WHO ‘Health For Peace’ Initiative Hits Crosscurrents in WHO Executive Board Debate
Amoth and Tedros
WHO Executive Board Chair Dr Patrick Amoth and Director-General Dr Tedros at Friday’s EB150 session.

An innovative WHO “Health for Peace Initiative” that aims to build bridges in conflict zone and humanitarian settings through global health initiatives ran into some rough waters at last week’s Executive Board meeting – with the United States saying that it should include a human rights element – while Russia warned WHO against “politicizing” its agenda.  

The initiative, conceived in 2019-2020, was planned and developed together with the International Labour Organization, the UN Peacebuilding Support Office, and the Swiss-based organization Interpeace, with some initial projects now being implemented in areas like the Ukraine. 

The initiative builds on earlier WHO “Bridges for Peace” projects that took place during the 1980s and 1990s. But this new GHPI edition also aims to “work on conflict” by ensuring that such programmes help address conflict’s underlying causes – while avoiding unintentionally fuelling of tensions. 

Other aims of the initiative include developing “innovative ways to address conflict, strengthen resilience to violence and empower people to (re)build peaceful relations with each other”.

It aims to covers a wide range of areas – from infectious diseases to maternal and child health, nutrition, tobacco use and health systems strengthening. 

Synopsis of the health for peace initiative.

Russia – don’t stray into other areas

However, some leading member states gave the initiative a mixed reception in a discussion WHO Executive Board on Friday, the day before the 150th session closed

Russia warned WHO that it needs to to avoid “politicising” its agenda, asking for more discussion about the nuts and bolts of the initiative.

It also warned WHO against “straying” into areas beyond its mandate, saying focusing on the core WHO mission of strengthening health systems already helps build trust between countries. 

“Russia continues to speak out against the politicization of the WHO agenda… We call upon WHO to strictly follow its mandate and not stray into other areas, those covered by other [United Nations] bodies, specialized agencies and so on,” Russia’s EB  representative said.

Russia also highlighted that the initiative had launched, based on discussion with only 24 countries and partners.

“This issue has not been investigated by governing bodies of the WHO at another stage,” the Russian representative said. “We believe that there should be more broad discussions.”

Representatives from WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region also appeared hesitant, with one delegate stressing that “first and foremost, we should avoid causing any harm.”

“Many interventions of health for peace will only be successful if they are well prepared and well designed, and therefore we need to coordinate our experiences and expertise,” he said. 

US asks for human rights inclusion

Health for Peace Initiative as it was presented at the Paris Peace Conference in 2020.

In contrast, the United States asked that human rights be included as one of the pillars of the initiative. 

While the US supports the draft of the GHPI, it said that the country “regrets that the text … fails to incorporate human rights as a fundamental pillar in addition to peace and development.

“The WHO has an important role to play in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in coordination with other UN agencies,” the US representative said.

Building vaccine confidence, including the need to address issues of vaccine misinformation and disinformation, could also be a valuable arena in which the new GHPI could act.  

In response to the concerns, WHO officials stated that discussions on the initiative with member states are ongoing, and would be managed in an open and inclusive manner.

“I think that we have been very open to date,” said a WHO emergencies official. “It’s not a political initiative. Obviously, political decisions do have an impact on health and on peace and we’re all aware of this.”

‘There cannot be health without peace’ 

“There cannot be health without peace, and there cannot be peace without health,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has championed the initiative, has explained. 

“Health can also be a bridge to peace.  Health can contribute to peace by delivering services equitably to all people in society- especially disadvantaged groups,” he said in a recent message. “This can also help address the triggers of conflict, such as unequal access to health care, which can often leave to feelings of exclusion and resentment.

“Equitable health services strengthen community trust, which in turn contribute to health systems and peacebuilding efforts.” 

Data and technology sharing key to managing pandemics

In other discussions Friday, China, Singapore and Indonesia all stressed the need to address benefits and information sharing. 

“The current pandemic has shown us how important it is to make such information free and publicly available,” a representative from Singapore said, noting that the country “sees the sharing of such data … as part of ‘global public goods’” and that should be included in a larger conversation on the financing of such goods.

Singapore also recommended that WHO establish a global health threats fund, invested in by nations based on pre-agreed contributions as a means of being better prepared for the next pandemic. 

“We would like to caution against lies in the lack of levels of preparedness with regard to the response to pandemics around our region,” a second representative from the Eastern Mediterranean region said. “We would like to see the continuation of the support for our preparedness in this regard.”

He said that there should be better coordination among member states with regard to health, security, and preparation of emergency plans and plans with regard to specific diseases. 

Image Credits: WHO EB 150.

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