Endorsement of New WHO Health and Peace Initiative Offers Bright Spot in Dark Horizons of Conflict
Swiss global health ambassador Nora Kronig Romero speaks about the Health and Peace initiative at the WHO Executive Board meeting Thursday.

WHO Executive Board delegates on Thursday gave the green light to a draft proposal by Switzerland cementing the framework for a new WHO “Health for Peace” initiative.

The move marked a bright spot in a day otherwise marked by heated debates over regional conflicts, including Gaza and  Ukraine

The Health and Peace initiative was first proposed in 2020 by WHO’s Director General, who grew up in a war-torn region of Ethiopia, now in Eritrea, whose remarks then – “there can be no health without peace and no peace without health” – became a slogan for the initiative. 

A “roadmap” for rolling out the initiative came before the World Health Assembly in May 2023, and was “noted” by the member state body.

The draft decision, which provides a more framework for the WHO approach to the issue, would represent a more formal seal of approval by member states, should it get the go-ahead in May.

And that approval has been slow in coming due to member state fears that such an initiative could be politicised and overlap with the work of other UN agencies.

“Our Constitution, your constitution, says the health of all peoples is fundamental to peace and security. Therein lies the mandate for this activity,” WHO’s Executive Director for Health Emergencies Mike Ryan told the EB, summarising the rationale for the initiative. 

“Health can build trust, helps prevent conflict. Health can sustain peace.” 

WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies, Michael Ryan

In his remarks, Ryan pledged that the initiative would build locally-relevant programs that support peace-building while avoiding further politicisation of the health sector and its role. However, some countries were still not convinced.  

China, while not directly opposing the initiative, reflected some of still lingering reservations amongst some member states, stating,  “We should follow the principle of the member states-driven respect to national sovereignty, non- interference in internal affairs and the member states consensus. 

“We should have respect for different national conditions,” said the Chinese delegate, urging further clarification of “specific goals…content and outcome evaluation indicators,” as well as analysis of the “division of labor of other UN agencies and global health organizations, to avoid duplication by WHO and resource waste. 

Brazil expressed hesitations as well, saying:  “Let me reiterate the concern of my country with the securitization of the health agenda. 

“We have seen in our debate on the previous item. How issues of health continue to be used by some members to advance political speeches, the same members that selectively complain about the politicization of the EB agenda and say it needs to be streamlined. 

“Health is not and shall not be a security issue, but instead should be considered as a core part of the sustainable development agenda.” 

The decision, which still must go before the full World Health Assembly in May, received strong support from many other diverse quarters ranging from the Maldives to the United States and Afghanistan. 

“As we have heard repeatedly throughout the interventions in the preceding agenda items today, the importance of global peace and its intricate correlation to help cannot be overstated. The roadmap would pave the way for the creation of health programs that are both conflict sensitive, to focus on young persons’ awareness and capacity building in mainstream directions are important,” stated the Maldives delegate to the EB. 

“We find ourselves at a historical juncture where the world is stuck in unprecedented global disorder,” said  Dr W. Majrooh, representative of Afghanistan’s government in exile, “A mess created by politicians – in this climate the only community that spans from the village to the international level and is still fairly trusted, is the health community. It is not just a privilege but a historical responsibility.

“I implore you to recognize the untapped potential within our healthcare community, from the frontline campaigns to the institutional capacity of the World Health Organization. 

“Now more than ever, we must step out of our comfort zones, fill the gaps left by violence and politicians and  become the bridge to the real advocates of health and  peace.”

Image Credits: WHO/Sean Hawkey .

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