India's COVID Diplomacy and the UNGA Resolution on Global Health Emergency

Updated: May 16

Vasu Sharma & Ridhima Bhardwaj

Research Interns,

Internationalism.

INTRODUCTION

A Mexico drafted resolution was sponsored by 179 countries (member states) at the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, April 23, 2020. Some important elements of the resolution were:

  • Reaffirming, the right to every individual to attain the highest level of physical and mental health

  • Recognizing, that poor and most vulnerable groups will be the most affected and pandemic will have a deep impact on ‘Sustainable Developmental Goals’

  • Underscoring, ‘equitable access to health products’ should be the global priority and fundamentals to tackle pandemic will be ‘availability, accessibility, affordability and acceptability’ of quality health care products

  • Recognizing, the ‘importance of International co-operation and multilateralism’ for access and flow of vital vaccines and medicines to ‘minimize the negative effects’ and to avoid ‘relapses of pandemic’

  • Recognizing, Global response based on unity, solidarity and multilateral co-operation is required

  • Reaffirming, ‘fundamental role and crucial role’ of the United Nations and World Health Organization to combat COVID 19

  • Requesting, Secretary-General of UN to collaborate with WHO, other agencies of the UN and other private financial institutions to ‘rapidly scale up manufacturing and strengthening supply chains’ for ‘fair, transparent, equitable, efficient and timely access’ to ‘distribution of preventing tools, laboratory testing, supporting materials, new diagnostics, drugs and future vaccines’ for all nations especially the developing countries

  • Encouraging member – states, to increase ‘Research and Development for vaccines’ ‘leverage international technology’ and ‘bolster co-ordination between International Scientific Community and private stakeholders to ensure manufacturing, development and distribution of PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment), medicines and vaccines.

  • Requesting member–states to prevent any stockpiling of medicines, vaccines and other equipment and material.

India was one of the 179 countries to co-pilot the Mexican drafted resolution. Pakistan was one of the remaining countries who did not sponsor the resolution. The reason given by the Pakistani Ambassador was that resolution does not address the access to information and health care facilities to individuals who are arbitrarily deprived of their liberty, especially those in regions under foreign domination. The US did attempt to block the resolution but failed to break the silence before the deadline. Due to the outbreak, the functioning of the United Nations General Assembly has completely changed. The resolution is sent to member states and, if any member state objects the resolution before the deadline, the resolution is defeated. However, this resolution was adopted by consensus of 179 countries.

In the month of April, this is the second resolution adopted by UNGA. On April 2, 188 nations agreed (India being one of them) to a resolution which focused on the need of ‘Intensified International Co-operation to defeat Pandemic’.

FOCUS ON INTERNATIONAL CO-OPERATION AND MULTILATERALISM

The resolution does focus on the need for International Co-operation and Multilateralism to ensure fair and equitable access to medicines, vaccines, PPEs, etc. Importance of this resolution is the time at which it has been adopted. Since the outbreak, WHO has been under rigorous criticism by Trump Administration subsequently suspension of funding to WHO by the US. Soon, the G-7 countries (other than the US) took the stage and re-instilled their faith in WHO and advocated the need for global co-operation and multilateralism to tackle Pandemic. The resolution acknowledges the position of WHO still as a global leader in public health. Amidst criticism of US, 179 countries still chose to recognize the leadership of WHO.

USE OF SILENCE PROCEDURE

Silence procedure is a technique or method for decision making that is used in international political contexts. The practice is based on the Latin maxim Qui tacet consentire videtur which implies "he who is silent is taken to agree" or "silence means consent."

The UN General Assembly and the UN Economic and Social Council have both implemented a provisional decision-making mechanism as the COVID-19 pandemic impedes in-person meetings at UN Headquarters. The decision-making process is known as the "silence procedure," a variation which has already been used by the Member States to achieve informal agreement.

The UNGA adopted Decision 74/544 on 27 March 2020, entitled ‘Procedure for taking decisions of the General Assembly during the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.' The decision states 'the restrictions proposed for meetings at the United Nations premises as precautionary steps aimed at preventing COVID-19 outbreak.'

Circulating the draft resolution for ratification, UNGA President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande said that from his meetings with the General Committee of the Assembly, "it is very evident that we both accept that, under the extraordinary situations that exist, the General Assembly must be in a place to take important decisions affecting the Organization."

The UNGA President must send a draft agreement or resolution to all Member States according to a step-by-step guide on the implementation of the silence procedure, defining the deadline for raising an opposing claim and providing for at least 72 hours.


GLOBAL RESPONSE TO THE RESOLUTION

The 193-strong General Assembly resolution reaffirms the UN system's central role in organizing the global response to monitor and controlling the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and in assisting member states.

India is among the 179 nations that have signed a UN resolution to ensure equal and balanced access for all countries to vital medical services and vaccines developed to counter the novel coronavirus pandemic.

India’s permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin declared that:

"India has promoted the global availability of medicines and drugs through international alliances for cooperation and development. Also, in the wake of Covid-19, we are promoting the procurement of global supplies from multilateral agencies such as UNICEF.”

