Poland Urges WHO Pandemic Accord Delay Amid Political Strife at Board Meeting Over Gaza and Ukraine
WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus  choked back tears at end of lengthy EB session, during appeal for peace in Gaza.

Poland on Thursday suggested that it might be better to delay the approval of a new World Health Organization (WHO) pandemic accord, beyond the planned May 2024 deadline – so as to get to an “ambitious, clear and consistent” agreement.  

The Polish trial balloon seemed to break ranks with the drumbeat of recent statements by WHO and other member states that negotiations should conclude this year – even if the present pathway to rapid agreement seems strewn with obstacles – including only a few more planned meetings of WHO  member state negotiating teams.   

Poland’s comment came during a marathon 12-hour WHO Executive Board meeting Thursday that veered sharply from topics such as pandemic preparedness and biosafety to the Gaza and Ukraine war, with the latter dominating most of the day’s session. 

‘Lies’ and Entrenched Positions Undermine WHO Pandemic Negotiations

“It’s very important, especially in reference to a future pandemic treaty, to have an ambitious, clear and consistent document, which will really contribute to the prevention of future crises,” said the Polish delegate in remarks about the member state negotiations over a new pandemic accord and revisions in the International Health Regulations (IHR), which are supposed to be completed by May 2024.  

“And here I would like to share with you our concern that it would not be beneficial if time pressure leads to a weakening of our ambition, and the quality of the final document.  It is time to ask if we will be ready to present an agreement on a draft pandemic treaty by May 2024?” 

Norway, however, appeared to push back against Poland’s suggestion that the deadline for conclusion of a pandemic accord be delayed. 

“The deadline for INB and IHR negotiations must be used as a historic opportunity to ensure the world is better able to prevent and respond to pandemics,” said the Norwegian delegate. 

Other countries reaffirmed their commitment to reaching an accord without stating a date. 

“On the pandemic accord, the United Kingdom remains committed to reaching agreements with other member states,” stated the UK. 

Palestine accuses Israel of genocide; Israel charges WHO of ‘collusion’ with Hamas

Gaza and Ukraine are only two amongst the more than dozen Grade 3 health emergencies related to conflict, climate and disease outbreaks that the organisation is coping with right now.   The EB discussions reflected the deep demands now being generated by conflicts – as compared to a virus – on the time of the WHO governing bodies, as well as the technical work of the global health agency.  

And the sharp geopolitical rifts that seem to have plagued the global body even more severely since the winding down of the COVID pandemic were again plainly evident Thursday.

Listing of WHO Grade 3 Emergencies as of September 2023, before the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel war

In the EB debate over Gaza, Palestine, a WHO observer state, accused Israel of carrying out deliberate attacks on civilian populations and health facilities during its invasion of Gaza in military actions amounting to “genocide” – an issue now before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. On Friday, the ICJH issued an interim ruling that Israel must take more active measures to prevent indiscriminate killing and ensure basic services and humanitarian reaches Gaza Palestinians – although the court stopped short of ordering Israel to halt its military campaign.

Israel, meanwhile, accused WHO of  “collusion” with Hamas, turning a blind eye to the use of hospital infrastructure for military aims and concealment of Israeli hostages.  

Neither WHO Health Emergencies Director Mike Ryan nor Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus responded to the Israeli charges against the global health agency at the EB session, although Tedros on Friday issued a denial on X (Twitter). 

“No one and nowhere is safe in Gaza. So far around 26,000 people have died, 8000 are missing, and close to 64,000 are injured in the conflict, and 1.7 million people are displaced,” said Tedros, repeating calls for a cease fire.

“If we look for a solution, it’s always possible. It’s only the will that’s required, and I’m a true believer because of my own experience that war doesn’t bring solutions – except more war, more hatred, more destruction.

Fighting back tears at the reference to his own childhood in a war-torn region of Ethiopia, now in Eritrea, he pleaded: “So let’s choose peace. Let’s resolve this issue politically.”

Gaza humanitarian crisis 

France calls for “immediate and sustainable cease-fire” in Gaza.

Discussions on Gaza focused on WHO’s latest report on Health Conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, describing barely functioning Gaza hospitals, and a civilian population trapped by war, hunger, thirst and displacement. A slight technical revision to an EB resolution on more humanitarian aid to Gaza, already approved in a special EB session in December, was approved. 

