The WHO and the myth of neutrality 

 

In recent weeks, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has probably received its greatest media exposure since its inception in 1948. However, as much of this has taken the form of criticism of its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, this attention will likely have been less than welcome. 

The organisation is clearly feeling embattled, and its director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (referred to as Dr. Tedros in UN communications) has been hitting back. Calling for unity, he asked critics to “quarantine politicising COVID”. Otherwise, he said, “we will have many body bags in front of us.” 

Yet the reality is the WHO has been politicising its own work for decades, and this is most clear from its long record of discriminatory and factually dubious treatment of Israeli-Palestinian questions.  

The Neutrality Myth 

The perception of the WHO as neutral gives it a rare cachet amongst global agencies. However, it is naïve to think that it, unlike all other UNaffiliated bodies, has not already been politicised by its member states and hampered by disunity. The conflict over China and Taiwan at the WHO, with its negative repercussions in the current world health crisis, shows us that. 

The threat by US President Donald Trump to cut funding to the WHO attracted widespread criticism, including by the Sydney Morning Herald which editorialised that “as a neutral international agency [the WHO] can defuse the politics of co-ordinating medical research between China and the rest of the world.”  

This image of itself as a unifying, non-partisan player is one the WHO likes to cultivate. On March 11, in response to a journalist’s invitation to name and shame countries that were not doing enough to combat the coronavirus, the WHO’s executive director of Health Emergencies Program Dr Mike Ryan, insisted “the WHO doesn’t interact in public debate or criticise our member states in public.”  

In April, Dr. Tedros invoked global solidarity and an image of the US and former Soviet Union joining together in the Cold War era to work on eradicating smallpox”, before encouraging the US and China to do likewise in fighting the “dangerous enemy” of COVID-19, and warning that more people would die “without a common united front”. He dismissed the notion that his organisation has become “China-centric” we are close to every nation, we are colourblind”, he said. 

WHO’s anti-Israel record 

This would be news to Israel, the one country that the WHO singles out each year for condemnation, mirroring the notorious Agenda item 7 of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), by which Israel’s human rights record must be debated at every session, the only country to have such a dedicated agenda item. 

The WHO has six regional offices. Israel had always felt it should belong in the Eastern Mediterranean region (EMRO), where it was a more natural geographical fit than many other of that group’s members. In 1985 however, after decades of effective exclusion by EMRO’s Arab members, Israel applied for and was granted membership in the European region.  

However, EMRO does include the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. 

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) recently issued a detailed article analysing EMRO’s work, which it describes as “overtly partisan”. The disputed land of the West Bank and Gaza is always referred to collectively as “Occupied Palestinian Territories” by EMRO, and its various reports and strategic documents operate in a historical vacuum that absolves the Palestinian leadership of all responsibility and blames Israel for all shortcomings in Palestinian healthcare. 

Relying on information provided by, for example, officials of Hamas, a terrorist organisation actively seeking Israel’s destruction, reflects poorly on WHO and testifies to its lack of impartiality and credibility, the story notes. With the WHO’s imprimatur, EMRO is a “disseminator of crude anti-Israel propaganda” which is in turn cited by other agencies such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, CAMERA has found. 

This behaviour is not just playing out in a corner of the world in a WHO branch office, with a wink and nod to local sensibilities. The World Health Assembly (WHA), WHO’s central decision-making body, is also complicit. The WHA’s 194 members meet once a year in Geneva to decide the organisation’s work program, budget and major policy questions. In its packed program, WHA nevertheless finds time each and every year to pass a resolution concerning “health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan”, as well as the funding of a report about alleged Israeli violations of Palestinian health-related rights. Needless to say, this relentless solicitude for the health of Palestinians is code for Israel-bashing. No other country is ever the subject of any condemnatory WHO resolution, yet Israel is singled out for demonisation annually.  

In this way, WHO allows Israel’s enemies an international platform on which to exploit the essential and global issue of human health for political propaganda. 

These resolutions play out in a historical context-free zone. An overtly political example, the resolution presented at the 65th WHA in 2012, demanded amongst other things “that Israel, the occupying power … immediately put an end to the closure of the occupied Palestinian territory, particularly the closure of the crossing points of the occupied Gaza Strip that is causing the serious shortage of medicines and medical supplies therein [and] abandon its policies and measures that have led to the prevailing dire health conditions. It also urged member states, intergovernmental organisations and NGOs “to call upon the international community to exert pressure on the Government of Israel to lift the siege imposed on the occupied Gaza Strip” and so on.  

A Palestinian health ministry annex to the resolution referred to the “enduring stranglehold of the Israeli blockade”, and “the apartheid wall that dismembers Palestinian territories and isolates them from the rest of the world”, which contribute to making life miserable for all Palestinians. 

Historical realities airbrushed out of this picture include the fact that Gaza had not been occupied by Israel for 15 years, but governed by Hamas; that essential medical supplies are not subject to the blockade (with some very rare exceptions for dual-use goods); and that the imposition of the blockade and the construction of the separation barrier are responses aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on Israel from the Palestinian territories. 

Indeed, the effect on the physical and mental health of Israelis of terrorist attacks by Palestinians and by the launching of tens of thousands of missiles from Gaza appears to be a subject of no concern to WHO. 

