UN chief reviewing whether US has met conditions for WHO withdrawal

The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva. Photo by: U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers / CC BY-ND

BURLINGTON, Vt. — United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is currently reviewing whether the U.S. has met the conditions for withdrawal from the World Health Organization, after the White House submitted its formal notification to do so on Monday, according to the U.N. chief’s spokesperson.

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The official withdrawal would take effect on July 6, 2021, due to a one-year notification period required by WHO’s constitution.

The U.S. has been party to the World Health Organization since June 21, 1948, and its participation was accepted by the World Health Assembly — the organization’s decision-making body — with “certain conditions set out by the US for its eventual withdrawal from the World Health Organization,” Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the secretary-general, wrote to Devex.

Those conditions include giving a one-year notice of intent to withdraw and fully meeting the payment of assessed financial obligations, he added.

“The Secretary-General, in his capacity as depositary, is in the process of verifying with the World Health Organization whether all the conditions for such withdrawal are met,” Dujarric wrote.

The U.S. is the largest funder to WHO. Recent reports vary as to the extent of assessed contributions owed, but the range is in the low hundreds of millions of dollars.

Global health advocates have broadly condemned President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of an international body that coordinates a wide range of research, regulatory, surveillance, and response functions in the middle of a global pandemic that has killed more than 540,000 people so far.

"Coinciding with the highest ever single day spikes in COVID-19 cases, Trump's move to withdraw from the World Health Organization is among the most ruinous presidential decisions in recent history,” said Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, in a statement.

Gayle Smith, president and CEO of the ONE Campaign, called the move “an astounding action that puts the safety of all Americans and the world at risk.”

Last week, as rumors were circulating that the withdrawal notification might be imminent, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the case for continued U.S. membership in The Washington Post. The WHO chief outlined his organization’s role in COVID-19 vaccine development efforts, antimicrobial resistance, smallpox, polio, and a range of other health challenges.

“The Secretary-General ... is in the process of verifying with the World Health Organization whether all the conditions for such withdrawal are met.”

— Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general

“The United States has been with us at the forefront of these outbreaks. Without U.S. participation, this progress will undoubtedly be slowed and vital programs decimated,” he wrote.

Several advocates called on the U.S. Congress to intervene and prevent the withdrawal from moving forward, though it was not immediately clear what options are available to lawmakers.

Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey and a sharp critic of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, was among the first to make public the official withdrawal notification.

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“Congress received notification that POTUS officially withdrew the U.S. from the @WHO in the midst of a pandemic. To call Trump’s response to COVID chaotic & incoherent doesn't do it justice. This won't protect American lives or interests—it leaves Americans sick & America alone,” he wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

Several senior Republicans in Congress have also questioned the decision.

“Withdrawing U.S. membership could, among other things, interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines, which citizens of the United States as well as others in the world need,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee who chairs the Senate Health Committee, in a May statement.

WHO has made mistakes and those should be examined, but it has also done “great work in many respects” and “play[s] a key role as a guardian of international health regulations,” Sen. James Risch, a Republican from Idaho who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a recent hearing.

“There is some reform that’s needed and it should be done, as I said without demeaning, criticizing, or condemning, but rather in the kindest way possible to make it work better,” he added.

A memo sent from the Department of State to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, which Devex obtained, suggests the White House will still seek to influence discussions around WHO reform, even while withdrawing from the organization — a proposition that administration officials have also made publicly.

“The President has been clear that the WHO needs to get its act together. That starts with demonstrating significant progress and the ability to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks with transparency and accountability,” the memo reads.

“This won't protect American lives or interests—it leaves Americans sick & America alone.”

— U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez

“The United States will continue efforts to reform the WHO and other international organizations to ensure they operate with transparency, fulfill their mandates, and hold governments accountable for their commitments under international law,” it continues.

In a hearing last month, Sen. Menendez questioned administration officials about the logic of that approach, asking why WHO should listen to the U.S. if the White House terminates the relationship. Garrett Grigsby, director of the office of global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, responded that the U.S. plans to use its G-7 presidency to continue discussions around the COVID-19 response and WHO reform.

The U.S. would not be the first country to withdraw from WHO. The former Soviet Union and several Eastern European countries withdrew during the Cold War, citing objections to U.S. influence at the organization. Those countries later rejoined.

Adva Saldinger contributed reporting to this article.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.