Saturday, June 6, 2020

The USA is Still a WHO Member

Update: On July 7, 2020, the US government under President Donald Trump officially began the one-year process of withdrawing from the WHO. However, the next US president, Joe Biden, then canceled the process on January 20, 2021, almost six months before the country would have actually left. The US never officially stopped being a member of the WHO, and is no longer planning to leave.

The World Health Organization includes almost every country in the world, coordinated by six different regional offices (public domain map; source).

Is the US leaving the WHO?

Last weekend US president Donald Trump made a statement that seemed to imply the country was withdrawing from membership in the World Health Organization (WHO).

Citing accusations that the body is overly influenced by China, the US president said "We will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization".

Bu what exactly does that mean?

Withdrawing from the WHO

The constitution of the World Health Organization lays out the procedure for a country to join the body, but doesn't say anything about how to leave. However, the US has its own laws about participating in the WHO, which state that the country can leave the organization if it provides one year's notice - though only if it's up-to-date on its payments.

It's not clear whether the president can initiate a withdrawal from the WHO on his own authority anyway, or if the power to do that is reserved for the country's legislature, the US Congress. Government spending in the US is generally controlled by Congress, not the president, and two experts interviewed by US radio network NPR said that a presidential order to withdrawal from the WHO without Congress's pre-approval would be unconstitutional.

If so, then any decision to withdraw would likely be stricken down in court - but that doesn't mean the president couldn't withhold funding from the organization in the meantime. And indeed, part of the president's statement was to announce that funding assigned to the WHO would be diverted elsewhere.

Flag of the WHOOrganization Name:  
• World Health Organization (English)
• Munaẓẓama aṣ-ṣaḥḥa al-ʻālam (Arabic)
• Shìjiè Wèishēng Zǔzhī (Chinese) 
• Organisation mondiale de la santé (French)
Vsemírnaya organizátsiya zdravookhranéniya (Russian)
• Organización Mundial de la Salud (Spanish)
• WHO (English)
• Shìwèi (Chinese) 
• OMS (French, Spanish) 
• VOZ (Russian)
Founded: 1946 in New York, United States
Headquarters: Geneva, Switzerland

"Terminating our relationship"

In fact, it's not even clear exactly how we should interpret President Trump's statement. "Terminating our relationship" sounds like it would mean withdrawing from the organization, but doesn't explicitly refer to any particular legal or diplomatic process. And so far, the president hasn't signed any formal order to begin the withdrawal process. That means even if he does have the power start a full withdrawal, the one-year countdown required by law probably hasn't even started yet.

So for now, it looks more like the president's statement was just a way of saying he would do everything he can to limit US participation in the WHO, while officially remaining a member. He had already announced a temporary freeze on WHO funding back in April, but this may mean that he's decided to treat the freeze as permanent. It's possible he could also order US officials not to participate in WHO meetings and projects - whether that will happen still remains to be seen.

Which countries are in the WHO?

If it did follow through, the US would be the first country ever to leave the World Health Organization since the body launched in 1948. An agency of the United Nations (UN), the WHO includes every UN member country except for tiny Liechtenstein. Its mission is to coordinate healthcare cooperation between member countries, and to provide global guidance on health issues - including crucial assistance for countries whose own governments don't have the resources to manage their health policies independently.

The nearly-independent island countries of Cook Islands and Niue, which rely on New Zealand for most of their foreign relations, are also WHO members, even though they're not members of the UN itself. Meanwhile, UN Observer States Palestine and the Holy See (government of Vatican City) have been allowed attend WHO meetings as observers. Disputed Taiwan was also invited to participate as an observer from 2009 to 2016, but only as long as its government agreed that Taiwan was part of China in principle.

Although most of the world's dependent territories rely on their associated countries for representation in the WHO, two of them - Puerto Rico (US) and Tokelau (New Zealand) - have their own "associate membership" in the organization.

Stay tuned to PolGeoNow for more news about countries' entries into and exits from major international organizations, including any future departure of the US from the WHO!

Graphic of the WHO flag is in the public domain (source).