Russia now has the third highest number of COVID-19 infections after the U.S. and Spain, with Putin reportedly seeing a drop in his usually high approval ratings. (Though the country seems to be faring relatively well otherwise.)
It is interesting how virtually all the major world powers have been brought low by this pandemic. Meanwhile, countries like Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Vietnam, Costa Rica, and Greece (among others) have seen their geopolitical stars rise, to varying degrees, from their effective responses.
The first three have become especially more influential, with leaders across the world turning to them for guidance and assistance. Taiwan, which is officially shunned by all but fifteen countries, now has more friends in the world fighting for its inclusion in the international system. Germany’s economic and political policies are seen as the gold standard by rich and poor countries alike.
Obviously, different countries were hit in different ways, and larger nations like the U.S., China, and Russia would ostensibly have a harder time containing an outbreak. But that doesn’t matter: These nations—especially the U.S.—claim to have the superior political model with which to lead the world; they also generally have more resources than smaller countries. Thus, they have raised the standard by which they are judged.
Since the turn of the 21st century, there has been much talk about whether we are entering a “multipolar” world, one in which no country really dominates. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. and China not being the most influential nations, but it’s likely their influence will continue to fall in -relative- terms: Not a decline so much as the rise of everyone else.
With these comparatively small funds, the W.H.O. must carry out its official mission of ensuring “the highest possible level of health” for “all peoples.” That includes eradicating diseases (such as smallpox and soon polio), facilitating research and cooperation (which recently gave us the first Ebola vaccine), promoting nutrition, setting universal healthcare and medical standards, and responding to emergencies like pandemics.
With this small budget, backed by its pleading for further funds, the W.H.O. has shipped more than two million items of personal protective equipment to 133 countries, and is preparing to ship another two million items in the coming weeks. Just a couple days ago, it delivered one million face masks, along with gloves, goggles, ventilators and other essential goods to Africa. More than a million diagnostic tests have been dispatched to 126 countries worldwide and more are being sourced as we speak.
As early as February, the organization brought together 400 of the world’s leading researchers (including from rivals the U.S. and China) to identify research priorities. It launched an international “Solidarity Trial” involving 90 countries, to help find effective treatment, and is currently running a “mega-trial” of the four most promising COVID-19 treatments and vaccines from around the world.
Through its innovative online “OpenWHO” platform, the W.H.O. pools together the world’s knowledge and best practices and delivers it to frontline personnel rapidly through an app. Users take part in social learning network, based on interactive, online courses and materials covering a variety of subjects. OpenWHO also provides a forum for the rapid sharing of expertise, in-depth discussion and feedback on key issues. So far, more than 1.2 million people have enrolled in 43 languages.
Again, all this for the cost of running a big hospital. While the U.S. does contribute one-fifth of the agency’s budget, this amounts to $893 million—a drop in the budget of our annual budget, which includes over $700 billion for the military alone. Talk about bang for our buck.
Moreover, we had pledged $656 million for specific programs, including polio eradication, health and nutrition services, vaccine-preventable diseases, tuberculosis, HIV—and preventing and controlling outbreak. And we’re still trying to do more damage to them.
Lawfare does a great job of breaking down how absurd our expectations of the W.H.O. are. While it concedes that the W.H.O. dropped the ball with China (something I also admit), it also reminds us of the far bigger and more complex picture regarding its relations with member countries (and the inherently political nature of health problems to begin with).
The work of the WHO is inherently technical; it does not need to make the sort of charged political decisions demanded of the U.N. Security Council, where the vital interests of different countries repeatedly conflict. Nor is it required to take a stance on the sensitive ideological values of different countries, as human rights organizations must. And because the WHO’s mission is narrowly defined in relatively objective terms, its performance can be evaluated with relative ease—for example, by using straightforward public health metrics. This ought to give WHO officials incentives to act appropriately and reduce the risk that countries are unable to discipline it if it fails to. The WHO’s leadership in the eradication of smallpox and in advances against polio seemed to validate this theory.
It is tempting to blame the WHO itself for its problems—its notoriously complex bureaucracy, its decentralized structure, its “culture” or the persons who run it. But all of those things are a result of the political constraints it operates under, as many reform-minded critics have observed. Big bureaucracies are established to guard against errors. In this context, this means staying away from actions that will offend member states whose support (financial or otherwise) is necessary for WHO’s operations. The sorts of bureaucratic reform that WHO insiders and sympathetic critics have called for over many decades would not protect the WHO from leaders like Trump.
It turns out that even the expert-led technical interventions of the WHO are politically charged. And this is not just because some countries want to hide disease outbreaks from the world. Countries also disagree about the problems that the WHO should focus on in the first place. The setting of priorities and allocation of resources among different public-health challenges are policy choices, not technical choices. The WHO is not an anti-pandemic organization or an infectious-disease organization: It is a health organization, and health policy is intensely contested around the world.
Many of the familiar cleavages in international politics had begun to pull apart the WHO long before the coronavirus pandemic. People disagreed about which health threats should be given priority, and the WHO found itself torn between governments, interest groups, activists and donors who wanted the organization to give priority to different things—HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases, tobacco use, obesity, even climate change. And then there is intense disagreement about whether the WHO should give priority to developing countries and, if so, how much. The WHO has set itself the goal of correcting global health care inequality, which begins to seem like a redistributive program from north to south—the sort of thing applauded by academics and commentators but politically explosive, to say the least.
