Caleb Otto – Farewell, Valiant Warrior!

International tobacco control has lost a valiant warrior – Ambassador Caleb Otto passed away in Palau. Anyone involved in international efforts against tobacco industry interference, especially in getting Article 5.3 into the WHO FCTC and its guidelines passed, would know the instrumental role Caleb played.

About the tobacco industry he said, “Just the mere raising of their opposition to a measure proposed by the Government to protect its people’s health is, in itself, interfering with public health policy.”

Some of us were privileged to see him in action in addressing and countering TI interference in the negotiations of the WHO FCTC, to insert the text on Article 5.3, and to develop the guidelines in the early years of the Conference of the Parties (COP).

Size did not matter to Caleb who was often the lone representative of a tiny Pacific country with 22,000 population. This was especially vivid when a certain large country tried to push its position by flexing its ‘1.3 billion-population-sized muscle’ during negotiations. To Caleb, every single life was precious, and we need to do our best to protect it.

He often spoke-up on behalf of the small nations that could send only 1-member delegation to the negotiations. He was brave in calling out the tobacco industry and those who spoke on its behalf:

I remember thinking of how geographically, economically and politically insignificant we were, as Pacific islands, in these negotiations, while I was sitting between the ambassadors of two other large countries, both advocating for ‘trade over health’. But one statement kept running through my mind: ‘Who are these men … ambassadors, powerful politicians, corporate presidents, government officials, etc. Who are these men, that they should have so much power over the lives of our people?’

So, when these ambassadors argued for ‘trade over health’, I and other like-minded participants spoke for ‘people over profit’. In the end, our position won out. The rest is history. This scene will stay with me always to encourage me to be fearless and to speak up even when powerful people try to make things tough.” [History of the WHO FCTC  Pg. 23]

In 2009, SEATCA was privileged to have Caleb as a resource person in our Article 5.3 workshop in Bangkok, and together with other champions, Dr Prakit Vathesatogkit (Thailand) and Atty. Alex Padilla (Philippines), partners planned how to tackle industry interference in the region and globally.

Caleb also represented the Western Pacific region in the Bureau of COP3 and COP4, and he stood up for civil society’s active participation in the COP. He shared the views of civil society and articulated them persuasively.

In 2013, Caleb was appointed as Palau’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and worked to get mental health issues included in the sustainable development goals.

We will miss you, Caleb! You fought the tobacco war and your legacy will live on in our lives as we continue in your fearless footsteps to take-on the tobacco industry.

Farewell, valiant warrior!