Countries gather in Geneva for World Health Assembly; first likely debate on Taiwan

World Health Organization Headquarters and Flag (Credit: US MIssion in Geneva)

The World Health Assembly will resume at the Palais des Nations on Sunday after taking a break for two years due to the Covid-19, but with the pandemic very much still around and political matters mixing with the medical.

There are 73 items on the agenda for the 75th WHA, which runs from 22 to 28 May in Geneva with the official theme, "Health for Peace, Peace for Health", and issues about Taiwan and Russia at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) main policy making body.

Heads of state are expected to address the assembly on opening day, and a stream of health ministers will have their say during the meeting.

US Health and Human Services secretary Xavier Becerra was to have been one but tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday and will not be coming. 

The agenda items will include trying to get Taiwan to attend as an observer and discussion on a Treaty Pandemic, how the WHO is to be financed and what is happening to health in Ukraine and items relating to Russia. 

Taiwan issue

The Taiwan issue always comes up early in the proceedings and is usually swept away as China can block its neighbour, which holds democratic elections.

So, political fighting will come to the fore when the World Health Organization's decision-making body begins its first person-to-person meeting after the virus claimed more than 6.2 million lives worldwide and ravaged the world for two years.

China came out swinging on Thursday as it rejected a call from the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for the WHO to invite Taiwan to the WHA as an observer. The US had usually allowed other nations to directly push for this at earlier assemblies.

“Inviting Taiwan to attend the WHA as an observer would exemplify the WHO’s commitment to an inclusive approach to international health cooperation and; health for all,” said Blinken, noting that the island state had been been invited to participate as an observer at previous meetings.

In response, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: “We firmly oppose the relevant statement issued by the US.”

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is likely to assess the health situation in Ukraine, where 235 attacks have taken place on health in the country since the Russian invasion on 24 February. 

Most of the WHO's European region 53 states had condemned Russia's “military aggression against Ukraine” earlier in May, and demands were made for the possible relocation of WHO's Moscow-based regional Office for Noncommunicable Diseases.

Despite rumblings in the media that Russia is even contemplating removing itself from the WHO and the World Trade Organization, Russia is expected to be at the WHA and take part in the decisions.

Steven Solomon, WHO's principal legal officer, told journalists ahead of the WHA: “Yes, they are allowed to participate.”

Other issues that come up for discussion may not be finalised at this WHA, and decisions could be kicked down the road.

Pandemic Treaty

Tedros has pushed hard for the 194 WHO member states to adopt a Pandemic Treaty which would enable them to draft and negotiate a convention or international agreement that would allow for the global health body to take action to better protect the world from future pandemics. 

Some states worry that such a legally binding treaty would give the WHO power over them and do not even want to call any agreement on how to deal with future pandemics a treaty.

Discussion on amendments to the International Health Regulations (IHR) will come up on US proposals for targeted amendments to the IHR that a leaked text circulated indicates may only be adopted at the 77th WHA in 2024 .

And then there is WHO financing, where there is a recommendation for an increase to member states’ annual assessed contributions to the agency. 

In April, the WHO working group on sustainable finance agreed on a new formula to boost member states’ contributions to cover 50 per cent of its core budget needs by 2028/9

The proposed increase would be gradual and implemented only in  May 2024, depending on the WHA's decision.

In its report, the working group also recommended that the WHA establish a new “agile member states taskforce” that would help strengthen the governance of the organisation’s budget.

Nearing the end of his term, Tedros is also on track to be elected at the WHA to hold his office for a second term after the global health body nominated him in January as the sole candidate for the vote.