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Australia is leading the drive for international action into a formal probe of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its questionable handling of the spread of coronavirus, officially termed COVID-19.
Last week, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the country is pushing for an investigation to be launched by the World Health Assembly, which is deemed "the supreme decision-making body for WHO," ahead of its annual meeting next month.
"I do expect that there will be inquiries internationally about how the coronavirus spread occurred and how various countries and international institutions responded," Zack Cooper, the U.S-Asia-focused research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) told Fox News. "We should expect that there will be a large investigation in the United States, similar to the 9/11 and WMD commissions. So it would be only natural for that to happen internationally as well."
While the Australian proposal is light on specifics, it is tendering that WHO be reformed to allow inspectors to enter a country and thus respond in a far timely manner to a crisis, with a similar function to that of a weapons inspector. The Atomic Energy Agency, for one, is allowed to deploy teams into countries that are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to examine weapons stockpiles and undergo investigations.
The proposition would also mandate a comprehensive review of the pathogen's spread and WHO's response, illuminating ways to bolster future crisis handling and rethink the UN agency's structure and enforcement policies to handle future concerns better.
The 72nd World Health Assembly was slated to take place May 17-21 in Geneva, Switzerland, but instead with proceed as a teleconference attended by delegations of all 194 member states. In addition to having outcome-deriving authority over the WHO, the Assembly is responsible for appointing WHO'S Director-General, supervising the financial policies of the Organization, and reviewing and approving the proposed program budget. In addition, it "considers reports of the Executive Board, which it instructs in regard to matters upon which further action, study, investigation, or report may be required."
The Executive Board is comprised of 34 members, including Australia, China, and the United States.
Yet it remains to be seen how many other member states will back them. Morrison has said that he has already spoken to the leaders of a plethora of "like-minded" member states, and while it remains unclear what the response has been from the U.S., New Zealand and Germany, France and Britain – according to Reuters – have already proclaimed that now is not the appropriate time given that most countries are contending with crippling economies and ascending death tolls.
But some experts beg to differ.
"The pandemic could take 2-3 years to get under control, and that strikes me as too long to wait," Cooper noted. "But we may have to wait until most countries have at least settled into a new normal in the next few months before there will be enough energy to focus on investigations and lessons learned efforts."
And according to David Matas, a Canada-based international human rights, refugee and immigration lawyer who was appointed as a member of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Conference on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court, "the sooner, the better."
"An assessment of effectiveness is an element of prevention. The problem here is a combination of the makeup of the World Health Organization and the geopolitical weight of China. At the time of the SARS outbreak, the WHO was critical of China," he said. "However, the geopolitical weight of China has increased significantly since then. The WHO has, in effect, become their mouthpiece."
And while Morrison has maintained that China will not be targeted in the inquest, although analysts already anticipate that they will block such a proposal.
"Independent experts established by intergovernmental institutions can be independent of governments. The SARS critique of China in 2003 was made by experts appointed by the WHO and not by the Director-General," Matas continued. "But the Government of China, as part of its geopolitical expansion, has become involved in the appointment by multilateral institutions of independent experts."
From his purview, "one can assume that the Government of China would be actively involved in the selection of experts appointed to assess the effectiveness of the WHO response to the coronavirus."
Critics in the international community have lamented that not enough revision was effectively put in place by WHO, the only global governance presiding over public health, and not enough has been learned following the outbreaks of the other significant calamities including the 2002 SARS outbreak from China and the 2014 Ebola epidemic spawned from West Africa.
Earlier this month, President Trump announced that the United States would temporarily freeze funding to the WHO, pending an investigation into its handling of the outbreak and its problematic relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). State Department officials are said to have already started extracting mentions to the WHO on its documents and allocated the money pinned for the organization – of which the US has been by far its largest donor since its inception in 1948 – to other international health bodies.
While Australia has echoed such criticism of the WHO amid the coronavirus pandemic, it has refused to pull funding and instead advocated to amend and strengthen the UN agency – with the Assembly its first step for change. WHO director-general has stated that the agency will perform an "after-action review" of the outbreak and would testify at a formal proceeding amid a growing chorus of criticism from U.S. Republican lawmakers.
And despite issuing early warnings over the nature of the coronavirus to the WHO late last year – and being effectively ignored given that they are not permitted membership at China's behest – Taiwan's foreign minister Joseph Wu reiterated again last week that the island nation was unlikely to receive an invitation to the forthcoming yearly summit, even with growing support from other countries.
Moreover, what may be perceived as indicative of either bloated bureaucracy or fair and formal procedure, WHO has stated that "any change to our role or mandate would have to be reviewed and approved by our 194 member states," making the Australian proposal a steep challenge to pass.
Skeptics have also pointed out that not only is there little that the organization even has in its arsenal to take overhauling action or sanction member states, but that many countries – U.S. and China included – would likely concur that giving the WHO further power to breach the sovereignty of nations would be woefully out of line.
"I would guess that Australia's proposal is dead on arrival," surmised Peter Harris, assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University. "There will be some desire for an inquiry into China's conduct in the specific case of the COVID-19 outbreak, but I highly doubt that there will be widespread support for giving the WHO powers akin to weapons inspectors. This would likely be viewed as an infringement of state sovereignty."
The novel pathogen has infected more than 3 million people worldwide and claimed the lives of some 210,000 people. Subsequently, Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, an Israel-based attorney who has long specialized in suing terrorist regimes and state sponsors who orchestrate human rights abuses on behalf of victims, stressed that because it also has the authority of electing the Director-General it "naturally has the responsibility to ensure that he is carrying out the WHO's agenda and duties in a proper manner."
"It must appoint a smaller commission of inquiry that can delve into the WHO's response and actions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic," she added. "The smaller commission will need to move quickly and gather the witnesses and evidence it needs to investigate the real origins of the virus, why the health emergency was not reported in time, and how it was allowed to spread before the international alarm was sounded."