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Developing international standards in the field of animal health and welfare: a mission at the core of the OIE's mandate

Throughout history, movements of animals and animal products, whether for trade purposes or when livestock are moved during transhumance, have always been a source of disease spread. At a time when rinderpest was spreading around the world like wildfire along trading routes, the OIE's founding countries decided to join forces to establish international sanitary rules that, when correctly applied, would minimize risks to public or animal health from trade in animals and products from animal origin. Coupled with a requirement for Member Countries to notify sanitary events observed on their territory, this mandate given to the OIE continues to be a major pilar of the Organisation.

In 1995, this mission aquired new legal force when OIE standards were formally recognized in the World Trade Organization's Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) as the reference in the field of animal health, thereby significantly increasing the OIE's responsibility. Given that trade disputes arising from the application of arbitrary or unjustified sanitary barriers can have far-reaching socioeconomic consequences in a global market, confidence in the quality of the OIE's intergovernmental standards is of the utermost importance and the Organisation's credibility is a value that must be protected by complying with the intangible principles of scientific excelence, procedural rigour and transparency.

For this reason, the OIE, within the framework of the Basic Rexts currently in force, is embarking on a programme to modernise its work methods and procedures in the following main areas.

The selection of experts, first and foremost. In accordance with the OIE's Basic Texts, standards are developed by independent experts selected for their scientific competencies and taking into account a balanced geographical representation. Experts who are members of one of the four Specialist Commisions are elected by the World Assembly of Delegates meeting in General Session. As is the case with other major international organisations and leading scientific bodies, it is incumbent on the OIE to have a written procedure that explicitly describes each of the stages, from the call for candidatures to the preselection of candidates, prior to their candidatures being submitted to a vote of the Assembly. A proposal to this effect will be tabled at the General Session in May 2017 with a view to preparing the next elections, to be held in May 2018.

Harmonised, transparent work procedures for the four Specialist Commissions will also be established. These procedures will also serve as a reference for the functioning of the Working Groups and ad hoc Groups. Thus, the existing arrangements for dealing with the comments received from Delegates and for monitoring declarations of confidentiality and any conflicts of interest will be reviewed, along with the the rules governing the drafting of meeting reports. Clearly, even though a consensus prevails when the conclusions are adopted, an overview of the discussions, any areas of scientific uncertainty and the way minority views have been taken into account are all useful sources of information that should be brought to the attention of Delegates and other stakeholders invited to comment on the drafts standards prior to their adoption.

Lastly, professionalised training for the secretariats will be instituted. In addition to their logistical and adminiistrative role, the secretariats for the Commissions and Groups of experts must also be capable of providing scientific support and playing a greater part in the preparation of dossiers prior to their submission to the experts for examination. This is particularly the case with processing of applications for recognition of official disease status, where each dossier requires lengthy analysis. The increasingly heavy agendas for the meetings of the Commissions, Working Groups and ad hoc Groups have become difficult to manage and alternative working methods must now be envisaged.

Strengthening the secretariats by making them into fully-fledged scientific secretariats is an option that will be deployed by setting up a suitably adapted training programme for the OIE staff members involved. The distribution of tasks will be determined in consultation with the Presidents of the commissions and Groups, to ensure that the expertise meets the criteria of the independence and neutrality.

While the developement of sanitary standards is a key mission of the OIE, the Organisation cannot disregard the conditions under which they are applied by the Veterinary Services of Member Countries. The lessons learned from the findings of panels convened in recent years are highly informative as to the consequences of incorrectly interpreting or inappropriatly applying OIE standards.1

For almost ten years, with the aim of improving sanitary governance, the OIE has been offering its Member Countries a programme designed to help them improve and strengthen their efficiency by bringing their national Veterinary Services into line with standards of quality. Nearly 130 countries have already embarked on this programme, known as the ‘PVS Pathway’. The tool used evaluates 47 critical competencies, one being the level of Veterinary Services’ involvement in commenting on OIE draft standards prior to their being submitted for approval to the World Assembly of Delegates.

Improving the level of Member Countries’ contribution when they are consulted on draft standards implies improving their understanding of the standards and the underlying concepts. This should also help to ensure that standards are correctly applied so that trade is regulated in a manner proportionate to the sanitary
risks involved.

The OIE is therefore currently developing a special programme of training and information for Delegates and their staff in charge of regulating international trade: this will include organising practical workshops, developing communication tools, preparing documentation and drafting articles. This programme will signifi cantly complement previous actions in this field, such as the information notes available on the OIE website2.

On the strength of its history and the outcomes of actions undertaken in recent years, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) has gained undisputed recognition on the international scene. I take very great pride in these achievements and it is now my responsibility to implement the changes that will safeguard the image of the OIE. This is the aim of the proposals that will be formally presented to the Assembly at the 84th General Session in May 2016.

Monique Éloit
Director General

[1] See article by Dr Sarah Kahn in the Bulletin 2016-2 (pp. 82-93)
[2] International trade: Rights and obligations of OIE Members