A large bloc of Islamic and Middle Eastern countries, supported by the African Region, and Cuba, Colombia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, blasted Israel’s conduct of the war, with some, such as Cuba and Colombia, also describing Israel’s actions in Gaza as tantamount to war crimes. 

The United States, Germany and most other European nations focused on the urgency of getting more humanitarian aid into Gaza. They also called for Hamas to release the more than 100 Israeli and foreign hostages still held in Gaza, after a November cease-fire broke down. Around 240 hostages were taken by Hamas in its bloody 7 October incursion into Israeli border communities, which killed 1,200 people and triggered Israel’s military invasion. 

France called for an “immediate, sustainable cease fire” while the United Kingdom spoke in terms of an “immediate humanitarian pause as a vital step towards building a sustainable, permanent cease-fire.” 

A few states, notably Germany, Belgium and New Zealand denounced Hamas actions, directly or indirectly.  

“We reiterate our condemnation of Hamas terrorist attacks, including the systematic use of sexual violence and the abuse of hospitals and civilians as human shield,” stated Germany, which also referenced “the right of Israel to defend itself in line with international humanitarian law.”

Medical facilities must never be used for military purposes, and must never be the object of attack,’’ added New Zealand’s delegate.  

Gazans have no health or human dignity 

Ryad Awaja Aouadja, Consul at the Palestinian Mission to the UN in Geneva

For their part, both Israeli and Palestinian delegates described the impacts of the war-time violence in highly emotive terms.  

Palestinian delegate, Ryad Awaja Aouadja, described the how a young female double amputee had to be carted to a makeshift toilet in a refugee camp by her parents.

“I have no words to describe what is happening in the occupied Palestinian territories,” said Aouadja.  

“The whole world knows about the humanitarian disaster there, the catastrophic health situation in the Gaza Strip. And we’re still hearing pretexts, justifications, supposedly for the occupation, justifications for the destruction committed by the occupying power,” he said. 

“How can we accept this devastation, this genocide, the total destruction of health establishments and facilities?

“How can you talk about health and human dignity when what you are seeing is a situation where the rights of Palestinian women and girls to get sanitary napkins to get nappies are being denied?…. And you have so many dead, most of them women and civilians? 

“Where is health? Where is hygiene? Where’s dignity when you have a young girl who’s had to have her legs amputated and be carried by her parents to some kind of toilet? … We have 1.5 million people who’ve had to leave their homes because their homes have been destroyed by the occupying powers and they’ve had to go and live in overcrowded refugee camps,

“We know that for 75 years now, we’ve had the occupation going on there,” added Aouadja, referring to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that followed the UN partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel.

“…Talking about self defense no longer makes any sense. We’re just talking here about collective punishment about vengeance, about genocide against the Palestinian people,” Aouadja added.

“If you look anywhere on the internet, you can see that that is the case…. I therefore call on the international community to shoulder its humanitarian, ethical and moral responsibility to put an end to this military aggression to put an end to this violence,” he concluded, drawing applause from several dozen EB participants at the end of his comments. 

Israel – WHO ‘collusion’ with Hamas 

Waleed Gadban, Consul at the Israeli UN Mission in Geneva

Israel’s ambassador, Meirav Eilon Shahar, quoted testimony by former Israeli hostage Moran Stela Yanai, who described being taken to a Gaza hospital on 7 October, after being beaten and abducted from a music festival – where she was examined by a Gazan physician who “knew I was kidnapped and did not do anything.”

Shahar also cited Israeli military reports of Hamas tunnels, munitions and weaponry found in and under at least five major Gazan hospitals, including Shifa and the Indonesian Hospital, where corpses of five Israeli hostages also were found. “Every single hospital that the IDF searched in Gaza, it found evidence of Hamas’ military use,” charged Shahar. “Hamas has militarised the entire civilian area of the Gaza Strip, as a matter of premeditated strategy.”

View interactive compilation of Hamas abuse of hospitals >> 

“These are undeniable facts that WHO chooses to ignore time and time again. This is not incompetence; it is collusion. The WHO knew hostages were held in hospitals and that terrorists operated within. “Even when presented with concrete evidence of what was happening below ground and above ground, about the weapons, the headquarters, the closed rooms, WHO chooses to turn a blind eye, jeopardising those they are meant to protect,” she said. 

Her comments were refuted by Tedros in an X post on Friday – sparking yet another round of exchanges.  

At the conclusion of Thursday’s session on Gaza, Israeli delegate Waleed Gadban, described the EB debate on Gaza as a “masquerade with no limits.” 

