Service du droit pour le développement

The new Political Declaration of the United Nations General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response. A landmark recognizing One Health in International Law?


On 20 September 2023, during the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), Members adopted a new Political Declaration on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response (PPPR). This landmark Declaration was approved in the context of the United Nations (UN) High-Level Meeting on PPPR with the theme “Making the world safer: creating and maintaining political momentum and solidarity for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response”.

The UNGA Declaration openly recognizes One Health as a fundamental and necessary approach to PPPR and emphasizes the importance of fostering cooperation between the human, animal and plant health sectors, and the environment (point 19). Members recognize that achieving public health goals, and addressing the drivers of pandemics requires more than just the efforts of public health authorities. It necessitates broader coordination at both, national and international levels (point 68). In the Declaration, One Health is considered relevant not only for preventing the occurrence and spread of diseases, but also for enabling comprehensive diagnostics and addressing outbreaks across animals, the environment, and humans during inter-pandemic and pandemic periods (point 69). Through this recognition, Members are sending a clear message to the WHO INB that One Health is an essential component of all stages of PPPR, and not only prevention.

The meeting took place alongside two significant legal processes within the World Health Organization (WHO): the revision of the International Health Regulations (IHR), and the development of a new convention, agreement, or other international instrument under the Constitution of the WHO to strengthen PPPR (hereinafter, the Pandemic Accord). The development of the draft Pandemic Accord began in December 2021 with the establishment of an intergovernmental negotiating body (INB). Since then, the INB has held six different rounds of discussions, including a recent round of informal meetings around selected articles in September 2023. The INB has also appointed a Bureau which has so far produced three draft versions of the Accord.

The latest version, released on 16 October 2023, recognises One Health in the Preamble and incorporates the One Health High-Level Expert Panel (OHHLEP) definition and includes a specific Article on One Health. In this Article 5, Parties commit to “promote and implement a One Health approach for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response that is coherent, integrated, coordinated and collaborative among all relevant actors”. Through its five paragraphs, countries agree, among other issues, to identify and address the drivers of pandemics and the emergence of disease at the human-animal-environment interface, and to develop international norms to prevent zoonoses. However, in contrast with the previous version, this draft no longer contains a reference to One Health in the article on General Principles and Approaches, thus potentially hindering the recognition of a One Health approach in other provisions of the Agreement.

The effectiveness of this draft Agreement’s references to One Health in addressing countries’ concerns about practical obligations and commitments remains uncertain.

In this regard, while it can be argued that One Health remains a concept with some fluidity, its definition and core principles, formulated by the One Health High-Level Experts Panel (OHHLEP) in early 2022, brought clarity to its scope and expected impact on national administrations. One Health is defined as an approach to health matters that encompasses not only humans, but also other species that share our common habitat and that requires coordination and collaboration across sectors. Indeed, the actual implementation of this approach may require coordination mechanisms at the national level that enable joint interventions. Such mechanisms shall be tailored to a country’s constitutional framework, priorities, and available resources. Moreover, there is abundant literature demonstrating the substantial return on investment for shared and coordinated interventions under a One Health approach.

From a regulatory perspective, one might argue that this approach resembles the environmental principle of integration, which is enshrined in various international law instruments and considered by various scholars as a well-rooted jus cogens norm (see, among others, Sands, 2018). One Health could be viewed as a progression along the path of integration, where complexity, diverse objectives, and varied policy actions are intrinsically interdependent and must be all considered collectively, much as solving a Rubik's cube. As such, One Health could be seen as emphasizing the need to extend comprehensive integrated approaches found in international environmental law into new legal domains such as health and agriculture law.

The incorporation of One Health into the UNGA Political Declaration has paved the way for its inclusion in the Pandemic Accord. This is a significant opportunity for this approach to gain proper recognition and be enshrined within a binding international legal instrument, potentially leading to the emergence of One Health as a new principle or approach for future instruments and interpretations of international law.

                                                                                                                                                                 Carmen Bullon (FAO)