Germany votes against anti-Israel decision at World Health Assembly for the first time

Published: 09 April 2021 Author: Stefan Talmon

The health conditions in the territories occupied by Israel has been a separate agenda item on the programme of the annual meetings of the World Health Assembly (WHA) since 1968. The WHA is the main governing body of the World Health Organisation (WHO), a specialised agency of the United Nations. Since 2006, the agenda item has been named “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan”. Under this agenda item, the WHA initially adopted an annual resolution in which it, inter alia, expressed its concern at the deterioration of the economic and health conditions in the occupied Arab territories, as well as the humanitarian crisis resulting from the continued occupation and the severe restrictions imposed by “Israel, the occupying power”, and addressed specific “demands” to Israel, which were not health-related in all cases. For example, the WHA demanded “that Israel, the occupying power, immediately put an end to the closure of the occupied Palestinian territory”, “respect and facilitate the mandate and work of UNRWA and other international organizations”, or “that Israel dismantle and stop the construction of the wall and abide by its legal obligations mentioned in the advisory opinion rendered on 9 July 2004 by the International Court of Justice”. The resolutions also referred to an “Israeli attack” on the Gaza Strip, the destruction of “establishments by Israeli military operations” and urged Member States and others to “to remind Israel, the occupying power, to abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 1949”.

Germany mainly abstained on these resolutions because of their “insufficient focus […] on health issues” or because they “contained elements relating to political issues that were outside the remit of the WHA”. But, from 2007 to 2009, it voted in favour of these resolutions because of its “deep concern about deteriorating health in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan.”

Since 2014, the WHA has no longer adopted a resolution under the above agenda item but annually takes a decision in which it requests the WHO Director-General to report to the next WHA on the health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan. In 2014, the report was to put special focus, inter alia, on “the effect of prolonged occupation and human rights violations on mental health, particularly the mental consequences of the Israeli military detention system on child detainees”. The Director-General was also to provide support to the Palestinian health services and health-related technical assistance to the Syrian population in the occupied Syrian Golan.

In 2015, the WHO Secretary-General was requested to report with special focus, inter alia, on “barriers to health access in the occupied Palestinian territory, including as a result of movement restrictions and territorial fragmentation”. She was also requested to report on “damage to and destruction of medical infrastructure and facilities”, “the effect of prolonged occupation and human rights violations on mental and physical health, particularly the health consequences of the Israeli military detention system on Palestinian prisoners and detainees, especially child detainees, and of insecure living conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east  Jerusalem”, and “the effect of impeded access to water and sanitation, as well as food insecurity, on health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory”. A similar decision was adopted in 2016.

Since 2017, the decisions have been slimmed down considerably and focus more clearly on health issues. There is no longer any express reference to “Israel” or the “occupying power” in the text of the decisions. The WHO Secretary-General is requested to report on progress in the implementation of the recommendations contained in earlier reports and to provide support to the Palestinian health services and health-related technical assistance to the Syrian population in the occupied Syrian Golan.

At its sixth plenary meeting on 24 May 2019, the WHA adopted its decision WHA72(8) on “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan”, in which it requested the WHO Secretary-General:

“(1) to report on progress in the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report by the Director-General, based on field monitoring, to the Seventy-third World Health Assembly;

(2) to provide support to the Palestinian health services, including through capacity-building programmes and the development of strategic plans for investments in specific treatment and diagnostic capacities locally;

(3) to ensure sustainable procurement of WHO prequalified vaccines and medicine, and medical equipment, to the occupied Palestinian territory in compliance with international humanitarian law and WHO norms and standards;

(4) to provide health-related technical assistance to the Syrian population in the occupied Syrian Golan;

(5) to continue providing the necessary technical assistance in order to meet the health needs of the Palestinian people, including prisoners and detainees, in cooperation with the efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as the health needs of handicapped and injured people;

(6) to support the development of the health system in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, by focusing on the development of human resources, in order to localize health services, decreasing referrals and reducing cost; strengthening provision of mental health services; and maintaining strong primary health care with integrated complete appropriate health services;

(7) to ensure the allocation of human and financial resources in order to achieve these objectives.”

The decision was adopted with 96 States voting in favour, 11 voting against, 21 abstaining and 56 being absent. Since moving from the adoption of resolutions to decisions on the agenda item in 2014, Germany voted for the first time against the decision on “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan.” The German representative explained the “no” vote as follows:

“The WHA deals with a specific health agenda. Its decisions should therefore be focused on health issues, be technical and result oriented. We should not allow its agenda to be politicized. As recently stated on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of Israel’s admission to the United Nations, it is Germany’s long-standing position that UN organizations or bodies dealing with rather technical matters should not be politicized. Focusing on one country-specific situation on the WHA agenda only, while not addressing the health conditions in other parts of the region or the world, contributes to this politicization.

Germany therefore regrets that the stand-alone agenda item 14 has not been moved to a relevant technical agenda item of the WHA. We will continue to support the proposal for such a shift, as we did at the meeting of the Executive Board of the WHO in January [2019]. Furthermore, we regret that despite the efforts made by the European Union it was not possible to find a compromise.

