Op-ed: When political considerations replace rules of common sense

Written on April 15, 2020 by Ali Hachani, former Ambassador.
Translated by Anouar Ben Messaoud

The world woke up on Wednesday, April 15, 2020, to hear a decision announced by the American President Donald Trump to “suspend” the contribution of his administration to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is responsible for advising the international community on health issues and helping it deal with them. This decision was immediately “regretted” and even “condemned” by many governments including the closest ones to the United States, as well as by a significant part of the world scientific community. The decision has come at the worst possible time as this Geneva-based Organization, which is one of the oldest institutions within the United Nations System, is engaged in an uphill struggle against the coronavirus pandemic. The loss of almost fifteen per cent of already diminutive WHO’s financial resources will undoubtedly risk reducing the world’s ability to confront the pandemic, which should place a historic responsibility on the shoulders of those who made this decision.

Since the outbreak of this pandemic in December 2019, the world has relied heavily on daily analyses conducted by the World Health Organization’s experts, who are led with great rigor by a first-class African competence (former Ethiopian Minister of Health). Although the WHO lacks the power to compel Governments to disclose all information available to them concerning their health situation and cannot make them implement its advice in the fight against the pandemic, it has offered guidelines widely followed by national authorities, especially those in developing countries, which often lack sufficient human and logistical resources in this field. This has earned the Organization the admiration of most of the people involved in the fight against the pandemic by recognizing that the efforts made by this International Agency have led to contain the pandemic and allowed the beginning of its de-escalation despite the heavy loss in human lives and significant economic damage and human tragedy. Only countries that have “run roughshod” over the WHO recommendations have seen the consequences of the pandemic continually escalating.

The decision of the U.S. to halt its contribution in funding the Organization was officially motivated by the fact that the WHO had supposedly acted slowly in sounding the alarm on the seriousness of the virus’ contagious nature, covered the failures and the lack of transparency of a specific country which is seen as the starting point of the pandemic and withheld its support to restrictions on outbound flights originating from that country, etc. In fact, although some of these criticisms could be proven correct after a thorough study, the reasons for this astonishing and dangerous decision should be more importantly read between the lines of narrow political calculations on the eve of an electoral season that is expected to be difficult. In addition, the background of anti-African bias and the consequences of a prosecution by other means in a time of crisis of a struggle for influence as seen during the Cold War in its worst moments should not be omitted. Above all, one cannot help but see in this decision the particular ideological approach that currently prevails across the Atlantic, observing the world under a nationalist and populist prism and targeting the system of multilateral relations. This approach affected many specialized organizations before touching WHO. It affected many international agreements, many values governing solidarity between nations, and even the eminently crucial role of the Security Council as guarantor of peace and international security.

To stick to this last point, it may be necessary to remember that since the last American presidential elections at the end of 2016, the United States have left or threatened to leave a number of international organizations and agreements ranging from UNESCO to: the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP); the Paris Climate Agreement and the Vienna Agreement on the Iranian Nuclear; agreements on reducing arms with Russia and agreements related to international assistance to women particularly in matters of family planning, without overlooking the pressure constantly exerted on the World Trade Organization (WTO) going as far as paralyzing its dispute resolution system which had provided so many services to so many nations, in particular those in the “New world.” How can we forget in this context the withdrawal of U.S. funding for UNRWA, depriving thousands of Palestinians especially the youngest, of an aid that is so much needed. The systematic and indiscriminate imposition of international sanctions, particularly unilateral, on developing countries in particular and on various political groupings, has severely penalized civilian populations who find themselves in times of crisis, as in the current situation, lacking of means to protect themselves, which is contrary to the values of humanism and solidarity enshrined in the United Nations Charter. And when a group of non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, including Tunisia, took the initiative of proposing to this Council to rise to the level of its historic responsibilities by facing the Corona pandemic, as was recently done, they were confronted with the procrastination of certain permanent members who wanted to keep control over this body to indulge in their favorite game of self-serving diplomatic bargain.

The world will certainly come out of this pandemic as it has come out of the previous ones. However, it could do it faster and with lower human and material costs if all countries, developed and developing, large and small, joined their efforts and spared international organizations like the WHO behaviors that fall outside common sense: unwelcomed political calculations, battles for influence from another era, and especially hasty accountability requests that can be unfounded. Time will come to judge each and every one’s responsibilities, as was suggested by the UN Secretary General. History for its part will remember any action that put in jeopardy the security and well-being of all peoples, and will also evoke positive actions such as alleviating the indebtedness of many African countries to enable them effectively fight the pandemic and its consequences.

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