The world is learning, in a truly frightening fashion, just why the World Health Organization (WHO) is so vital to the health of humanity. The WHO is the United Nations agency that works on many critical health issues, but the most important at the moment, of course, is its response to epidemics and pandemics, such as the coronavirus that the world is currently experiencing. Through expertise in combating infectious disease, the WHO can help to prevent or at least try to mitigate the spread of these illnesses. It is in some ways the U.N. as it should be—countries pooling resources and working together to address global emergencies.
But, there is a danger that the WHO could fall into the same trap that has plagued much of the U.N. system: politicization. It has flirted with doing so before, and—thankfully—pulled back, but we now can see clearly why that was flirting with disaster.
After UNESCO illegitimately recognized the Palestinian delegation as a “member state” in 2011, there was some noise about continuing to push this internationalization strategy and looking for similar recognition at other U.N. agencies, of which WHO is one. However, many countries did not take sufficiently into account (or did not care) what this status at UNESCO actually meant. The United States was forced by law to swiftly de-fund UNESCO for bestowing member state status upon a country that does not exist.
This de-funding was no small matter. The U.S. paid in about a quarter of UNESCO’s budget, leaving a huge hole. Once the Palestinians became members, they set on a path of politicizing the work of UNESCO through passing ludicrous resolutions—thanks to the automatic majority that the Palestinians enjoy—that sought to claim the Kotel as a Muslim site, or accused Jews of planting “fake Jewish graves” in a cemetery. These resolutions left the organization’s reputation in tatters, and it has still yet to recover. The U.S. and Israel have left completely, and the best the organization can seem to do is not pass any additional outrageous resolutions on the Middle East…for now.
If there was a silver lining in the tragedy of what has become of UNESCO, it is that the threat posed by the Palestinian internationalization agenda was exposed. Many countries did not want to see what happened to UNESCO repeated at other, more critical, agencies. The Americans and others put pressure on the Palestinians not to continue down this path. The results of this are mixed—the WHO and other agencies have so far been mostly spared, but the Palestinians decided instead to pursue member state status at the U.N. itself. In 2012, the General Assembly granted them “observer state” status, which allowed them to accede to international conventions, including the Rome Statute. We are in the midst of seeing the consequences of that vote now at the International Criminal Court.
Though the membership issue has not come up at the WHO, there are still politicization issues at play, not necessarily as much within the bureaucracy of the WHO itself, but in the World Health Assembly (WHA), which is the decision making body of the WHO. Since the WHA is made up of member states’ representatives, there is always the possibility for trouble, as often happens at the U.N. And we have seen this at the WHA, where Israel has been singled out yearly for an absurd stand-alone resolution. The next session of the WHA is set for the end of May, and there is no news yet on whether this will be held then or, as so much else in the U.N. system currently, postponed to an undetermined date.
Now is not the time for politics. It is a time for unity in fighting this deadly disease. That is the only thing that the WHO should be concerned about at this moment. But this moment shall pass and humanity will beat back this virus, in no small part thanks to the efforts of the WHO. What needs to be remembered once that happens (and that day cannot come soon enough) is the basic need that all of humanity has to have a WHO that is devoid of politics: a health bureaucracy that has a strong reputation and does not take absurd political positions forced upon it by some member states.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
This week, the World Health Assembly (WHA), the U.N. body overseeing the work of the better-known World Health Organization (WHO), voted on yet another resolution targeting Israel. Let the complete absurdity of the situation sink in: Israel, a leader in the medical field, which provides medical aid throughout the world, likely including in countries that shamefully voted in favor of the resolution, was singled out for scrutiny.
No other state was on the agenda; there were also no other WHO reports on a specific conflict situation. Not even Syria received this kind of attention—and the Assad regime has been bombing hospitals this year as part of its ongoing military campaign/humanitarian catastrophe.
At last year’s WHA, the European Union states voted en masse for the anti-Israel resolution saying it was technical in nature. Even if this were true—and it was laughably false—the very nature of having only one country-specific resolution, and having that resolution attack the sole democracy and medical leader in the Middle East region, is inherently political. More to the point, it is a symptom of the dangerous selectivity and special standards that apply only to the Jewish state at the U.N.
This year’s resolution is more bare boned than resolutions from past years, but the main problem persists, and is a grave threat to the credibility of the WHO. After this year’s vote, in which most of the EU states again voted in favor (with the notable exception of the United Kingdom voting against and abstentions by Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary), the German delegate made a statement on behalf of some of the European states that voted in favor urging the Israelis and Palestinians to work together on a text that could reach consensus. That request is bizarre and insulting—asking Israel to participate in a process where the designated end goal is a resolution that again perpetuates the singling out of the Jewish state.
The question that those that care about world health must ask is: Does the WHO/WHA want to go down the road of other politicized agencies at the U.N.?
We have seen this before, most notably at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), two agencies so well-known for being mired in obsession with Israel (UNHRC) and/or denying the history of the Jewish people (UNESCO), that the work of the entire organization is under threat of becoming delegitimized.
And, while human rights and preservation of history and culture are a vital part of our human existence, these two agencies have been problematic for a while now. The UNHRC, which has always had a special agenda item solely dedicated to attacks on Israel, was a politicized body from its birth over a decade ago. UNESCO has also had its own share of issues before. The United States stopped paying dues after UNESCO allowed a still-not-existent Palestinian state to join as a full-fledged member state, and the U.S. also refused to be a member of the organization for a long stretch of time due to what was a notoriously anti-American orientation at UNESCO in the 1980s.
The WHO, though, should be different. It must be above petty political attacks because millions of lives are at risk. We all need the WHO to improve lives and to stop the spread of communicable diseases before they become epidemics or global pandemics. Instead, the WHA stopped everything to engage in an hours-long session of speaker after speaker (mostly from dictatorships with appalling human rights records and health situations) bashing Israel. Does anyone aside from the Palestinian representatives and their allies in states hostile to Israel believe that this is the best use of the time of an expert health body?
After the vote at the WHA, the representative of the United Kingdom put it best by saying, “If we politicize the WHO, we do so at our peril.” Sadly, only six other member states had the fortitude to stand up to this politicization by voting against the resolution: Australia, Canada Guatemala, Israel, Togo and the United States.
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