Countries Voted Eight Times in a Politicized World Health Assembly Revealing Geopolitical Fissures

Priti Patnaik & Yiyao Yang

WHO member states spent hours last week debating, disagreeing and finally voting on a number of issues concerning Palestine, Ukraine and even language on gender, in the just concluded 77th World Health Assembly in Geneva last week.  

This reveals that no forum can be insulated from geopolitical tensions, and even more so when there is no way to clearly delineate health matters in conflict zones from dynamic political realities. (In the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, more than 400 attacks on healthcare facilities have been witnessed with a majority of them involving the use of force.)

While some countries believe that several voting rounds sucked time and energy away from the technical matters in health – a natural mainstay of the World Health Assembly, others regret the politicization but say that this cannot be prevented.

“We had less than three minutes to cover three items on health such as maternal and child health, antimicrobial resistance and neglected tropical diseases, but here we are spending hours discussing political issues,” a developed country negotiator told us. The diplomat suggested carving out political issues to another forum so that they do not impede the technical work of the Assembly.

Irrespective of conflicts, health has always been political.

“This is the current state of the world outside of this Assembly. We cannot help if these issues are brought up here,” a developing country from the Eastern Mediterranean region told us last week. “We are worried is sets a precedent, because by numbers alone you can push through any resolution that has no consensus simply by going through a vote,” the diplomat added.

In his intervention at the Executive Board on June 3, a meeting that followed the Assembly, Tovar da Silva Nunes, the Permanent Representative of Brazil, said, “… we also learned some lessons. One of them is that there should be no room for polarization or politicization in health, and we should strive for inclusivity and equity in health. In over three fourths of a century, the World Health Assembly has had a long story of consensus building, the very foundation of WHO as a member state led entity. Therefore we regret to witness a record number of votings during last week's assembly. We believe that we should put aside our differences and support the work of WHO in improving the health of populations across the planet, in particular during emergencies. This should be a collective endeavor, collective work. We need more and not less multilateralism and our division will only fuel disinformation, misinformation, isolationism….”

In this story we try to recap key fault-lines between countries on resolutions that were discussed and voted on by countries.