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.
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