Issue 101: The World Health Assembly

The World Health Assembly ends its annual meeting today.  Important discussions on SARS and the passage of a landmark Framework Convention on Tobacco Control were unfortunately coupled with politicized abuse of the forum.

Analysis: The SARS epidemic brought out the best in the World Health Organization in its role as international coordinator for national public health institutions. However, as health ministers from around the globe gathered in Geneva these past ten days for the World Health Assembly, the inherent temptation to focus on political issues quickly resurfaced, to the detriment of the millions of people who desperately need heath care.

Some countries that opposed the war against Saddam Hussein complained about the health situation in Iraq, even though International Committee of the Red Cross president has said “there is not a dramatic or serious humanitarian crisis in Iraq.”  Nor did it matter that famine in southern Africa threatens over 14 million people.  They chose to highlight Iraq.

While China exported SARS to Taiwan, causing the deaths of over 30 Taiwanese, China prevented Taiwan from obtaining even observer status in the WHO, the institution at the forefront of the fight against SARS.  When the decision to bar Taiwan was announced, one Taiwanese man reacted so violently that he had to be removed from the room.  Later it was said that his niece had died from SARS.

The sad fact is that no UN meeting would be complete without a prominent focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Even the WHO is not immune from this malady.  The Arab-Israeli conflict has been allowed to intrude on the WHO since its founding in 1948, when the first meeting of health ministers passed a resolution acknowledging an appeal in favor of Palestinian refugees.

From 1948 to 1967, the health conditions of the Palestinian refugees were the sole responsibility of Jordan and Egypt, who occupied the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, until the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. During those 19 years, the life expectancy for a Palestinian man increased from 42 to 44 years and the infant mortality rate fell from 200 per thousand to 170 per thousand.  After Israel gained control of the territories in 1967, there was a radical shift in the Arab states’ approach to the WHO. They pushed through vitriolic resolutions condemning the effects of Israeli policies in the territories, even though the health conditions in the West Bank and Gaza actually improved, as Palestinian male life expectancy grew from 44 to 63 and the infant mortality rate fell from 170 per thousand to 60 per thousand.

Today, while the WHO continues to single out the Palestinian population, there are many countries with more severe public health problems.  In Botswana, nearly 40 percent of the adult population is living with HIV/AIDS.  Male life expectancies in Ethiopia, Mali, Chad and other African countries are in the mid-40’s.  Even among Arab countries, only the small rich oil-states – Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – exceed the current Palestinian life expectancy of 70 years.

Yet, this year like many years prior, there was only one country-specific resolution at the WHO: “Health conditions of, and assistance to, the Arab population in the occupied territories, including Palestine.”  And what does this recurring resolution say?  Over the years it has addressed such non-health issues as settlements, self-determination, and “land-for-peace.” This year it makes the ludicrous declaration: “Israeli occupation is a serious health problem.”  No mention is made of the adverse health effects of strapping several kilos of explosives to one’s body and then detonating them for the purpose of killing innocent civilians.

The World Health Organization has earned well-deserved praise for its handling of the SARS epidemic.  It can build on this reputation by ending the politicized abuse of the forum, a senseless distraction from substantive work to improve the health of all people, particularly those in greatest need. Lamentably, the WHO, like the Commission on Human Rights and other UN agencies, continues to stray from its humanitarian agenda to serve political purposes of those countries that have never accepted Israel’s right to exist.

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