-going negotiations at WHO, at least one Latin American country and an Asian country, have allegedly been pressured by the U.S. in the recent past. But these diplomats were backed by their capitals, sources in Geneva told us.
Sources also pointed to the role of the foreign ministry relative to the limited power of the health ministry, during these complex, multi-faceted discussions at WHO. This points to a hierarchy in the decision-making even within countries despite the fact that what is being negotiated are health matters within the scope and competence of health ministries.
(Undoubtedly these are very complex considerations, where such decisions are shaped also by outcomes in other disciplines beyond health.)
In recent months, countries have had mixed experiences in Geneva in the context of these negotiations. In some countries, health ministries were able to persuade their respective foreign ministries to extend the terms of diplomats with specialized knowledge of both health and law. In others, changes were made because diplomats could not stay beyond their terms despite the critical role they were playing in these negotiations for the last few years (in one case, a change of government was cited as a reason). But it is extremely rare, that a diplomat was given barely days to pack up and leave at the insistence of the capital - as the Namibian example shows.
The case illustrates the many challenges in the evolution of global health diplomacy, where politics and technical considerations come together in often messy ways.
For many developing country diplomats, the replacement of the Namibian diplomat is being seen as “a severe blow” at this stage of the negotiations, when countries are headed to a careful consideration of trade-offs and compromises within and across these parallel tracks of negotiations of the INB and the IHR.
“Not every one has the same capacity, courage and knowledge”, a fellow health negotiator in Geneva pointed out.
“By breaking the dynamic between countries with such a sudden, allegedly politically motivated replacement, negotiating capacities of blocs of countries are affected. It is nearly impossible to recreate the same dynamic between groups of negotiators in terms of planning and strategy,” a developing country diplomat explained to us this week.
THE AFRICA GROUP POSITION ON “TRICKY” ISSUES IN THE PANDEMIC AGREEMENT DISCUSSIONS
From demanding for “a package” to tie both the processes of a pandemic agreement and meaningful amendments to the IHR, to obligations on financing; from pushing for provisions on access and benefits sharing to making statements on the current conflict in the Middle East, the Africa Group, among other developing countries, has taken several strong positions over the last few years.
And Namibia, has also played a role in articulating some of these positions and for pushing back on several proposals by developed countries including on surveillance measures, One Health and other areas of divergence.
In public statements made at WHO meetings, Namibia has raised questions on procedure, process, involvement of experts, among a range of other modalities-related questions in the course of these negotiations – like many other developing countries. The country also has also taken a strong public stance against involving the pharmaceutical industry in the drafting group processes in these negotiations.
While it is within the sovereign right of every state to require that their diplomats vacate their post after a certain period of time, some delegates and NGOs who are involved in the negotiations are perplexed by the decision of the Namibian Government as the negotiations which are set to conclude by May 2024, have entered a rigid schedule of intersessional meetings.
That Namibia has been a strong advocate for provisions that push for operationalisation of equity is lost on no one. As a part of Africa Group, Namibia has been pushing for legally binding provisions on technology transfer to diversify production in all regions of the world and the inclusion of the common but differentiated responsibilities into international health law.
Together with Brazil, Indonesia, and Thailand, on behalf of 72 Developing Countries, Namibia had also taken on the role of leading a gigantic effort at the WHO which is aimed at ensuring that manufacturers share benefits, including annual monetary contributions, for using genetic resources from developing countries to develop vaccines, therapeutics, and other health products.
This proposal for a multilateral mechanism of access and benefits sharing which is being fiercely contested is the fulcrum on which the whole pandemic treaty rest as we reported earlier in the year (See: Pathogen Access And Benefits Sharing: The Fulcrum On Which Equity Objectives Rest?)
Given the influence that Namibia has exerted, some delegates and representatives of NGOs in Geneva, are questioning whether the decision of the Namibian Government to abruptly move out the said diplomat, was directly influenced by some developed countries.
Sources suggest that developed countries have been frustrated with these provisions and have tried to reason with delegates of developing countries to relinquish some of their positions on equity. After all, the sheer divergence of countries on the question of ABS and other aspects is well known.
As far as the curious case of the Namibia negotiator is concerned, many questions remain unanswered.
The diplomat in question had in practice became one of the leading voices within the African Group tasked with defending and finding appropriate compromises on one of the biggest proposals that is being currently considered by negotiators at the WHO. Why remove one of the most effective negotiators for the African Group from the battlefield, in what is one of the most important multilateral treaty negotiations in global health, a source familiar with the developments asked.
RESPONSE FROM THE U.S. AND THE EU
We sought to know from the U.S. and the EU, whether and to what extent pressure was exerted on Namibian authorities.
It is learned that allegedly US government and the EU have been unhappy with the positions taken by the Namibian government in the on-going global health negotiations particularly on matters related to access and benefits sharing among others. (See verbatim public statements made by the US and EU at WHO meetings, at the bottom of this story)
In a statement responding to our queries, a U.S. official said, “Global health security and pandemic accord negotiations are top national security priorities for the United States. Of course, Member States often hold differing positions, though we believe all are negotiating in good faith to achieve a common goal. We urge all Member States to work through these disagreements to arrive at consensus solutions.”
We asked if the US government put pressure and if it indicated a preference that the foreign ministry of Namibia must replace a key Namibian negotiator closely involved with the Pandemic Agreement negotiations in Geneva. The official said, “This allegation is categorically false. Member States decide for themselves how they will be represented in intergovernmental negotiations.”
Specifically, on the said Namibian diplomat, the U.S. official said, “The Namibian pandemic accord negotiator is a skilled diplomat who has helped all Member States have a clearer understanding of developing country needs and views of important issues in pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.”
Responding to our queries, a European diplomat said, “We have no knowledge of such incidents. The EU has always pursued a constructive and inclusive engagement with all partners and stakeholders in our negotiations on a Pandemic Agreement.”
Queries sent to the Ministry of Health and Social Services in Namibia were unanswered by the time we published this story. (See below responses received from the ministry of international relations and cooperation at the bottom of this story. This was received a few hours after we first published our story.)
Unless the Namibian authorities reverse this decision, or at a minimum restore the access of the diplomat to on-going negotiations, this will be seen as a blow to developing countries at this stage of the negotiations, several southern diplomats told us.
“This has the potential to set off the negotiations in a certain direction. And who knows if we will recover adequately,” one developing country diplomat told us.
We have reported in these pages earlier on how crucial the role of the Africa Group has been in these discussions. A number of countries, including large emerging economies have often looked to the Africa Group to push on equity-related provisions in these negotiations.
With one of the most effective interlocutors in these negotiations out of the picture, the opposition to the most critical and trickiest issues in these negotiations might now lose their sting.
With effectively six months left for the official deadline to conclude these negotiations, the gloves are now off.
Incidentally, a few months ago, a senior Namibian minister also articulated the need for decolonising negotiations at the multilateral level.
RESPONSES FROM NAMIBIA’S MINISTRY OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AND COOPERATION
A few hours after we published our story, we received responses from Namibian authorities. Published here on December 1, 2023, at 5.45 p.m. CET.
See our previous stories on the negotiations over the last few months below that reflect public statements made by WHO member states.
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