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WHO General Assembly wastes time and resources on condemnation of Israel

Nov 26, 2020 | Judy Maynard

2018 World Health Assembly

The biggest global news story of 2020 has been, without a doubt, the once-in-a-century pandemic that has killed more than 1.38 million people and resulted in almost 60 million confirmed cases so far. If there has been a greater challenge facing the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the 73 years of its existence, it is difficult to imagine what that could be.

Yet, as we foreshadowed, the annual assembly of the organisation whose “primary role is to direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations system”, devoted considerable precious time and resources to giving some of the world’s worst human rights abusers a platform for making false and sweeping allegations against Israel.

While the NGO UN Watch accused the WHO of “deviating from its focus on the global response to the coronavirus pandemic” to single out Israel as a violator of health rights, in a sense the opposite is true. The abridgement of the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) in May due to the pandemic might have forced the postponement until Nov. 12 of the annual Israel-bashing exercise, but not even COVID-19 was going to push that item off the agenda indefinitely. For some at the WHO, political point scoring is where their real focus lies.

Each and every year the WHA votes on an anti-Israel resolution – or in this year’s case, a draft decision proposed by Cuba, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Qatar, Syria, Tunisia and Turkey. The wording of this year’s draft decision is identical to that of last year’s resolution, with the addition of a clause referencing the pandemic.  If passed – and it was – the path is paved for the nonsense to be repeated the following year. While the WHO has issued urgent calls for more funding for its vital work, it allocates a staggering $US17.8 million to this self-perpetuating propaganda exercise.

Several delegations from nations with abysmal human rights records, such as China, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, spoke in favour of the draft decision, with many statements accompanied by overt political commentary.

Bangladesh, for example, called on the international community to support the establishment of a Palestinian state on the basis of a “two-state solution on the pre-1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital” to provide “the only viable pathway that would ensure [the Palestinians] sustainable access to healthcare services.”

The majority of the statements, like the Director-General’s report, sheeted home to Israel all health problems, physical and mental, suffered by the Palestinians, omitting all historical and security context or any word of criticism directed at the Palestinian Authority (PA) or Hamas  – which govern the West Bank and Gaza respectively and run their health systems. Nor was the Syrian regime condemned for hypocritically professing concern for the welfare of the Golan’s Arab residents, although it has bombed its own hospitals and carried out chemical weapons attacks against its own people. Yet Golan residents get world class care via Israel’s health system – much better than Syrians got before the civil war there, let alone today.

The UN and its various organisations, including WHO, have become a theatre of the absurd where serial human rights abusers perform, and from where they project their own crimes onto their political enemies. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), for example, made the ridiculous claim that “the brutality of Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians… within the occupied territories has become institutionalised and ever more undisguised… [They] have taken tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian lives.”

Iran, major sponsor of terrorism and one of the world’s worst violators of human rights, eagerly took advantage of the free hit afforded to Israel’s enemies by the WHA, mounting attacks from the virtual podium on three occasions during the marathon four-hour session, before being finally cut off for refusing to meet time limits despite repeated requests.

Given many delegates alleged that Israel denies Palestinians access to healthcare, it is ironic that some also expressed their condolences following the recent death of Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, whose final days were spent receiving treatment in an Israeli hospital.

But even the one-sided report of the Director-General had to acknowledge that, for example, “information regarding COVID-19 was accessible to all residents of the occupied Syrian Golan in Arabic; and all residents had access to health care under the Israeli health maintenance organization scheme”.

Many of the recent problems Palestinians have experienced in accessing high-level medical care stem from political decisions made by the PA. In May it announced it was ending security coordination with Israel in response to Israel announcing that it was considering extending sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. “Security coordination” includes communication between the PA and Israel to obtain travel permits for Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza, so this means access for Palestinian residents to medical treatment in Israeli hospitals was largely cut off. Until this year, the number of medical permits being granted had been increasing annually.

The complete politicisation of the WHA is mostly clearly illustrated by the fact that many of the states using the pretext of the draft WHO resolution to launch broadsides against Israel have health indicators that are considerably worse than those in the Palestinian territories. Recently the medical journal The Lancet reported that Dr Mai Alkaila, an obstetrician, gynaecologist and diplomat who in 2019 became the first woman appointed Health Minister of Palestine, “described how Palestine enjoys high primary and secondary care coverage—for example, 749 primary care centres, almost two-thirds run by her Ministry of Health. The country’s health indicators bear good comparison with other Arab nations in the region. Life expectancy is 74 years in Palestine, whereas the regional average is 71·4 years.”

The exploitation of the WHA to present one-sided criticism of a single state is problematic, not only because it is discriminatory, but also because it represents a dereliction of the WHO’s vitally important mission. This is never excusable – at a time of global pandemic, it arguably amounts to criminal negligence.

As the Israeli representative Ambassador Meirav Eilon Shahar said of the draft decision, it “politicises the WHO and allows it to be misused. A decision that shifts the focus of the agenda of the World Health Assembly from global health challenges to a political attack. A decision that does not reflect the reality on the ground. Let me be clear: It is not a decision that has an interest to improve the lives of the Palestinian people.”

Delegates of some states, such as the US, Canada and Brazil, took to the floor to criticise the draft decision on which they were being asked to vote, saying it did not meet the technical, non-politicised public health focus that was the requirement of the WHO’s mandate.

The UK delegate stated, “we fail in our duty to serve people around the world facing vitally important health needs, particularly those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, if we allow the WHO to become politicised. This decision is the only country-specific resolution of the WHA. The WHA takes a different approach when considering the many other conflicts, civil wars and political impasses around the world, and we believe this is the approach we should also take on the health situation in the occupied Palestinian territory.”

The delegate from Norway spoke on behalf of her own country and of Iceland, both of which had voted in favour of the resolution last year but this year chose to abstain. She stated, “We consider that the WHA is no place for politics. WHA resolutions and decisions should be technical, results-oriented, and should serve global public health.”

While the size of the anti-Israel voting bloc made it inevitable that the draft decision would be adopted, there were some hopeful signs. 180 states had the right to vote but a sizeable number (56) were absent, with no explanation given. 78 voted in favour while 14 voted against, with 32 abstentions. At last year’s 72nd WHA, in a similar total vote, 96 voted in favour of the resolution, 11 against, and there were 21 abstentions.

Countries voting against the resolution were Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Czech Republic, Eswatini, Germany, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Micronesia (Federated States of), Slovenia, the UK and the US.

Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Uruguay all voted in favour of last year’s resolution but this year abstained. Last year 13 of the 27 European Union nations voted in favour of the resolution. This year that dropped to eight, although it was disappointing to see France still among those voting in favour.

However, the tide may be turning. Increasingly WHO member states are tiring of Israel’s enemies appropriating this vital forum for their own irrelevant, political purposes, and damaging its essential work in dealing with global health needs.

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