WHO "pandemic treaty" will not rob Australia of its sovereignty

WHO "pandemic treaty" will not rob Australia of its sovereignty

What was claimed

The verdict

Australia is at risk of losing its sovereignty due to new pandemic prevention measures proposed by the World Health Organization, including changes to the international health regulations and a “pandemic treaty”.

False. The proposed measures, which are still in development, uphold member states’ sovereignty, according to early drafts.


By Eiddwen Jeffery

Anti-lockdown community group Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA) has started an online campaign calling for Australia to exit the World Health Organization (WHO) with false claims the agency could undermine Australia’s sovereignty. 

On its campaign website launched in January, RDA claims Australia “is at risk of losing its sovereignty” due to proposed changes to the WHO’s international health regulations and a so-called “pandemic treaty”. The measures could override Australia “even if Australia votes against the proposals”, it claims.

In one image, posted to Instagram in February, the group claims: “The W.H.O wants to become a legislative authority instead of an advisory board which would give them extraordinary powers that are binding on all Australians.”

In another post, it asks Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton whether they support giving the WHO “powers over Aussies” and “the decision to vaccinate our kids”.

But the campaign website and social media posts misrepresent the proposed pandemic prevention measures and the power of the WHO.

Reignite Democracy post showing false claim with red cross through it

What are the pandemic prevention measures being proposed by the WHO? 

The WHO is a United Nations agency responsible for international public health. It comprises 194 member nation states who are represented through the agency’s World Health Assembly (WHA).

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the WHA in 2021 agreed to undergo a global process to draft and negotiate an accord to strengthen responses to future virus outbreaks. 

The process, which is still being developed, is known as the Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response Accord. But the RDA refers to it as a “pandemic treaty”. 

So far, only a "zero draft" of the accord has been released, outlining the basis for negotiating the international agreement between member states. It calls for the WHO to be recognised as the central coordination authority for future international health responses.

In tandem with the accord, last year the WHO announced a plan to update the international health regulations.

The regulations provide a legal framework of member states’ rights and obligations in handling public health events, including conditions for countries to maintain surveillance and reporting around public health events as well as ensure vaccines and other treatments are subject to WHO approval. 

A summary document of the proposed changes to the regulations were released following the first round of discussions in February. 


Does the draft for the pandemic prevention accord or proposed changes to the International Health Regulations challenge state sovereignty? 

Both the pandemic accord and the proposed changes to international health regulations explicitly protect member states’ sovereignty.  

The pandemic accord zero draft begins with a clause “reaffirming the principle of sovereignty of States Parties”.

The draft also says nations have “the sovereign right to determine and manage their approach to public health, notably pandemic prevention, preparedness, response and recovery of health systems, pursuant to their own policies and legislation, provided that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to their peoples and other countries”.

The international health regulations, known as IHR 2005, include a similar clause. One of the regulations’ core principles states: “[Member] States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to legislate and to implement legislation in pursuance of their health policies.”

The proposed amendments do not challenge member states’ sovereignty.  


What does a global health expert say?

The claims that either the proposed accord or the IHR changes could impact a state’s sovereignty misrepresents the power of the WHO and its proposals, according to global health expert Dr Jeremy Youde

Dr Youde told RMIT FactLab the WHO “acts as a consultative body” that can provide advice and discuss cross-border health issues, but “does not have the power to take over any country's health care system”. 

“The World Health Organization's powers are those that the member states grant to it. There is nothing in the current working of the WHO, nor in any of the proposals for a pandemic treaty, that would give it the power to override domestic sovereignty,” he said. 

This includes the choice to vaccinate children, which remains a matter of national policy. 

Dr Youde said even if the proposed measures included legally binding clauses, this still would not affect state sovereignty. 

“The WHO's enforcement powers are incredibly limited – and dependent upon the powers that the member states are willing to grant to the organisation,” Dr Youde said. 

The WHO cannot take away the ability of individual states to make their own laws and nor can it fine states for being non-compliant. It does have the power to strip a member state of voting rights in future agreements, or “name and shame” non-compliant states, but these are “fairly extreme steps” that are not often used by the WHO, according to Dr Youde. 


Could the proposed pandemic measures be enforceable even if Australia votes against them?

Dr Youde told FactLab that once the drafts for the pandemic accord and updated IHR are finalised, the proposals will be presented to the WHA to be ratified by member states. If a member state believes there is something in either proposal that it considers incompatible with its own laws, it has the ability to reject the agreement and not be obligated by its conditions. 

“Fundamentally, when we are looking at international treaties and agreements, the power resides in the hands of the states and their willingness to agree to work together through the instrument. The World Health Organization lacks the power to impose its will on member states,” he said.

Negotiations for the proposed pandemic accord began in February. The first working draft is expected in June this year and a final draft in 2024

A final draft for the proposed IHR amendments is expected to be presented to the WHA in 2024. The regulations were previously updated in 2005, following the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). 

FactLab has previously debunked claims by Reignite Democracy Australia, including a 2022 election claim that voters could change their enrolled address, and more recently, the false claim that all states in Australia have Labor governments.


The verdict

False. Australia is not at risk of losing its sovereignty under either the proposed changes to the International Health Regulations 2005 or the Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response Accord. The measures are still in development, but early drafts explicitly protect state sovereignty in all matters of national health policy. Once finalised, both proposals will be voluntary to member states, requiring ratification to become legally binding.

01 May 2023


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