When US threatened to leave WHO | Opinion
United States (US) President Donald Trump recently suspended financial support to the World Health Organization (WHO) and has threatened to quit the world body. This news took me back nearly 40 years when, while serving in the Union ministry of health and family welfare, I was involved in dealing with a similar threat from the US.
It was May 1982. I was in Geneva to represent India in the annual session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) which, at that time, had over 160 member countries and met for two weeks to deal with varied health and medical issues. The large agenda was split and discussed in two commissions, named “A” and “B”.
The 1982 WHA unanimously elected me to chair the functioning of commission “B”. Our then ambassador in Geneva, AP Venkateswaran, reported this event as a “diplomatic victory” for India, especially as it came without lobbying. As in the functioning of any United Nations organisation, WHO member-countries also never lost an opportunity to raise health issues which provided an opening for airing their views on current political controversies. Before the WHA proceedings began, I carefully read every agenda item entrusted to my commission. Neither I, nor the more experienced secretariat personnel, realised that a certain matter would generate an upheaval that would threaten the existence of WHO. This related to a draft resolution, moved by a group of Afro-Arab countries, which sought to focus attention on the poor health conditions of the Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied territories. I was not overly concerned by this as there were similar items which sought the provision of health assistance to refugees in Cyprus and Lebanon and to the flood-affected in Yemen.
Former WHO director-general, Halfdan Mahler, was on the dais with me when the aforesaid agenda item came up and I allowed the leader of the Palestine delegation to introduce it. Inter-alia, the agenda note referred to an expert committee report on the subject and to the reports presented by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Israeli health ministry and the specialised UN agency for providing relief to the Palestinian refugees. While calling for the establishment of WHO-supervised health centres in the occupied territories, reference was also drawn to an earlier UN General Assembly resolution on this matter. Before I could announce the name of the next delegate to speak on the subject, the leader of the US delegation, Dr John Bryant (also a member of the executive committee), wanted to make an urgent statement. Normally, comments from the floor were allowed only after the sponsoring country representatives complete their statements.
Bryant raised serious objection to a portion of the operative paragraph of the draft resolution which, if accepted, would have the effect of cutting-off the membership rights and services of Israel. He announced that if this matter was discussed any further, he was under instruction to state that his country “here and now suspends its budgetary support” (which was about half of WHO’s annual budget) and withdraws from WHO. As soon as Bryant completed his statement, delegates from Israel and several other countries stood up and pronounced full support for the US’ stand. Delegates from Palestine and many Arab and African countries stood up and voiced support for the Palestinian cause. The ensuing pandemonium was unprecedented.
I kept striking the gavel and calling for order till there was a lull in which I announced a break to consider how WHA could proceed further. After a brief exchange with Mahler, I stepped into the assembly hall and for the next hour-and-a-half held discussions with the leaders of the warring groups. I found that there was no ready meeting point and also realised that if the situation was allowed to go unchecked, there would be grave consequences for WHO, besides the failure of my chairmanship. It was already past the lunch hour. Getting back on the dais, I informed WHA that my parleys would continue and the commission would reassemble next morning at the scheduled time. For the next 12 hours, I held intensive discussions with protagonists on both sides and also met several eminent health ministers (attending WHA). I also met the iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat arrrived late in the evening.
After several rounds of negotiations with the Arab, African, Israeli, American and other delegations concerned, I managed to soften their earlier positions. Also, in the course of these discussions, I had virtually redone the original draft resolution. In the early hours of the next morning, I called a senior secretariat staff to arrange for copies of the revised draft resolution to be distributed before WHA commenced its work.
An uneasy calm prevailed in the hall when I called the meeting to order. I spoke briefly about my efforts since the previous day and about the agreed changes made in the original draft. I read out the revised resolution and asked if there were any observations from any quarter. There was silence. I announced that the resolution was passed and struck the gavel to move on to the next agenda item. There was a perceptible sigh of relief . WHO had been saved.