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Unhealthy obsessions return to the annual World Health Organisation assembly – yet there are signs of positive change

Jun 17, 2022 | Judy Maynard

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has decried what it calls the politicisation of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has not stopped the world’s pre-eminent public health body from continuing its own longstanding practice of politicisation, by singling out one nation – Israel – for annual rebuke.

Yet there are nonetheless some signs of positive change, with the head of a new WHO office in Israel, Dr Michel Thieren, pushing back against some of the gross misinformation the NGO has been promulgating.

 

WHA75

The WHO’s annual general meeting in May once again revealed a disturbing set of double standards, all the more evident as such politicisation involves diverting scarce resources from the organisation’s absolute priority of “putting science to work to build a healthier, safer world”.

As its head Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told delegates at the 75th annual World Health Assembly (WHA), the pandemic had turned the world upside down, yet was hardly the only crisis facing the globe.

“As we speak,” he added, “our colleagues around the world are responding to outbreaks of Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, monkeypox and hepatitis of unknown cause, and complex humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Ukraine and Yemen. We face a formidable convergence of disease, drought, famine and war, fuelled by climate change, inequity and geopolitical rivalry.”

The WHA is the WHO’s central decision-making body, charged with determining policy, appointing the Director-General, supervising financial policies, and reviewing and approving the proposed program budget. Yet despite the formidable health and related challenges facing the WHO, the agenda for WHA75 included an item – as it does every year – castigating the only member state it ever castigates, Israel.

This is analogous to Item 7 – “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories” – which is a permanent feature of the UN Human Rights Council‘s agenda, whereby members with egregious human rights records, such as Syria, are provided a free-kick at Israel.

Every year, during the WHA’s anti-Israel item, a report on the “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan” is presented.

In addition, a draft decision critical of Israel is always proposed by “human rights luminaries” – this year being Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen – and inevitably adopted.

This year 77 member states voted to adopt the draft decision, including six EU nations: Belgium, France, Ireland, Luxemburg, Portugal and Spain. While this is disappointing, it is still encouraging to note that in 2019 more than twice as many EU states voted in favour.

Fourteen countries voted against: Australia, Israel, the US, the UK, Canada, Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Czech Republic, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Micronesia and Netherlands. There were 36 abstentions, including the majority of EU states, and 56 nations were absent.

The draft decision “requests” the preparation of another report for the following year, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle.

David May, a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes that the “annual tradition” of singling Israel out began in 1968 at the WHA’s first meeting after the Six Day War, when it called on the WHO director-general to report on individuals displaced by the war.

But these reports deal only with those individuals who reside in the West Bank, Golan Heights and Gaza. The health conditions of Palestinians living in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, or anywhere else are not an item on the WHA’s agenda, even though hundreds of thousands of people living in Syria have been killed in its civil war, and Palestinians in Lebanon are subject to discriminatory laws that deny them access to many health services.

Given the WHO provides opponents of the Jewish state with a platform for regular Israel-bashing, it is somewhat ironic that the theme of WHA75 was “Health for Peace, Peace for Health”: “In a world threatened by conflict, inequities, the climate crisis and pandemics, the Seventy-fifth session of the World Health Assembly will stress the importance of building a healthy and peaceful planet by harnessing science, data, technology and innovation.”

In a blatant political exercise contrary to both data and the interests of peace, Israel was demonised by delegates from various member states, such as Syria which falsely accused it of “deliberate and systematic bombing of hospitals, healthcare facilities and personnel”; totalitarian North Korea which ludicrously charged that “The brutality of Israeli atrocities against Palestinians and other Arabs in occupied territories has become institutionalised and undisguised”; and Iran, which is sponsoring terrorism throughout the region, yet fulminated, “As the moral force behind the Zionist movement is a sense of exceptionalism, racism and superiority, it can expand only by provoking and promoting wars and conflicts. The Israeli regime is, therefore, a destabilising force by nature as per its genesis and the force that sustains it is an indelible not incidental feature of Zionism.” This is actually an accurate description of Iran’s revolutionary regime, not of Israel.

As Hillel Neuer of the NGO UN Watch observed “The regimes who today attacked the Jewish state were projecting: the more oppressive they are to their own people and to their minorities, the more they resort to trying to demonize the only democracy in the Middle East.”

 

Pushback from WHO’s new Israel office

A small but positive step was taken at the beginning of 2021 when the WHO opened its first office in Israel. For historic reasons which attest to the organisation’s institutionalised politicisation, the office is tied to the WHO’s European Regional Office.

A more natural geographical fit for Israel would have been membership of the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO), which includes neighbouring countries as well as the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. However, in 1985, after decades of effective exclusion by EMRO’s Arab members, Israel applied for and was granted membership in the European region.

The only official employee of the Tel Aviv office is Dr Michel Thieren, special representative of the WHO’s European regional director.

In his previous role as director of EMRO’s emergency program he was at the centre of Middle East conflict. He described the situation in Syria, for example, as a “systematic assault against healthcare”.

Dr Thieren described his current role as one of “unmask(ing) the scientific face of Israel and remov(ing) the political face under which Israel is perceived even in global health instances.” Thieren has been calling out the long-prevailing double standards in the WHO’s treatment of Israel.

With regard to the claims presented annually to the WHA in the reports on health conditions in the Palestinian territories, Dr Thieren argued “Now that we have a WHO office in Israel, we should be able to conduct a process that takes place more on both sides, including fact-checking.”

Pragmatically, he has suggested that a participatory approach that includes constructive discussion would do more to alleviate the health crisis in the Palestinian territories than the “unilateral process” emanating from the WHO’s Office for West Bank and Gaza that exploits the problems in order to blame Israel.

For example, this year’s WHO report on “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory” cites what it calls the “high-profile case” of 16-year-old Saleem who suffered from acute leukaemia. It accuses Israel of refusing three times to approve a permit for Saleem to receive treatment outside the Gaza Strip.

“On the fourth time the patient travelled, but the destination hospital was unable to receive him, citing lack of available medical supplies due to escalating debts owed by the Ministry of Health. After successive attempts the family secured an appointment at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, but Saleem died… at the Palestinian Medical Complex in Ramallah, with his fifth permit application under study.”

Dr Thieren refutes this, saying, “there is no such thing as patients being refused on medical grounds. I have been discussing this with my counterparts and it is just not happening. There are plenty of cases referred from the West Bank and Gaza to Israel hospitals.”

Despite the report detailing that the majority of applications in 2021 for permits to travel from Gaza to Israel for healthcare were approved, its authors called on Israel to “end the arbitrary delay and denial of permits for Palestinian patients in need of essential care and ensure unhindered access for patients and their companions throughout the occupied Palestinian territory, including between the West Bank and Gaza Strip and including to all administratively divided areas of the West Bank.”

Yet according to Thieren’s research, delays are often due to the Palestinian side not having cleared applicants for exit. This is why fact-checking is required, he says, because some examples are misinterpreted or the situation not fully understood. “[T]hen you realise there is a different story.”

Yet despite Thieren’s important efforts to stand up for facts in face of the misinformation being spread by a body theoretically devoted to science, this does not solve the underlying problem with WHO’s singling out of Israel as the only nation subject to annual scrutiny and inevitable condemnation.  As David May noted, the report’s “main flaw is that it holds Israel to a double standard by making it the only country subject to an annual resolution and report,” rendering it “a prime example of the Jew-hatred codified in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism.”

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