The UN Assembly acknowledged India's efforts, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, thanked India for helping other countries fight the COVID-19 pandemic. India has been sending to many nations vital medicinal products, such as anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine.

Pakistan was one among those member nations not sponsoring the resolution. It said it had some reservations regarding Mexico's draft resolution. Pakistan expresses its concerns about the resolution, as it did not provide guaranteed access to health care for individuals deprived of their rights, especially in countries under foreign occupation.

Pakistan has joined the consensus but acknowledged doubts when describing its position, saying:

However, we regret that the draft resolution could not include reference to ensure access to information, preventive and other health care for all persons arbitrarily deprived of their liberty especially those in regions under foreign occupation. Such reference would be in line with guidance issued by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and our agreed goal to leave no one behind and reach furthest behind first. We also note that the resolution does not call for assurance of adequate financial resources to developing countries to enable them to meet the enormous challenges of addressing the health emergency and preserving sociology-economic development.”

The resolution that has earned US assistance as has been the second UN text on COVID-19 pandemic to be adopted.



PREVENTION OF STOCKPILING OF VACCINES AND MEDICINES

An important proposition of resolution requests being made to member states to act under their respective legal frameworks to prevent any undue stockpiling of vaccines, medicines and other materials. Such a request is been made after several countries like Brazil, Canada, Germany and France have alleged that the US has been diverting the consignments of masks which were supposed to be delivered to them. These countries have alleged the US of hijacking the packages which were meant for them and considered this as ‘modern piracy’. The USA has been facing certain internal conflict as well regarding the distribution of masks and other health care products. In order to prevent any such conflicts in the distribution of vaccines and medicines, the resolution thus focuses on prevention of stockpiling of vaccines, medicines, etc.


COVID DIPLOMACY OF INDIA

In terms of volume, Indian Pharmaceutical Industry stands third largest in the world (in terms of volume) tenth largest (in terms of value) and is the largest generic drugs supplier in the world. To facilitate fair, transparent and equitable distribution of medicines, Indian sponsorship of such resolutions places the country at front and centre of COVID Diplomacy.

Off lately, India has been appreciated globally for the supply of Hydroxychloroquine to around 40 countries, including USA, Brazil, Israel, Mauritius, Seychelles, Bolivia, Algeria, South Africa, UAE, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Algeria, Philippines, etc. As of now, India has supplied 285 million tablets to 40 countries and gifted five million tablets to several countries. Furthermore, 500 million tablets of Paracetamol were distributed to countries, gifting 1.3 million tablets to several others.

The initial step under COVID diplomacy was reviving SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Co-operation) through establishing an emergency COVID 19 Fund for SAARC nations. A regional organization of South Asia (primarily India and its neighbour) was seen stagnant since 2016 due to escalating tensions between India and Pakistan. India had announced a ten million dollar (USD) to the emergency relief fund. Subsequently, India has supplied surgical masks, gloves, disinfectants, etc to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Through these gestures of goodwill, India has earned an important position in the International Community. Such gestures of goodwill could be seen as a fish in the pond considering the whole scenario of COVID 19, but post-pandemic can prove important to elevate the position of India in World Order.


LEGALLY NOT BOUND

Resolutions adopted by UNGA might depict the consensus of assembly on certain issues but its resolutions are not legally binding any of the member states. The mighty UNSC (United Nations Security Council) possess the power to pass a resolution which legally binds all the member states of the United Nations. Since the declaration of a pandemic, UNSC has not passed or adopted any declaration or resolution which could bind member states. The fresh challenge which the United Nations will face will be the election of five non-permanent members to the Security Council, which may or may not have any special influence of this vote affirmed.

CONCLUSION

Trump Administration found itself in isolation when in virtual meet of G-7 nations, Japan, Canada, Italy, France, United Kingdom and Germany chose to refuse the freezing of funding, a harsh measure taken by Trump Administration to advocate the criticism of WHO. Again, the United States found itself in the same position when it was unable to block Mexico drafted resolution in UNGA.

Regardless of previous allegations of mishandling, WHO is aiming to prove itself as a global leader in public health. Moreover, with the testing of vaccines being commenced, the implementation of international health regulations is the need of the hour. There have been swift conflicts between the US and China overpricing of vaccines and copyright of vaccines when the testing had just commenced. Hence a watchdog over distribution vaccines and medicines could prove to be an important aspect to tackle pandemic and ensure the right to live to all individuals. An important proposition of resolution was recognizing the right of every individual to attain the highest level of physical and mental health.

Although pandemic will affect developing nations and growing economies, India would have an opportunity to set up a model of development and leadership in Asia due to the medical supplies it has been providing along with ASEAN states.

Global Co-operation of the international community and multilateralism are contradictory to the protectionist measures led by the USA under Trump. It would be therefore important to observe, amidst the declarations and promises made in the name of multilateralism and international co-operation over what will the international community stand for.



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