When the United States threatened to leave the WHO | Opinion – analysis
The President of the United States (USA), Donald Trump, recently suspended financial support for the World Health Organization (WHO) and has threatened to resign from the world body. This news took me nearly 40 years when, while serving in the Union’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, I was involved in a similar threat from the United States.
It was May 1982. He was in Geneva to represent India at the annual session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) which, at the time, had more than 160 member countries and met for two weeks to discuss various medical problems and health. The grand agenda was divided and discussed into two committees, named “A” and “B”.
The WHA of 1982 unanimously elected me to preside over the operation of committee “B”. Our then ambassador to Geneva, AP Venkateswaran, reported this event as a “diplomatic victory” for India, especially since it was held without lobbying. As in the operation of any United Nations organization, WHO member countries never missed an opportunity to raise health issues, giving them an opportunity to voice their views on current political controversies. Before the WHA proceedings began, I carefully read each item on the agenda entrusted to my committee. Neither I nor the most experienced secretarial staff realized that a certain issue would create a disorder that would threaten the existence of WHO. This related to a draft resolution, tabled by a group of Afro-Arab countries, that sought to focus attention on the poor health conditions of Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied territories. This did not concern me too much, as there were similar elements seeking to provide healthcare to refugees in Cyprus and Lebanon and to those affected by the floods in Yemen.
Former WHO Director-General Halfdan Mahler was on the stand with me when the mentioned agenda item came up and I allowed the leader of the Palestinian delegation to introduce it. Among others, the agenda note referred to a report by the expert committee on the subject and reports submitted by the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Israeli health ministry and the UN specialized agency to provide assistance to Palestinian refugees. In calling for the establishment of WHO-supervised health centers in the occupied territories, reference was also made to an earlier resolution of the UN General Assembly on this matter. Before he could announce the name of the next delegate to speak on the matter, the leader of the United States delegation, Dr. John Bryant (also a member of the executive committee), wanted to make an urgent statement. Typically, comments from the room were allowed only after representatives of the sponsoring country completed their statements.
Bryant raised serious objections to a part of the operative paragraph of the draft resolution that, if accepted, would have the effect of cutting Israel’s membership rights and services. He announced that if this matter was further discussed, he would be instructed to affirm that his country “here and now suspends its budget support” (which was approximately half of WHO’s annual budget) and withdraws from WHO. As soon as Bryant completed his statement, delegates from Israel and various other countries stood up and expressed their full support for the position of the United States. Delegates from Palestine and many Arab and African countries stood up and expressed their support for the Palestinian cause. The resulting pandemonium was unprecedented.
I kept hitting the hammer and asking for order until there was a pause in which I announced a break to consider how WHA could move on. After a brief exchange with Mahler, I entered the auditorium and for the next hour and a half held conversations with the leaders of the warring groups. I discovered that there was no meeting point ready and I also realized that if the situation were allowed to go unchecked, there would be serious consequences for WHO, in addition to the failure of my presidency. It was past lunchtime. Returning to the stand, I informed WHA that my parliaments would continue and that the commission would meet the next morning at the scheduled time. Over the next 12 hours, I had intense discussions with protagonists from both sides, and also met with several eminent health ministers (who attended WHA). I also met the iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who arrived late at night.
After several rounds of negotiations with the Arab, African, Israeli, American and other delegations, I managed to soften their previous positions. Furthermore, in the course of these discussions, I practically redid the original draft resolution. In the early hours of the following morning, I called a senior secretariat staff to arrange for copies of the revised draft resolution to be distributed before WHA began its work.
An uncomfortable calm prevailed in the hallway when I called the meeting to order. I spoke briefly about my efforts from the previous day and about the agreed changes made to the original draft. I read the revised resolution and asked if there were any quarter observations. There was silence. I announced that the resolution was passed and hit the hammer to move to the next item on the agenda. There was a sigh of noticeable relief. WHO had been saved.
NN Vohra is former Governor, Jammu and Kashmir
The opinions expressed are personal.