Preventing the Spread of Diseases from Vertebrate Animals to Humans – A Perspective from Environmental Law – Part II

Corona Outbreak has brought the issue of Zoonosis back into limelight. PC: www.gcn.com

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted to limit human-induced disturbances to the global climate system by seeking to achieve a stable level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Based on COP24 Special Report on Health and Climate Change, published by WHO, meeting the targets of the Paris climate agreement would be expected to save over one million lives a year from air pollution alone by 2050, according to the most recent assessment. 

The same analysis shows that the value of the health gains would be approximately twice the cost of the policies. 

While improvements in local air quality offer a means for improving human health and climate mitigation, one of the other key health benefits to be gained from mitigating climate change, is reduced zoonotic disease through improved manure management at agricultural sector.

The most effective global convention in terms of protecting ecosystem services is Convention on Biological Diversity, with its focussed approach on emphasizing the relation between ecology and human health. 

In October, 2010, the Secretariat of the Co-operation on Health and Biodiversity (COHAB) Initiative has posted four policy briefs on the theme “Biodiversity and Global Health.” According to those policy briefs of COHAB, biodiversity plays a role in the regulation and control of infectious diseases. 

The policy document highlights the fact that in recent years’ outbreaks of SARS, Ebola, Marbug, Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, avian influenza and malaria have been attributed to human impacts on biodiversity, the wildlife trade or unsustainable land use change. 

The policy also emphasizes that without a greater understanding of disease ecology, there is a risk that programmes to tackle infectious diseases may impact negatively on biodiversity, through use of biocides and other chemicals and wildlife culls.

After establishing a Committee on Trade and Environment in 1955. The WTO general council has been meticulously working to identify the relationship between trade measures and environmental measures in order to promote sustainable development.

One of the two protocols under CBD, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms (LMO) resulting from modern biotechnology. 

Therefore, an integrated approach was achieved at International forum between different relevant conventions and protocols to prevent emergence of zoonotic diseases. Specially where trade and environment are correlated.

In COP12 of Convention of Migratory Species held in Manila in October, 2017, a resolution was adopted on wildlife disease and migratory species. 

The COP recognized the high risk of transmission of wildlife diseases from livestock and/or humans to wildlife and vice versa in areas of growing conflicts over land and increasing habitat loss, especially in developing countries. 

Although, United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) does not directly address aspect of zoonosis but plays a vital role if we consider deforestation and other land use changes are contributing factors for emergence of zoonotic diseases.

Now let us look at the most talked about International Environmental Law in the context of zoonosis emergence. 

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a treaty that regulates international trade in CITES-listed specimens of animals and plants. Therefore, the concerns of the CITES Parties are focused on regulating international trade. 

CITES establishes a permitting system for the import, export, re-export and introduction for a vast number of species covered by the convention. The convention lists species according to the level of protection required and this determines what trade restrictions are to apply.

The ambit of CITES is limited to wildlife trade, not really to give directives on bio-security or environmental health. 

In a recent statement issued by CITES Secretariat on COVID 19, it was mentioned, “Matters regarding zoonotic diseases are outside of CITES’s mandate, and therefore the CITES Secretariat does not have the competence to make comments regarding the recent news on the possible links between human consumption of wild animals and COVID-19.”

CITES clarified its stand on distant itself from zoonosis issues. We also should not undermine that CITES, like many other international laws, are merely combination of principles, actions, hard and soft laws. 

These laws generally lack any institutional mechanism, as these are internationally prescribed but supposed to be practiced domestically. Enforcement and adoption of these laws are result of consensus among participatory nations.

Therefore, implementation of such laws depends largely on participatory nations’ awareness and intention to combat such environmental issues. 

This could be the reasons that in spite of having a vast number of treaties and conventions dealing with zoonosis, the UNEP Frontiers 2016 Report on emerging issues of environmental concerns, highlights lack of effective global zoonosis control programmes. 

The report recommends the ecosystem services on which the health of animals, people, and the planet depend must be restored, safeguarded, and prized.

However, if we look at the coverage of the issue of zoonosis emergence with respect to availability of number of international environment conventions and protocols, then it appears such issue can be better prevented by adequate level of ecological awareness to deal with habitat loss and degradation than by more stringent trade regulating measures.

UNEP, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and hundreds of partners across the planet are now in process of launching a 10-year effort to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. 

Known as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, this globally-coordinated response to the loss and degradation of habitats will focus on building political will and capacity to restore humankind’s relation with nature. 

It will be a direct response to the call from science, as articulated in the Special Report on Climate Change and Land of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to the decisions taken by all UN Member States in the Rio Conventions on climate change and biodiversity, and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. 

UNEP is also working with world leaders to develop a new and ambitious Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and bringing emerging issues (such as zoonotic) to the attention of decision makers.

The new decade started with a wake-up call and urgency of having an integrated environment framework protocol to restore degraded ecosystem and prevent further compromise of its integrity.

Read part I of the series here.

Arnab Basu

Arnab Basu is a Sustainability Consultant, with 15 years of experience in advising industries and institutions on sustainability governance, environment and safety performance and complaisance.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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