The first COVID-19 case was discovered in Wuhan on December 8, 2019. By March 20, 2021, over 123 million people were affected and over 2.7 million died worldwide. As the world grapples with accountability and responsibility issues, the vast proportions of global tragedy has brought the issue of the politicization of international institutions to the fore amid concerns over increasing Chinese influence in the World Health Organization (WHO).
The contagion spread worldwide mainly because timely information and transparency were withheld and, when available, no urgent action was taken. China did not report the case to WHO until December 31, 2019, the WHO emergency committee did not meet until January 22, waited another week to declare an international emergency, and did not report a pandemic until March 11, 2020. By then tens of thousands had traveled from China to all parts of the world and had carried the infection.
For decades, the specialized agencies of the United Nations have worked on the unspoken principle that the largest donors have the greatest say. The United States is responsible for a significant portion of the budgets of many UN agencies: for example, 25 percent of the WHO, 36.6 percent of the UNHCR and a massive US $ 2.5 billion for the World Food Program are allocated by the US. The US has used such contributions for political action. Under President Trump, the US withdrew from ten multilateral agreements, including the Paris Climate Agreement, the United Nations Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations Agency Nations (UNHRC). UNRWA), Global Compact for Migration, Iran Nuclear Deal, etc. In many cases the US cited the anti-Israel tendency of the UN agencies to suspend their contributions or to request a withdrawal. For example, in 2011 President Obama suspended the financial contribution to UNESCO when he granted full membership to Palestine as a state. The WTO has also recently been politicized during the US-China trade war. While the US has not left the WTO, President Trump has weakened the trade regulator by blocking the appointment of judges.
As the US, particularly under President Trump, pulled back from the institutions it helped found, China has increased its participation. As seen in the most recent case by the WHO, due to its growing global influence on international institutions and the withdrawal of the US, China was able to exert tremendous influence despite a much smaller financial contribution (around 8 percent in 2019). Of the 17 specialized agencies and groups of the United Nations, four are headed by Chinese representatives – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) ). It is the only nation that runs more than one UN agency. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “With the United Nations increasing its influence, China can restrict international control of its conduct both domestically and abroad.” It also allows him to “shape international norms and standards”. This was also illustrated in 2016 when China dismissed the International Court of Justice’s ruling on its claim to sovereignty in the South China Sea and continued to militarize the islands. In addition, over a hundred countries have joined the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and support China through trade and investment relationships in international institutions. This enables China to use its bilateral relations to multilaterally support its political goals.
The way forward
The world was not ready to jointly address COVID-19 and WHO failed to provide the early warnings it should have. This makes it necessary to put in place systems that prevent the political conquest of international institutions that have detrimental consequences for the international community. Institutional reform, the development of new rules and norms and the introduction of a democratic multilateral system must be the way forward.
India has emphasized the politicization of the UN Security Council and its specialized agencies. With regard to the Syrian conflict, for example, India has highlighted the politicization of the conflict and the decoupling of humanitarian efforts from progress on the political path. India has strongly advocated reform and restructuring of the United Nations, including the Security Council, to make it better equipped to meet the needs of developing countries. In September 2020 PM Modi declared reform of the United Nations to be the “need of the hour”.
In particular, India proposed reform of WHO in December 2020 that included improvements in governance by reviewing the functioning of the critical technical committees within the framework of WHO and allowing the WHO Director-General to address a global public health emergency at the General consensus in the emergency committee to be declared on the basis of a comprehensive agreement.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that no country can lead more than one UN organization to ensure that it does not exert undue influence on the specialized agencies. This would also lead to a stronger democratization of the UN system.
Ultimately, transparency and global data exchange on a number of global issues, which are coordinated by the responsible specialist agency, would be of decisive importance for the future. War games and the strategy of multi-dimensional reactions on an international level to future threats would be just as critical.
In an increasingly interconnected world, combating future multinational threats would require a global approach. No country, powerful as it is, can hope to do it alone. The world has a better chance of success if countries undercut their selfish ambitions to manipulate international organizations and try to maintain global leadership by taking advantage of disasters. In order to “help” them, the world community will have come together to develop systems that prevent the political conquest of international institutions.
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