Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury
KUALA LUMPUR, SYDNEY: After accusing the World Health Organization (WHO) of pro-China bias, President Donald Trump announced US withdrawal from the UN agency. Although the US created the UN system for the post-Second World War new international order, Washington has often had to struggle in recent decades to ensure that it continues to serve changing US interests.
Invisible virus trumps POTUS
In early July, Washington gave the required one-year notice officially advising the UN of its intention to withdraw from the WHO, created by the US as the global counterpart to the now century-old Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO).
However, the White House decision violates US law as it does not have express approval of the US Congress required by the 1948 joint resolution of both US legislative houses enabling US membership of the WHO.
Trump had already refused to meet US financial commitments. This too violates the 1948 resolution requiring the US to fully meet its financial obligations for the current fiscal year before leaving, probably presuming that earlier dues have been fully paid up.
The WHO needs more funding than ever to address the COVID-19 pandemic by increasing cooperation, coordination and awareness, establishing standards and protocols, and securing medical supplies for all, especially needy countries.
The world would have been much worse off without the WHO, e.g., as it tries to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are affordably accessible to all. By contrast, Trump’s jingoistic policies and actions have even involved piracy.
After concluding a favourable trade deal early in the new year, Trump praised China on 24 January: “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency”.
As POTUS’s failure to better handle the COVID-19 pandemic has become apparent to most, he has created scapegoats to gloss over his gross mismanagement, demonizing China to also serve larger political purposes. Growing Western paranoia about China’s rise has contributed to collective amnesia.
POTUS has accused the WHO of deference to China and deliberate failure to provide accurate information about COVID-19. Despite disproven and unproven allegations, Trump’s allegations of WHO bias for China have dominated international public opinion.
WHO’s mixed record
WHO policy decisions are made by the World Health Assembly (WHA) with almost 200 Member States. As in other UN bodies, decisions adopted with developing countries in the majority have often not been to Washington’s liking.
Without the bullying US presence, WHO’s functioning may improve, but the WHO will be weakened by reduced resources and possibly, sabotage. It will increasingly depend on other sources of funding, many private, US-based, which is likely to compromise its policies and practices.
Already, the WHO Secretariat has been widely criticised for favouring US interests, e.g., by procuring from US companies. US and other transnational companies greatly influence WHO policy and management decisions in their own favour.
Halfdan Mahler, a three-term WHO Director-General, warned that the pharmaceutical industry’s “unhealthy influence” was “taking over WHO”. Thus, any balanced inquiry of WHO bias should include the influence of big pharmaceutical corporations, especially as the agency increasingly depends on private funding.
Despite an official inquiry finding “no wrong doing” after a Council of Europe committee alleged possible conflicts of interest in WHO’s declaration of an A/H1N1 swine flu pandemic, criticisms of conflicts of interest remain.
The British Medical Journal found that key WHO influenza pandemic planning scientific advisers had been paid by pharmaceutical firms that stood to gain from the guidance they were preparing, i.e., possibly involving conflicts of interest never publicly declared.
UN organizations depend on mandatory annual contributions by Member States, determined according to agreed scales of assessment relative to their wealth and population. When a Member State fails to pay dues for the preceding two years, it loses voting rights.
The US should pay 22% of WHO’s annual budget, and the European Union 30%. Of the total of US$489 million for 2020, the assessed contribution for the US came to US$115 million.
However, the US has regularly defaulted, partially or wholly, on contributions due to the WHO and the UN secretariat among others. For instance, the US only paid a third of its assessed WHO contribution for 2019.
Thus, while low-income countries duly pay their statutory contributions, the world’s largest economy selectively withholds payments due in order to influence UN agencies’ policies, decisions and practices.
Nonetheless, a larger share of WHO expenditure than the assessed US budgetary contribution ends up in the US to procure medicines, equipment and services.
US threatens UN multilateralism
Washington’s refusal to pay its WHO and other UN dues reflects its attitude to the democratization of the multilateral organizations it once created. US efforts to financially squeeze UN agencies are nothing new, having long refused to pay dues to the UN secretariat on various dubious grounds.
With its veto, the US has been able to ensure that the UN’s most strategic organ, the Security Council, could never undermine its interests despite the nominal ‘one-country-one-vote’ governance of much of the UN system.
Undoubtedly, like much of the rest of UN system, the WHO needs reform, e.g., to improve accountability in decision-making, but progress has been blocked by various divides, with support for Trump’s accusations and vague reform demands driven primarily by political considerations.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has also come under US arm-twisting, with the US and Israel pulling out in December 2018 following its overwhelming General Conference decision to admit Palestine as a member.
When Ronald Reagan was president, the US had quit UNESCO in 1984 after claiming that then Senegalese Director-General Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow had been “politicizing” the organization. The US only rejoined in 2003 during the first George W. Bush presidential term, i.e., before the Iraq War.
Meanwhile, the US remains outside many other global multilateral initiatives, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court and the Basel Convention, and has also withdrawn from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement and the UN Human Rights Council.
Even if he concedes the presidency in January, Trump’s jingoistic legacy has already irreversibly poisoned US public sentiment and international politics. Multilateralism and the UN system may well suffer irreversible collateral damage until an unlikely new ‘coalition of the willing’ rises to the challenge.