Speech at the 48th Plenary Session of The Interparliamentary Assembly of Member Nations of the Commonwealth of Independent States (IPA CIS)

Honourable parliamentarians, Your excellencies,

Ladies and gentlemen, friends and colleagues,

Thank you for the invitation to come and speak to you today.

The World Health Organization was founded on the principle that health is a fundamental human right for all people, not a privilege for some. That principle is as true today as it was 70 years ago when WHO was established. As stated in the WHO Constitution, “Governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures”.

Political will and political leadership are crucial to achieving improved health and well-being for all – which is our goal as an organization, and which we aim to achieve in the European Region through the implementation of Health 2020, the European policy and strategic framework for health and well-being, and the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Parliamentarians are so important for creating the legal environment in which health can flourish – not only in terms of the provision of health services, but also by influencing the social, environmental and economic determinants of health, from working conditions to urban planning, transport infrastructure, sanitation, and so on.

As parliamentarians, you wield enormous power to improve the health of millions. You have both the authority and the responsibility to promote the highest standards of health and well-being for your people, through your roles in legislation, oversight and accountability, budgeting and advocacy.
Strong laws are essential for protecting and promoting the right to health, as well as ensuring equity, quality, efficiency and accountability in areas such as access to health services, tackling climate change and air pollution, ensuring clean water and sanitation, and making it easier for people to make healthy choices by taxing tobacco and other harmful products.

The right to health depends on regulatory authorities that keep food and medicines safe and protect populations from exposure to harmful chemicals. This right also depends on legislation and its enforcement in multiple other ways: legislation can protect against discrimination and exclusion and can help ensure that all people have equal opportunities to enjoy the highest attainable level of health. Laws help ensure that people with a physical or mental disability are not deprived of their liberty or legal capacity.

As parliamentarians, you have a key role to play in making choices in these areas, and in ensuring that health-related laws and policies, as well as their implementation, are informed by robust evidence. Your ability to write and pass laws, and to allocate the financial resources to implement them, puts you in a central position to move the global agenda forward.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Laws and policies must be informed by the best available evidence. We have more scientific and research evidence available to us than at any time in history. And yet the gap between evidence and policy seems to be wider than ever.

WHO, with our expertise in public and international health, can help. Our job is to convene the best experts and synthesize the best evidence to enable parliaments to make the best decisions.

One obvious example is the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, to which all CIS countries are Party. The Convention is one of the best defences we have against tobacco and the industry which promotes it. The Convention was built on years of work to obtain and promote evidence of the harm of tobacco use and ways to prevent such harm, in the face of obfuscation by the tobacco industry. However, for it to have maximum impact on reducing tobacco use and mortality, the Convention must be fully implemented.

One of the priorities in this endeavour is to stop the illegal trade of tobacco. The illicit trade undermines tobacco control, reduces government revenue and fosters organized crime. The Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products was adopted in 2012 and entered into force in September 2018. As of today, more than 50 countries globally have ratified the Protocol, although, unfortunately no CIS country has yet done so.

WHO has also issued evidence-based guidance on legislation that can reduce the harmful use of alcohol and protect children from the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages. WHO has developed other instruments and mechanisms that contribute to fair access to care and thus underpin the right to health, most notably by making pharmaceutical products more affordable.

The WHO Regional Office for Europe is committed to strengthening regional cooperation in response to countries’ needs by providing direct technical assistance, as well as policy support through regional platforms like the Interparliamentary Assembly.

Regular cooperation by the Regional Office with the IPA started in 2016, with attendance at the IPA’s statutory and expert meetings and the preparation, at the same time, of a memorandum of understanding on broader cooperation that was signed in March 2018. The purpose of this memorandum of understanding is to provide a framework for the joint efforts of the IPA and the Regional Office in promoting the public health legislation and policies of Member Nations of the IPA. It includes a range of areas for cooperation, including, notably, WHO’s technical assistance in preparing and localizing, when appropriate, model laws relevant to health.

I would like to commend the efforts by the IPA CIS on law-making in relation to health. The IPA CIS has already adopted several relevant model laws in recent years.

I’m pleased that this year the IPA CIS is addressing the needs of children, migrants, refugees and other vulnerable groups by developing a migration code for CIS States and models laws, including laws on mental health, children’s right to health, and refugees’ health. WHO stands ready assist with the finalization of model laws that are currently under development.

But while I want to take the opportunity to thank you for this leadership, I would also like to call on you to make further efforts.

First, the IPA CIS and the Regional Office should step up joint efforts to identify and provide relevant information to decision-makers in public health at the national, regional and international levels. We should review and facilitate, when appropriate, the localization of relevant model laws already adopted in recent years. We must work together to turn these existing model laws into concrete action and tangible gains for the people of the CIS.

Second, I encourage you to work with WHO on new model laws in areas of special importance for the CIS; for example, in ensuring universal health coverage and health security. Universal health coverage means so much more than health insurance. It means that people can access high-quality health services, when and where they need them. But an often-overlooked fact is that universal health coverage requires a strong legal framework. We need laws and policies to ensure that people can access health services without worrying about whether they can afford to pay for them. We need laws and policies that help to protect people from outbreaks and other health emergencies. Legislation is one of the best ways to confer population-wide protection against threats to health.

Finally, I urge you to promote the ratification of international treaties such as the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products by national parliaments of the CIS. The “legal” tobacco industry is bad enough. But the illicit trade of tobacco products creates a shadowy market that not only destroys health; it fuels organized crime and deprives governments of tax revenues. I am seeking your partnership to raise awareness of the Protocol among the CIS countries and their decision-makers and to encourage national parliaments in the CIS to ratify the Protocol. This will be very helpful in ensuring the strengthening of the international community’s actions against the tobacco epidemic.

It is time to translate those commitments into local action, country by country, parliament by parliament, law by law.

I look forward to productive cooperation in the nearest future.

Thank you!