What’s expected of an independent review of WHO?

Following the pressure from countries, especially the United States, that the World Health Organization (WHO) has not done enough to contain the coronavirus, member states of the WHO, last month, agreed to set up an independent review into the global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The resolution, approved without objection by the WHO’s 194-member states at their assembly meeting that was virtually held. The World Health Assembly (WHA) is the organisation’s decision-making body.


The resolution additionally allows for the inquiry to look into the organisation’s own role. Of course, the United States, in particular, has been highly critical of the organisation’s response. Adoption of this resolution was overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s threat to permanently cut US funding and to withdraw from the organisation.


Following the adoption of the resolution, the US issued statement in Geneva that: “we wholeheartedly endorse the call in the resolution for all Member States to provide the WHO with timely, accurate, and sufficiently-detailed public health information related to the Covid-19 pandemic.”


Addressing the Assembly, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus thanked the states for adopting the resolution that “calls for an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the international response, including, but not limited to the WHO's performance”.

Particularly, the part of the resolution that had been considered contentious called for ‘a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation’ at ‘the earliest appropriate moment’, with the purpose ‘to review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to Covid-19.

However, the resolution did not single out any individual country though the USA has consistently accused China of withholding information about the virus, which was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019.

The independent review will have a mountainous task to assess the origins and international response to the coronavirus established at the earliest possible opportunity. What makes it uneasy task is that any related information may not be readily accessible.

Is the review important anyway?

It is quite important to be candid about the primary reason this outbreak spun out of control: was there a failure by WHO to obtain the information that the world needed, and that failure cost many lives? In addition, more questions may be raised: how did this pandemic spread? What is the epidemiology behind it?

Getting answers to these questions is absolutely crucial for the global community going forward to avoid another pandemic of this kind. So an independent review would look at what lessons could be learned and put forward actionable recommendations for future prevention.

As many states are wondering whether the WHO has done enough to contain the spread of coronavirus pandemic, the mind-boggling question may be answered by outcome of an independent inquiry.

The cost of coronavirus to the entire world is incredibly unimaginable. In my view, it was crucially important to call for an independent review into Covid-19, which has caused unprecedented global health and economic crisis.

The outcome of independent review is likely to be a reminder to the WHO as well as its member states to live up to their cardinal obligation of promoting and protecting health.

The WHO’s Constitution states that “the achievement of any State in the promotion and protection of health is of value to all. The health of all peoples is dependent upon the fullest co-operation of individuals and States.”

This arguably underlines the principle of solidarity most people are longing for in today’s pandemic context, which is a global concern.

Again, under the WHO’s Constitution the agency is under obligation to guarantee the human right to health and, more generally, the human right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress.

It is crucial to understand that the coronavirus pandemic’s specificity lies not only in the scale of the health threat and of its socio-economic consequences, but also in its political dimension.

The 1990s and 2000s technocratic era in the international law of institutions seems to have come to an end. It is no longer enough, indeed, to invoke efficacy or even scientific authority to establish legitimacy.

In fact, world politics are omnipresent in most of the recent discussions in and also about the WHO, as exemplified by the US-China opposition. Sovereignty has also become a regular concern of States therein lately.

Though there have been many accusations against the WHO, one would wonder if the organisation has legal authority to require member states to provide any information concerning serious health issues.

Or, one would ask: does the WHO have the power under the International Health Regulations (IHR) to review states’ compliance with human rights obligations in the context of a pandemic response?

The WHO Director-General has, however, issued his general remarks on the importance of respecting human rights amid the Covid-19 response, but can the WHO do more by monitoring states individually?

Accordingly, the WHO possesses an implied power under the IHR to monitor states’ compliance with human rights obligations, one must verify that this power is necessary for the WHO’s responsibility for the management of the global regime for the control of international spread of diseases.

The writer is a law expert.

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