The legal implications of US withdrawal of funding to WHO

Last week US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) citing the body’s “failure of its basic duty’ in the response to the coronavirus outbreak.

He accused the UN agency of mishandling and covering up the initial spread of COVID-19 in China, and of generally failing to take a harsher stance towards Beijing.


President Trump said the WHO is being China-centric more generally.


He further criticized the WHO that has often praised China for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.


However, the decision, according to President Trump, on whether the US resumes funding will be made after the review would last for 60 to 90 days.

The US is the global health body’s largest single funder and gave it more than $400 million in 2019.

This is equivalent to 15 per cent of its 2018-19 regular budget. And China contributed about $86 million in 2018-19.

What’s WHO’s mandate?

Under the WHO Constitution, it was founded in 1948 and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. It is the UN agency responsible for global public health.

The Organisation has 194 member states, and its core function is to direct and coordinate international health work through collaboration.

It was created with a mandate to improve the health of the world’s population, and defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

In addition, the WHO is duty-bound, among others, to establish and maintain effective collaboration with the United Nations, specialized agencies, governmental health administrations, professional groups and such other organizations as may be deemed appropriate; to assist Governments, upon request, in strengthening health services; to furnish appropriate technical assistance and, in emergencies, necessary aid upon the request or acceptance of Governments.

How’s WHO funded?

The WHO receives the majority of its funding from two primary sources. The first is membership dues from countries, which are described as “assessed contributions”. The amount each Member State must pay is calculated relative to the country’s wealth and population. The second source of funding is voluntary contributions.

These contributions, provided by governments, philanthropic organisations and private donations, are usually earmarked for specific projects or initiatives, meaning the WHO has less ability to re-allocate them in the event of an emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

As criticized by many world leaders, the move to defund the WHO by the US is not morally right, especially in such a critical moment when the world needs to act in solidarity to end the global pandemic, which respects no geographical frontiers.  

Heaven forbid that defunding isn’t implemented! If enacted, these funding cuts may cause the WHO to be in financial predicament in the middle of a pandemic.

That might affect the WHO in not fulfilling its purview when it’s even trying to help low-and middle-income countries to be able to cope with the influx of COVID-19 patients.

It may also make the WHO less able to coordinate international efforts around issues like vaccine research, procurement of personal protective equipment for health workers and providing technical assistance and experts to help countries fight the pandemic.

Despite the decision, there’s a glimmer of hope that other funders will chip in.

What's the legal implication to the US?

According to the Constitution of the WHO under Article 7 states “If a Member fails to meet its financial obligations to the Organization or in other exceptional circumstances, the Health Assembly may, on such conditions as it thinks proper, suspend the voting privileges and services to which a member is entitled.

The Health Assembly shall have the authority to restore such voting privileges and services.”

The provision grants the Organisation authority to suspend the rights and privileges of a member state that’s unwilling to honour its contribution to the Organisation’s regular budget.

These rights include that of voting or participating in decision-making of the Organisation’s matters.

This kind of measure is laid down in the UN General Assembly ‘Rules of Procedure’, which apply across all UN specialized agencies.

In addition, if the US doesn’t walk back its decision, clearly it will be reneging on its international obligation. And such a position is inconsistent with the principle of pacta sunt servanda.

The principle that treaty obligations must be fulfilled in good faith is one aspect of the fundamental rule that requires all subjects of international law to exercise in good faith their rights and duties under the law.

This fundamental principle manifests the obligation incumbent upon states for an international legal system that can ensure international order and prevent arbitrary behaviour and chaos.

In the words, the principle portrays the character of international legal systems. Subjects of international law are legally bound under the principle to implement what the law prescribes.

From a global leadership perspective, if not exaggerating, for decades, the world has looked to the US to provide leadership on numerous global issues, including health.

So, if the US maintains defunding the WHO, at a time when the COVID-19 is moving the world into uncharted territory, it would definitely lose its international reputation.

Besides, it may adversely affect the United States’ long-term strategic interests.

The writer is a law expert.

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