May 18, 2021, 3:17 p.m.
US President Joe Biden made the right decision for the United States to continue serving in the World Health Organization (WHO) and reversing former US President Donald Trump’s misguided plan to withdraw from the global health panel. This diplomatic U-turn provides Washington with an important platform to advocate for improved global health standards – as well as increased accountability to China and other WHO members with a history of rogue behavior that has exacerbated the spread of pandemics. The move also enables Washington to lead a multilateral movement aimed at streamlining WHO’s sprawling operations and core functions, which have deviated significantly from the organization’s original mandate.
That’s the good news.
The downside is that China and Russia are already undermining efforts to restore WHO’s international credibility. This includes joining forces to derail a European Union-led proposal to address the organization’s malfunctioning response to pandemics by strengthening internal accountability and putting in place institutional guard rails to neutralize disinformation about pandemics. The EU proposal, to be discussed during the WHO’s annual agenda-setting meeting on May 24th, also provides for a fixed timetable for the publication of the WHO’s final report on the emergence and initial spread of the COVID-19 virus , a topic of great interest not only to the Biden administration.
If history is a guide, there is a long way to go to reach consensus among the 194 members of WHO on any of the reforms proposed by the EU. What’s worse, Washington’s notable absence from the ongoing discussions about WHO reform, as well as its failure to appoint a US representative to the organization’s board of directors, is not a good sign of a short-term diplomatic breakthrough. Since the clock counts down quickly until the meeting at the end of May, the Biden administration has to regroup – and quickly. It must also be recognized that the path to reform of the WHO does not lead via Beijing, Moscow or even Geneva, where the WHO is based, but via Washington, where Biden enjoys broad support from both parties, for the illiberal takeover of the United Nations through China counteract its various specialized agencies such as the WHO.
But first, a painful WHO history lesson.
The devastation caused by China’s COVID-19 playbook is all too familiar to those who witnessed the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in the early 2000s. Although China’s SARS cover-up was ultimately exposed by a whistleblower, Chinese authorities largely succeeded in preventing WHO teams from visiting outbreak sites in China. The Chinese government’s propaganda machine also wasted little time launching an extensive disinformation campaign to cover up the true origins of the virus. SARS is a US bioweapon. It was only when the WHO Director General, Gro Harlem Brundtland, issued a public reprimand against China’s stone walls that Beijing finally moved.
The deadly SARS outbreak resulted in the ratification of the International Health Ordinance of 2005, which required WHO member states to set up national pandemic monitoring systems to detect acute outbreaks and report them to WHO “in a timely manner”. The problem is that regulations are based entirely on voluntary compliance. WHO lacks a compulsory dispute settlement mechanism that can force Member States to comply with their obligations.
The same restrictions and the WHO’s history of prioritizing political sensitivities over medical and technical needs were also evident during the 2014 Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. Then, just like with COVID-19, it took the WHO several weeks to declare an official outbreak, despite ample evidence of spiraling case numbers. Subsequently, an independent panel proposed major reforms to WHO to help rebuild the organization, including a drastic reduction in WHO’s extensive scope of activity to focus on its core mission. After reviewing leaked WHO emails, the panel also accused the organization of failing to report an outbreak for fear of political opposition from African leaders. Almost all of the reforms recommended by the panel remain unrealized.
It is notoriously difficult to enforce even the most explicit and straightforward international treaties. What’s worse, as in the case of the World Trade Organization, it can take years or decades to negotiate a new international agreement to solve seemingly innocuous problems like fishing. Spoilers like the governments of China, Russia and Syria almost always find ways to arm loopholes or unilaterally reinterpret the language by tying former diplomats like me in knots. Although ideas to revise the 2005 international health regulations and modernize WHO have been shared and the EU reform proposal will be up for discussion, Washington and its allies need not hold their breath and wait for an unlikely deal – or the next pandemic – before they do collective measures are taken.
For starters, China’s illiberal, aggressive behavior almost depleted the recent meeting of G7 foreign ministers. Earlier pro-Chinese holdovers like Germany and France have taken up much of Washington’s rhetoric regarding Beijing, as evidenced by Europe’s decision to impose sanctions for genocidal treatment of Uighur Muslims and China’s hostile takeover of Hong Kong.
Coordinated sanctions, while imperfect, are a geoeconomic tool that has so far not been considered in discussions in the US and Europe about holding Beijing accountable for its COVID-19 deceptions. These were particularly egregious in the early stages of the outbreak, when they may still have been contained. With sanctions against China now broken in Brussels, it is time for Washington to recommend that the G-7 put in place a framework for the first global health sanctions to punish countries that violate their obligations under the 2005 international health regulations. This could include retrospective designations from countries determined to mislead WHO investigators.
Surprisingly, WHO member states have also rarely used their financial contributions to promote institutional change. Because WHO’s funding structure allows member states to target their voluntary contributions to specific programs, governments are well positioned to better control the organization’s workload. Without hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the United States and its allies, redundant and in some cases fraudulent WHO programs will cease to exist. WHO’s history of wasteful spending extends to its management, which in 2019 spent more on business travel and hotel rooms than the organization’s budgets on AIDS ($ 71 million), tuberculosis ($ 59 million) and malaria ($ 61 million) Million USD) together.
Rather than leaving the executive to decide how US funds can and should be spent on WHO, it is time for US Congress to come into play. Legislators must take advice from public health experts to identify which WHO programs are a good return on taxpayers’ investment and suggest ways to increase transparency and accountability across the company. For example, Congress should fund a review of the organization’s documented culture to discourage open debates on sensitive issues, such as: B. When and how to report a public health emergency with a viral outbreak. Aligning funds with other Member States, in particular with democracies in Europe and elsewhere, would significantly increase donor leverage over the level of WHO work. Done right, this would lead to a renewed emphasis on pandemic prevention, not politics.
Washington also needs to take a more forceful position on the WHO’s deeply flawed investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Just as Washington called for an independent investigation into Iraq’s infamous United Nations oil-for-food program, the von Biden government and Congress should urge the United Nations internal auditor, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, to conduct an early investigation by WHO initiate decision-making about the pandemic and China’s mismanagement of the outbreak. Due to the independent mandate of the oversight bureau, which is isolated from the UN Security Council, neither China nor Russia are in a position to interfere in its work.
Finally, Washington should make it clear to WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that any hope of gaining the necessary US support for his upcoming re-election depends on strengthening the role of WHO in Taiwan. This is something he has the power to do and what his predecessors did several times. Such a move would be an important step in neutralizing Beijing’s efforts to rule out Taiwanese overarching participation in the United Nations. This would also signal the director general’s interest in restoring his credibility with the organization’s top funder.
With so many countries still affected by the COVID-19 nightmare, Washington and its partners can only make sure the world is better prepared for the next pandemic. Biden’s vow to “rebuild better” should begin with the WHO.