Golan Grotesqueries 

For grotesque hypocrisy, however, it is difficult to surpass the submission from the Syrian health ministry, which states: “Oppressed by the Zionist occupation, the population in the occupied Syrian Golan territories is still suffering from many health problems, while preferring the citizenship of their Syrian homeland and rejecting Israeli identity. In addition, the agony experienced by the Arab Syrian population in the occupied Syrian Golan as a result of the practices of the Israeli occupation authorities, cannot be ignored and runs counter to the population’s basic right of access to essential health care. 

This document, similar in content to later Syrian submissions accepted as annexes by the WHA, is dated April 2012, a year after the commencement of the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian government’s true feelings for the welfare of its people can be gauged by its willingness to subject them to gross human rights abuses, including chemical weapons attacks, in the course of a war still raging, that has cost hundreds of thousands of Syrians their lives, and made refugees of millions more. 

Syria’s submission is clearly a blatantly political exercise motivated by its rejection of Israel’s continuing presence in the strategic region it captured in the Six-Day War. Israel’s health ministry countered that the health situation of residents in the Golan, whether Druze or Jewish, was identical to the rest of the country with full access to hospitals, and that no claims or complaints had been received from the Druze population in this regard. 

It also pointed out, fruitlessly, that “the Health Assembly is not the forum to discuss the narrative of an ongoing conflict, nor the place to decide on political matters.” 

More anti-Israeli slurs 

Another example is the WHA 69th assembly in 2016. That year’s Palestinian annex to the anti-Israel resolution repeatedly used words such asapartheid, “racist” and “shocking”. Like all such submissions, multiple mentions of Gaza and “blockade” somehow included zero references to Hamas, which actually runs healthcare in Gaza. It noted that “traffic accidents cause numerous deaths and injury-related disabilities in Palestine,” 85% of which are due to human error –  yet it tried to lay blame on Israel for accidents occurring outside Palestinian towns and cities, saying these are due to “Palestinians’ fear” of Israeli settlers or “occupation forces”. 

That same year’s Syrian health ministry submission included amongst its fabrications antisemitic tropes such as,The Israeli occupation authorities continue to experiment on Syrian and Arab prisoners with medicines and drugs and to inject them with pathogenic viruses, causing them to develop diseases and medical conditions that are potentially fatal. 

Realities Ignored 

The reality is very different. For over five years, from early 2013 until September 2018 when Syrian dictator Bashar Assad regained control of south-western Syria  the IDF had provided humanitarian assistance to Syrian nationals living near the border. The initial aid, allowing injured Syrians to be treated in field hospitals, was ramped up considerably in 2016 with the introduction of “Operation Good Neighbour”. This included setting up a day clinic on the border, as well as a program admitting Syrians with non-combat conditions, such as deafness, to Israeli hospitals. 7000 people were treated at the day clinic, and close to 5000 in Israeli hospitals. Significant material assistance was also provided. 

Another reality ignored in the WHA’s Israel-bashing is that in the years from 1967 until 2000 life expectancy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose from 48 to 72. In the same period infant mortality fell from 60 per 1,000 live births to 15. The WHO’s own documents show that by 2017 life expectancy in “the occupied Palestinian territory” had further improved to 73.8. According to EMRO’s current figures, life expectancy in Syria is 63.8, in Jordan 74.3, in Egypt 70.5, in Yemen 65.3 and in Saudi Arabia 75, showing that life expectancy for Palestinians is comparable to or better than that of others in the region. 

Pushback against WHO politicisation 

It is regrettable that so many WHA members, such as those in the EU, continue to vote with the Arab bloc and the Palestinian delegation in support of the WHA’s annual politically biased resolutions. However, small changes for the better are surfacing. 

At the 70th WHA in 2017, WHO, according to Israel’s representative, hid a positive report on Israel and the Golan from the public due to pressure from the Assad regime, using the pretext of “time constraints”. There was considerable expression of concern about the missing report even from countries that ultimately voted in favour of that year’s anti-Israel resolution. Speaking on behalf of Austria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, and The Netherlands, the representative of Germany stated: 

We consider that the WHO is no place for politics. WHA resolutions should be technical, result-oriented and should serve global public health. We regret that – despite Director-General Chan’s efforts – it was not possible to adopt the present decision by consensus. Within this context we welcome the constructive approach taken by Israel, which gave its consent to the WHO mission in the occupied Syrian Golan. This is an important contribution to further depoliticising this Assembly agenda item. 

It is all the more regrettable that the report of that mission was not published – not even the parts which had already been completed. 

This is clearly due to the Syrian behaviour, which we can only condemn in the strongest terms. This is particularly deplorable in view of the abysmal health situation in other parts of Syria.  

The vote for the annual anti-Israel resolution that year was 98 to 7 with 21 abstentions. The UK changed its vote of yes from the previous year to no, joining Australia, Canada, Guatemala, Israel, Togo and the US. 

A year ago, at the 72nd WHA in May 2019, the representatives of Brazil, Canada, Germany, the UK and the US all spoke out against politicisation of the WHO and voted no to the annual anti-Israel resolution, along with Australia, the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Hungary. 

The WHO clearly still has a long way to go but perhaps the controversy in which the WHO currently finds itself regarding claims of politicisation with regard to China/Taiwan will sharpen the focus of its members. 

There is no question that the WHO has a vitally important part to play in advancing good health throughout the world – never more so than during the current COVID-19 global pandemic – and discharges much of its work effectively. That, however, should not shield it from deserved criticism for having too long abandoned the neutrality and focus on non-politicised medical expertise expected of it to serve the political goals of member states pushing an agenda.