Washington/United Nations – The United States will end its relationship with the World Health Organization over the body’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday, accusing the U.N. agency of becoming a puppet of China.
The move to quit the Geneva-based body, which the United States formally joined in 1948, comes amid growing tensions between Washington and Beijing over the coronavirus outbreak. The virus first emerged in China’s Wuhan city late last year.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, Trump said Chinese officials “ignored their reporting obligations” to the WHO about the virus — that has killed hundreds of thousands of people globally — and pressured the agency to “mislead the world.”
“China has total control over the World Health Organization despite only paying $40 million per year compared to what the United States has been paying which is approximately $450 million a year,” he said.
Trump’s decision follows a pledge last week by Chinese President Xi Jinping to give $2 billion to the WHO over the next two years to help combat the coronavirus. The amount almost matches the WHO’s entire annual program budget for last year.
Trump last month halted funding for the 194-member organization, then in a May 18 letter gave the WHO 30 days to commit to reforms.
“Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs,” Trump said on Friday.
It was not immediately clear when his decision would come into effect. A 1948 joint resolution of Congress on U.S. membership of the WHO said the country “reserves its right to withdraw from the organization on a one-year notice.”
The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Trump’s announcement. It has previously denied Trump’s assertions that it promoted Chinese “disinformation” about the virus.
“It’s important to remember that the WHO is a platform for cooperation among countries,” said Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. “Walking away from this critical institution in the midst of an historic pandemic will hurt people both in the United States and around the world.”
The United States currently owes the WHO more than $200 million in assessed contributions, according to the WHO website. Washington also gives several hundred million dollars annually in voluntary funding tied to specific WHO programs such as polio eradication, HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis.
The president’s decision drew quick condemnation from a range of organizations involved in fighting the virus as well as lawmakers.
“In the grip of a global pandemic that has already killed more than 100,000 Americans, severing ties with the World Health Organization serves no logical purpose and makes finding a way out of this public health crisis dramatically more challenging,” said Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. “This senseless action will have significant, harmful repercussions now and far beyond this perilous moment, particularly as the WHO is leading worldwide vaccine development and drug trials to combat the pandemic.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said he disagreed with the decision.
“Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it,” Alexander said in a statement.
And Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that the “WHO could have been more assertive with China and declared a global health emergency sooner, but it is performing an essential function and needs our strong support, especially now.”
Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said that in practice Trump’s decision was unlikely to change the operations of the WHO.
“From a symbolic or moral standpoint it’s the wrong type of action to be taking in the middle of a pandemic and seems to deflect responsibility for what we in the U.S. failed to do and blame the WHO,” said Adalja.
When Trump halted funding to the WHO last month, two Western diplomats said the U.S. suspension was more harmful politically to the WHO than to the agency’s current programs, which are funded for now.
The WHO is an independent international body that works with the United Nations. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month that the WHO is “absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19.”
When asked about Trump’s decision, a U.N. spokesman said: “We have consistently called for all states to support WHO.”
Trump has long scorned multilateralism as he focuses on an “America First” agenda. Since taking office, he has quit the U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.N. cultural agency, a global accord to tackle climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. He has also cut funding for the U.N. population fund and the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees.
It wasn’t immediately clear how Trump intended to carry out his vow or how quickly the U.S. could really withdraw from the treaty it signed to join the organization, which is part of the United Nations. The president’s threat, in the short term, may mean that his earlier decision to freeze U.S. funding to the organization continues indefinitely.
Unlike the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, which the U.S. officially left in 2019, the WHO’s constitution doesn’t contain a formal withdrawal mechanism, according to Richard Gowan, the United Nations director at the International Crisis Group.
“Presumably the organization’s founders, including the U.S., simply thought it was absurd to imagine that any country would want to quit,” he said. “In practical terms, the U.S. could simply cease all payments, which in theory should lead to it losing” voting rights, he added.
Trump’s initial threat to pull out of the organization earlier this month was accompanied by a four-page letter detailing his grievances. In the letter, he called on the WHO to “demonstrate independence from China,” renewing his complaint that led him in April to temporarily suspend U.S. funding.
Yet even that earlier threat had caveats. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo at the time recommended U.S. funding continue for WHO programs targeting polio and the coronavirus in seven countries: Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria and Turkey.
Alexandra Phelan, an assistant professor at the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, argued that the question over whether the U.S. can withdraw is “murky.” While some argue the president “retains power to exit treaties” others argue the decision “requires Congress consent,” she said in a post on Twitter.