As I have previously argued, the W.H.O. doesn’t have the resources or power to stand up to any country, especially since virtually every country plays a role in its funding, governance, and the election of its director-general. If even most of the world is deferential to China—only fourteen nations officially recognize Taiwan instead—how can we expect an organization responsible for so much, with a small budget, few personnel, and no sovereign power, to somehow be any different.
Meet Abubacarr Tambadou, the Justice Minister of The Gambia—a tiny African country barely twice the size of Delaware and with fewer people than Miami-Dade County—who is taking on one of the worst genocides in the 21st century.
Under his direction, The Gambia is the only country to file a claim in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Myanmar for violating the Genocide Convention through its persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, which has killed tens of thousands and driven out over a million more. Tambadou also convinced the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to back the effort, bringing a fourth of the world behind him.
Born in 1972 as one of the middle children of 18 siblings, he considered himself lucky for his middle-class upbringing. He had no intention of studying law—having excelled in sports all his life—but the first offer he got was a law program at a British university. After graduating in the 1990s, he returned home to be a public prosecutor.
At the time, Gambia was ruled by a vicious dictator who frequently killed and tortured real or perceived political opponents. In 2000, when security forces killed over a dozen student protestors, Tambadou was roused into pursuing human rights work.
To that end, he soon left Gambia to join the United Nations’ Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), where he successfully prosecuted some of the genocide’s most notorious perpetrators, including former army chief Augustin Bizimungu, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
As he told the BBC, what he was doing “was not just prosecuting the Rwandan genocidaires”, but “was a way for us Africans to send a message to our leaders… I saw it as more of an African struggle for justice and accountability than a Rwandan one.”
Sure enough, in 2017, Gambia’s dictator fell after 22 years of power. Opposition leader Adama Barrow took power promising to restore human rights and address corruption, prompting Tambadou to return to help lead this effort.
“Twenty-two years of a brutal dictatorship has taught us how to use our voice. We know too well how it feels like to be unable to tell your story to the world, to be unable to share your pain in the hope that someone out there will hear and help.”
A devout Muslim with a prominent prayer bump on his forehead, Tambadou acknowledged that Islamic solidarity was a factor behind Gambia and the OIC’s actions but emphasized that “this is about our humanity ultimately”.
Indeed, it was after visiting a refugee camp full in Bangladesh of genocide survivors that he was spurred to act. Last spring, Gambia foreign minister pulled out at the last minute from the annual conference of the OIC in Bangladesh, sending Tambadou instead. While there, he joined an OIC delegation visiting overcrowded refugee camps, hearing stories of children burnt alive and women systematically raped; he claimed to even smell the stench of dead bodies from across the border.
“I saw genocide written all over these stories”, he said in an interview, no doubt making the connection between these accounts and what he had learned after ten years prosecuting Rwandan perpetrators for similar crimes.
To that end, his case against Myanmar—which took the world by storm—has for the first time forced its leaders to answer for their alleged crimes. Though the case will no doubt take years to resolve—given the high bar set to prove genocide—the ICJ has since ordered Myanmar to cease its actions against the Rohingya, not buying the argument that it’s simply the result of a broader military conflict.
Yes, I know: It’s a toothless order given the nature of international law. But it’s powerful nonetheless, as many Rohingya themselves agree:
Yet the mere fact that it took place at all counts as a huge moral victory for the Rohingya. For the first time, this group — which has endured decades of systematic discrimination at the hands of its own government — experienced a fair hearing from an impartial tribunal. The power of that realization prompted tearful reactions from Rohingya activists in The Hague.
“It was very emotional to see the military facing charges in a court for the first time,” U.K.-based Rohingya activist Tun Khin told me. “The military have been getting away with human rights violations against us for decades. We have worked so hard for this day.”
And to think it began with a public prosecutor of a small country most have never heard of.
To that end, Mr Tambadou thinks this is the time for The Gambia to reclaim its position on the world stage. “We want to lead by example” in human rights. “The case at ICJ is Gambia showing the world you don’t have to have military power or economic power to denounce oppressions. Legal obligation and moral responsibility exist for all states, big or small.”
On this day in 1959, twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War, which set the continent aside as a scientific preserve, allowed for freedom of nonmilitary research, and banned all military activity (including nuclear tests).
Impressively, the first countries to sign on were the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as all the countries that had official territorial claims over the continent. After entering into force in 1961, the Treaty helped keep Antarctica neutral, and has been honored to this day, making it one of the most successful treaties in the world.
There are now 54 members states, most of which maintain research stations throughout the continent. The Antarctic Treaty has since expanded through a series of agreements governing everything from environmental protection to mineral rights. A monitoring body based in Buenos Aires, Argentina ensures compliance while facilitating further consultations and developments.
It is yet another understated example of international law effectively at work!
Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution contains the obscure but significant “Offenses Clause“, which empowers Congress to “define and punish … Offenses against the Law of Nations.” The law of nations was the 18th century term for what we now call international law.
As the time, these “offenses” would have included “attacks on foreign nations, their citizens, or shipping;” failing to honor “the flag of truce, peace treaties, and boundary treaties” (including unauthorized entry across national borders); and mistreating prisoners of war. The law of nations also obliged states to prosecute pirates, protect wrecked ships and their crew (regardless of their nationality); and protect foreign dignitaries and merchants in their territory.
Thus, the Framers clearly sought to convey to the world that the U.S. would be a responsible actor among the global community, enshrining in its highest legal instrument a commitment to safeguarding foreign nationals, property, and interests, even if it means ostensibly prosecuting American perpetrators.
Some jurists have argued that this provision, in theory, permits Congress to criminalize private conduct in the U.S. that violates international law.