“Syria bombarded more than half of its own civilian population and Israel facilitated access to more than 10,000 trucks into Gaza and no one has mentioned that,” said Gadban, an Israeli Druze who delivered his closing remarks in Arabic.

“In Yemen, people are suffering from famine… We need to call a spade a spade. Iran launched a humanitarian appeal for the people in Gaza. I can tell you that the people in Gaza would be better off if Iran didn’t furnish weapons to terrorists.”  

Russia and Ukraine 

Ukraine’s delegate to the WHO Executive Board

Later Thursday, a WHO update on the health and humanitarian situation in Ukraine, following on from  2022 and 2023 World Health Assembly resolutions denouncing Russia’s 2022 invasion, served as the focus for yet another politicized debate over health as a casualty of war during the Thursday session. 

Russia blasted the WHO follow-up  report as unnecessary and “politically motivated” by NATO allies.

In his closing remarks, Tedros told the Russian Federation that WHO had maintained “strict neutrality” in its follow-up on the Ukraine health and humanitarian situation.  

The WHO report details some 1,300 Russian attacks on health care facilities in Ukraine, since the start of the conflict. However, the health system, while damaged, remains functional with “92% of all health facilities intact,” said WHO’s Ryan. He noted that over $72 million worth of medical supplies has been delivered to health facilities and another $51 million is in the pipeline, with nearly 200 aid convoys and 100 WHO missions since the conflict began.  

“This represents one of the most intense,  one of the most sustained, comprehensive responses to any humanitarian crisis. I believe that WHO has ever been able to mount,” he said. 

Both Moldova and Denmark expressed concerns about the safety of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia  nuclear reactor in the wake of Russia’s purported destruction of the Kakhovka dam in June, 2023, which lowered water levels in a reservoir around the nuclear power plant that supplies cooling water for the reactor and its spent fuel

Denmark, speaking on behalf of Ukraine, the European Union and about dozen other non-EU European states, noted that over the past weeks, Russia has intensified its attacks in Ukraine “As a consequence, Ukraine’s health system and access to critical health care services, medicines and treatment are severely compromised.” 

Other European countries denounced the ongoing conflict, with Poland describing it as an “illegal and unprovoked” war perpetrated by Russia.

Slovakia, however, also called on the international community for renewed efforts at peace negotiations in a war-weary region “to support the end of this conflict which is putting at high risk of death or certainty, unsafe environment for the house the development of children and adolescent and promoting the health of families that are divided and experiencing poverty due to social determinants, and worsening mental health.” 

Russia denounces WHO report as ‘politically motivated’  

Russia denounces the EB debate as politically motivated.

The Russian Federation, meanwhile, denounced the WHO report and debate as indulgence in “anti-Russian propaganda” saying that “representatives of NATO countries for the second year in a row are insisting on the inclusion of this item on our agenda, with only one purpose, that of getting airtime to allow them to recite a litany of baseless allegations against Russia. 

“Their governments at the same time, are supplying Ukraine with lethal weaponry that is being used against civilians in peaceful towns, and also against health infrastructure,” said the delegate to the EB. 

“The fact is that in accordance with data from the International Statistical Institute, in the world, in 2023, there were 183 regional conflicts, apart from Ukraine. Judging by the WHO classification, there are 16 acute and protracted emergencies that are grade three for emergencies.

“Just a little earlier, countries were obliged to cram into three minutes, their position on all these emergencies, on the work of WHO, and also on the pandemic agreement and amendments to the IHR [international health regulations]. And now they have another three minutes on Ukraine alone,” said Russia’s delegate.  

Board makes only fleeting reference to health crises triggered by other global conflicts

Dr W. Majrooh, Afghan delegate to the EB

Meanwhile, amongst the nearly dozen conflict-related Grade 3 emergencies cited in the WHO report, only fleeting reference was made by Board delegates to other global hotspots, such as Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Haiti at the EB session on health emergencies that continued for hours throughout Thursday.     

“It seems that Afghanistan has dropped off the map,” complained Dr W. Majrooh, the delegate of Afghan’s government in exile, at one point. He noted that Afghanistan continues to face “historical susceptibility in both man-made and natural disasters.” 

Majrooh urged WHO to “not only keep the health emergency preparedness and response capacity in Afghanistan, as it is top priority but to actively engage with the current leadership to make them realise the significance of this matter.”  

  • Updated on 27 January with references to official quotes and news developments on Friday.

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