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Home / Columns / WHO: Don’t make it a victim of the US-China rift

WHO: Don’t make it a victim of the US-China rift

When international organisations falter, peace is undermined. Harsh Vardhan must provide leadership

columns Updated: May 25, 2020 19:41 IST
Shashi Shekhar
Shashi Shekhar
Union health minister Harsh Vardhan during the 147th session of the World Health Organization Executive Board meeting, May 22, 2020
Union health minister Harsh Vardhan during the 147th session of the World Health Organization Executive Board meeting, May 22, 2020(PTI)

Union health minister Harsh Vardhan has taken over as chairman of the World Health Organization (WHO) executive board, a position that is held on a rotational basis among regional groups in the 34-member board for a year. This has happened at a difficult time for both the world and WHO. The world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). It is not that humanity has never been confronted by pandemics and natural disasters in the past. But Covid-19 ranks as being unprecedented in living memory for most people. The minister will only have limited powers since this is not a full-time position, and his ability to guide WHO during this trying time will be challenging.

Vardhan’s task has been made more complicated by the fact that at least 100 members of the 194 World Health Assembly, which are signatories to the nomination of board members, are arraigned against China. They feel that the Chinese authorities did not share information on the coronavirus with the world on time. WHO has also been subject to criticism from the United States (US), which feels that it favoured China despite evidence that Beijing was less-than-transparent in its supply of information on the virus.The US recently announced that it will suspend WHO funding. The spat between China and the US, as well as China and many other countries who share suspicions about Beijing’s handling of the pandemic, has had an impact on the global effort to combat the pandemic. This will have a huge impact on our collective future.

If the US and its allies retreat from WHO, it will make the working of the organisation difficult both in terms of funding and global acceptance of its guidelines. Since its inception, WHO has faced several diplomatic obstacles. But this is the first time it has been caught in the middle of an emerging cold war between two mighty powers, the US and China.

WHO played a vital role in the eradication of polio and smallpox, and it can play an important role in the battle against Covid-19 if its role is seen as objective, and guided by medical and scientific expertise. Whatever the merits of the arguments against WHO, the world needs such an organisation in these fraught times.

If we go back in history, we will see the need for such an overarching organisations to settle disputes and bring about a rule-based order in a fractious world. The League of Nations was constituted after World War I, with the objective of dealing with international disputes through negotiation and arbitration. The League played an important role in resolving smaller inter-state disputes. But the fact that the US was not a member of the League — President Woodrow Wilson encouraged its formation, but the legislative wing did not support US participation — weakened the League right at the outset. Many had hoped that the world would never see a war of such magnitude again. But then came World War II. The world once again recognised that an international body, with clear principles and more widespread participation, including of the bigger powers, was essential to maintain peace and resolve disputes. The charter of the United Nations (UN) came into force on October 24, 1945.

The UN played an important role in the half-century period of the Cold War between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union, despite the rivalry between the two powers, each wielding a veto, playing out in the UN Security Council. But everything changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Soviet Union broke up, the world took on a unipolar dimension with the US as the undisputed leader. No one could stop its onward march. When the US and its allies attacked Iraq, the UN could do little to prevent this. The war was initiated on the premise that the then dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, had a huge cache of weapons of mass destruction. Around 1,625 observers from the UN and the US had inspected the 1,700 suspected sites. Nothing was found. It is clear the attack was due to other motives. The needless war cost billions of dollars and took countless innocent lives. Saddam Hussein was toppled and eventually hanged, but the reasons for that war are still up for debate.

The attack on Iraq and Afghanistan by the US and its allies resulted in a more dangerous world as it acted as a catalyst to jihadi forces. The UN, with its limited powers and the powerful veto of the big five nations, failed to intervene effectively in both the wars, and the world is still paying the price. When WHO is being made a pawn in a big power game between the US and China, we must look back at the fateful consequences of devaluing global organisations. The actual war today between the two superpowers is over trade and the nature and balance of power in the future international system. Global health must not be made a scapegoat in this process, just as Iraq was made a scapegoat once in oil politics.

We should also remember that leadership skills are tested in crises. India’s health minister has and continues to play an important role in the fight against Covid-19 in the country. Hopefully, his sage advice and wise counsel will prevail on the global stage in his new role in WHO.

Shashi Shekhar is the editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal
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