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WHO’s in charge?

Giving the World Health Organization more power is a very bad idea


WORLD Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Associated Press/Photo by Johanna Geron (pool)

WHO’s in charge?
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The Biden administration, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, is making a concerted push to bolster the World Health Organization with new and breathtaking authority that would undermine the sovereignty of the American people to chart their own path through future public health crises. In January, the United States submitted several amendments to the WHO’s International Health Regulations, that were slated for consideration in late May. The Biden administration proposals include one that would authorize the WHO to declare “public health emergencies of international concern” that are binding on participating nations. While the passage of these amendments was delayed, they set the stage for a new agreed-upon initiative to revise the rules accordingly. This push amounts to a type of global voter suppression, shifting power from U.S. voters to bureaucrats in global institutions, and policymakers must reject it in the months ahead.

The WHO supposedly exists so that countries will collaborate as each builds up the necessary capacities to fight pandemics that, after all, know no borders. The WHO has no enforcement power, as it was intended to be a convening body and hub of expertise, not a decision-maker. The U.S.-led amendments would fundamentally change the WHO by allowing the director-general—a post currently held by newly reelected Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus—to declare an international public health crisis without consulting with participating countries. Another amendment would establish a committee to assess each country’s compliance.

Why is this such a threat? To start, the WHO did not exactly crown itself in glory during the COVID pandemic. It played politics throughout by accommodating China—Director-General Tedros’ political benefactor—telling countries early on that they were overreacting and warning that travel restrictions amounted to promoting “stigma or discrimination,” minimizing any consideration of theories that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and shunning Taiwan. At best, the United States would be signing up for more politically filtered, ever-shifting “science” under the pretext of dispassionate expertise. However, the real threat is institutional.

Giving more authority to the WHO is a further extension of the government-by-expert administrative state to the global stage.

These proposals attempt to shift decision-making away from officials elected by voters to unaccountable international bureaucracies divorced from the political process in their members’ nations. It takes important policy debates out of the influence of voters and their elected representatives. The process, the players, and the politics of decisions made at the WHO, or any international body, are unfamiliar to most voters. News about the proceedings, as shown by the murkiness surrounding the Biden administration’s proposals and their delay, is scarce. And familiarity would not bring additional accountability. This is by design, in that it allows global elites to exercise great influence over countries, notwithstanding the various constitutional systems. The commitment of the United States to a separation of powers might delay grand, Davos-inspired policy innovations. This is particularly so when the international body is invested with formal de jure authority.

COVID taught us that national or global policymakers do not need formal enforcement mechanisms to abuse power. Local and statewide officials and multinational corporations take the recommendations from “public health experts” and impose them unilaterally on the country. The new power lies in the respect and esteem afforded the “expert” —think of the National Institute of Health’s Anthony Fauci. Giving more authority to the WHO is a further extension of the government-by-expert administrative state to the global stage. COVID taught us what many of these same elites would do in the name of public health. Think of the involuntary quarantine camps, not in authoritarian China but in Australia. And remember that the bounds of what constitutes a public health crisis are expanding to shift the policy-framing in favor of other liberal priorities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared racism a public health crisis in 2021, and the WHO already thinks “climate change is the single biggest threat facing humanity.”

Thankfully, several countries raised concerns about the U.S. proposals, and consideration was delayed, but a working group and a timeline were established to expedite these changes soon. With this short reprieve, Congress must now step in to prohibit any funding for participation in this process. State legislatures must pass laws that prohibit their governors and public health authorities from implementing any dictates from the WHO. This ongoing push to suppress the views of our voters and those around the globe must stop. Our policymakers must regain an appreciation for self-government in the United States. They should start by remembering that complex policy decisions (each with innumerable trade-offs) must be made as locally as possible. The Biden administration proposals must be stopped in their tracks.


Russell Vought

Russ Vought is the president and founder of the Center for Renewing America and Citizens for Renewing America. Russ served as the 42nd director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Donald Trump. Prior to serving in the Trump administration, Russ spent nearly 20 years working in Washington, D.C., in Congress and with grassroots and public policy organizations. Russ graduated from Wheaton College in 1998 and from George Washington University Law School in 2004.


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