WHO continues tradition of bashing Israel, shunning Taiwan despite strong public health records
Cold shoulder to democratic duo fuels concerns world health body is putting politics over public health.
As this year's World Health Assembly (WHA) comes to a close, Taiwan and Israel, two democracies with world-class economies and strong public health records, have once again been excluded and lambasted, respectively, by the global forum, continuing a familiar pattern of injecting politics into the center of discussions purportedly designed to improve public health.
The WHA, the World Health Organization's decision-making body comprised of 194 member countries, convened in Geneva, Switzerland this past week (May 22-28) to tackle an ambitious agenda headlined by what critics decried as sweeping, controversial plans to combat future pandemics.
Noticeably absent from the week's events was Taiwan, which China has prevented from attending the WHA since 2017.
China considers Taiwan a renegade province that must be reunified with the Chinese mainland and tries to isolate its democratically governed island neighbor from international organizations.
On Monday, the WHA rejected a bid by 13 World Health Organization (WHO) members to allow Taiwan to join as an observer following a campaign of diplomatic pressure from China.
The U.S. was not one of the 13 countries, according to reports. However, Loyce Pace, the American envoy to the WHA and assistant secretary for global affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the U.S. "deeply regrets" the exclusion of Taiwan, which she described as a vital partner to global health.
Earlier this month, President Biden signed legislation directing the secretary of state "to develop a strategy to regain observer status for Taiwan in the World Health Organization."
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement supporting Taiwan's inclusion in the WHA, saying there's "no reasonable justification to exclude its participation, which will benefit the world."
However, critics dismissed such efforts as "futile gestures," noting the Biden administration supported this week's reelection of WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, under whose leadership the WHO has been widely criticized for being heavily influenced by the Chinese government.
"The WHO leadership prioritized China's economic interests over halting the spread of the virus when COVID-19 first emerged," a sweeping Sunday Times investigation found. "China exerted ultimate control over the WHO investigation into the origins of COVID-19, appointing its chosen experts and negotiating a backroom deal to water down the mandate."
In early 2020, the WHO didn't support then-President Donald Trump's initial travel restrictions on China.
Taiwan's exclusion has drawn attention because of the island's largely successful response to COVID-19, which has earned international praise for keeping cases low while avoiding the heavy-handed lockdowns that China and other countries imposed. (Cases are currently up in Taiwan due to an Omicron surge, but hospitals haven't been overwhelmed, and the government hasn't locked down.)
Still, Taiwan was excluded. However, it wasn't the only democracy at the cutting edge of innovation that received the WHO's cold shoulder this past week. Israel also became a target.
On the agenda at this week's WHA was discussion of a WHO report titled, "Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan."
In the report, the WHO calls on Israel to end "movement restrictions, closures, practices of demolition and/or displacement, and refraining from the use of excessive force," framing the Palestinians' public health problems in Gaza and the West Bank as primarily the results of Israeli oppression.
For example, the report states the "discrepancy in vaccine availability ... raised questions about the responsibility of Israel as occupying power for provision to the protected Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip."
The report doesn't note that the Oslo Accords, to which both Israel and the Palestinians agreed, state explicitly that "powers and responsibilities in the sphere of health in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side." The agreement also details how Palestinians are responsible for forming, implementing, and managing their own vaccination programs.
Regarding Gaza, the WHO report never mentions Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist organization that governs the territory. Israel quietly trained Gazan medical professionals to combat COVID-19.
The report also neglected to mention that people living in the Israeli-controlled Golan, a strategic region on Israel's northern border previously controlled by Syria, enjoy "full access to universal health care," to quote the WHO's 2021 report. Neither report notes that the Syrian government has regularly bombed hospitals over the past decade during Syria's civil war.
The reports don't address Palestinians living in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere, often under poor health conditions. Only Palestinian populations who can be said to be living under Israeli "occupation" are discussed.
This is hardly the first time the WHA has focused significant attention on Israel, a country similar in size to the state of New Jersey.
In 1968, the assembly called on the WHO director-general to report on individuals displaced by the 1967 Six-Day War, beginning a pattern of the WHO's Executive Board submitting agendas ensuring resolutions and reports on Israel that largely criticize the Jewish state for its policies toward Palestinians.
Last year's report and associated resolutions took up an entire day of the WHA's eight-day conference.
David May, senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, noted that the 2021 report blamed Israeli settler wastewater dumping for its negative impact on health conditions in the West Bank but didn't mention Palestinian wastewater dumping.
More than 85% of Palestinian wastewater in the West Bank goes untreated, according to a World Bank report from 2018.
"Analytical deficiencies aside, the [WHO] 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," wrote May. "This double standard is a prime example of the Jew-hatred codified in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's working definition of antisemitism."
Similar to Taiwan, the WHO's approach to Israel is striking given the Jewish state's status at the forefront of cutting edge medical research. Israel also received international praise for its rapid rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
U.S. critics of the WHO feared that the World Health Assembly meeting would exploit pandemic fears to usurp sovereign national powers during international health emergencies via changes to the WHO's International Health Regulations. The WHO announced Wednesday that consideration of IHR amendments would be deferred until the next World Health Assembly convenes in two years.
"The delay of the World Health Organization's International Health Regulations is a massive win for our nation," said Florid Republican Rep. Byron Donalds, a vocal opponent of the IHR amendments. "This delay is undoubtedly the result of the political pressure of concerned Americans and conservative lawmakers. A win is a win, but we must stay vigilant and hold our leaders accountable to ensure the Biden administration doesn't go rogue again and attempt to bow down to the WHO and defer control over our nation's pandemic response."
But while critics' worst fears of an international power grab by the WHO appear to have been averted for now, the organization's continued shunning of Taiwan and demonization of Israel will likely only fuel concerns that the WHO is letting political considerations impede its public health mission.
"Everything about the WHO is political," Rep. Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) told the John Solomon Reports podcast last week. "It's a disaster."
The WHO didn't immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Facts Inside Our Reporter's Notebook
- sweeping, controversial plans
- largely successful
- technological innovation
- state explicitly
- took up an entire day
- working definition
- cutting edge
- rapid rollout