On July 6, 2020, the United States notified the United Nations (U.N.) Secretary General that it intends to formally withdraw as a member of the World Health Organization (WHO), thereby starting the one-year notice requirement before the withdrawal becomes effective in July 2021. President Trump intends to complete this process if he is reelected this fall “unless they get their act together”, but former Vice President Biden said he would reverse that decision on his first day in office if he is elected.
So, what is the WHO, and so what if the United States withdraws from it?
The WHO is a specialized agency of the United Nations, established by a treaty that is separate from the U.N. Charter. It is composed of representatives from all 194 member states and receives funds from assessed dues and voluntary contributions. In its 1948 Constitution, the objective of the WHO is the attainment by all people of the highest possible level of health. One of the stated functions of the organization is “to act as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work”, and it has the power to issue binding regulations on sanitary requirements and other procedures designed to prevent the international spread of disease.
During the last seven decades, the WHO has been successful on numerous fronts, including eradicating smallpox from the world; expanding immunization programs against diseases like tetanus, whooping cough, measles, polio and tuberculosis; coordinating control and treatment of the HIV/AIDS pandemic; helping to develop an Ebola vaccine; and providing emergency and humanitarian relief in cooperation with other bodies in the U.N. system in places like Somalia, former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda.
When COVID-19 hit the United States earlier this year, the Trump Administration questioned China’s reporting of the outbreak to the WHO and later called for reforms to the process. When no remedial action was taken, the Administration criticized the organization for its handling of the coronavirus and accused it of succumbing to Chinese influence, which prompted the withdrawal decision.
If the United States withdraws from the WHO, it will likely have less influence in the global health arena. Lack of access to the significant funding historically provided by the U.S. may also jeopardize the WHO’s ability to respond to future emergencies.
On July 24th, the House passed the fiscal year 2021 State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs appropriations bill in a package with three other appropriations bills (H.R. 7608) that provides robust funding for the WHO and prohibits any funding from being used to withdraw from it, potentially setting up a dispute with the Senate and/or White House.
The ABA has policy recommending strong United States support to the WHO and to the more effective implementation of public health improvements through increased WHO standard setting and development of elements of model legislation, regulations and enforcement measures, adaptable to countries' individual needs.
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