Germany acknowledges that the health situation of the population in the Palestinian territories, especially in Gaza, remains extremely difficult and further improvement is absolutely necessary. Germany fully supports the WHO in providing support and technical assistance to the population in the occupied Palestinian territory including East Jerusalem. Also for many years Germany has been one of the biggest financial contributors to UNWRA. The report on health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory including East Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan is in our view a valuable orientation to help improve the health conditions of the people concerned.

Given the fact that efforts to shift the agenda item to a relevant technical agenda item of the WHA have not been successful, Germany in this specific case decided to vote ‘No’. In view of further decisions within the WHA, Germany calls upon both Israelis and Palestinians to work constructively with each other and with the WHO in order to reach a common way forward.”

The German voting was welcomed by Israel’s ambassador to Berlin, who stated:

“I would like to express our appreciation for Germany’s vote in the World Health Assembly in Geneva yesterday against a politically motivated and one-sided resolution regarding the Palestinian issue. This is a significant and principled stand in line with the declaration by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on May 11 regarding Israel’s role in UN fora. We also thank Minister of Health Jens Spahn for his important support on this matter.”

Germany’s voting record on the WHA resolutions and decisions on “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan” is a good example of voting in international organisations not always being principled, but highly political. Having a separate agenda item on health in the Israeli-occupied territories has always been motivated by the political situation relating to these territories, rather than the health needs of the population. In these resolutions and decisions, the WHA went well beyond its remit – unlike the UN General Assembly, it does not have an all-encompassing political mandate. Despite scores of international conflicts where the deterioration of health continues to pose an alarming and pressing threat, there is only one conflict on the agenda of the WHA. By singling out the Arab-Israeli conflict and putting specific demands to only Israel, the WHA has acted in a discriminatory and politicised way. However, for many years this did not prevent Germany from abstaining, or even voting in favour of these resolutions and decisions. Thus, from 2014 to 2017 it voted in favour of the annual WHA decision; in 2018 it abstained, and only in 2019 did it take a clear stand against the decision. This was surprising, as the 2019 decision was probably the WHA’s most health-focused and least politicised action with regard to the Israeli-occupied territories since 1968. It is also noteworthy that Germany broke ranks with its fellow EU Member States, which largely continued to vote as in previous year. Thirteen voted in favour of the decision, 11 abstained, and only three (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Germany) voted for the first time against.

The “no” vote on the WHA decision was an expression of a new German policy of protecting Israel against being inappropriately criticised, subjected to bias and marginalised in UN bodies. The policy shift came about with Heiko Maas assuming the office of Federal Foreign Minister in March 2018. During his inaugural speech at the Federal Foreign Office, he declared that he “went into politics because of Auschwitz” and that for him, German-Israeli history was not only a matter of historical responsibility, but was a deep‑seated motivation behind his political action. The new policy was first spelled out in October 2018 in the Joint Statement of the 7th German-Israeli Inter-Governmental Consultations, in which Germany committed itself politically to “act as a friend of Israel in its capacity as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council and be supportive of Israel’s legitimate interests” and to “make every effort to prevent the practice of unfair treatment of Israel.” This was reiterated on 11 May 2019 in a Declaration by the Federal Government on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s admission to the United Nations. The Declaration read in the relevant part as follows:

“The Federal Government is most concerned about the fact that, to this day, Israel continues to be criticised inappropriately, treated in a biased manner and marginalised in the bodies of the UN. Germany has made a firm pledge, also as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, to act as a friend of Israel, to oppose any unfair treatment of Israel in the UN and to support its legitimate interests. We will continue to do our utmost to support these causes.”

This message was also echoed in a personal statement by Federal Foreign Minister Maas on the same day. Eleven days later, the new policy was put into practice for the first time when the German representative voted in the WHA’s Committee B against the decision on Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem, and in the occupied Syrian Golan. Since then, Germany has also voted against other anti-Israel resolutions in UN bodies.

In November 2019, the Federal Foreign Office set out the new German policy on Middle East resolutions in UN bodies as follows:

“Alongside its EU partners, the German Government works to prevent unfair treatment of Israel at the United Nations.

The German Government is very concerned about repeated instances of Israel being inappropriately criticised, subject to bias and marginalised in UN bodies. These include resolutions and decisions passed by the General Assembly and, most particularly, by UN specialised agencies. The World Health Organization, for example, has in the past adopted inappropriately politicised decisions targeted at Israel.

The text of each resolution, according to its subject matter, is measured against criteria pertaining to foreign policy and international law. Having a joint negotiating and voting strategy enables Germany and its partners in the EU to influence drafting negotiations in such a way as to block decisions proposed by other countries that would be even more harmful to Israel. Before every vote, the Federal Foreign Office checks whether the process up to that point corresponds with Germany’s objective of combating any unfair treatment of Israel. Then, our Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York defends the German Government’s position in the UN bodies.

In the UN specialised agencies, Germany opposes decisions and initiatives that target Israel. In the WHO, Germany recently voted against just such a resolution.”

While the new German policy is to be welcomed, it has been long overdue. The arguments – both legal and political – have been in place for many years. What has been lacking was the political will to act accordingly. Despite the policy change, Germany has been criticised for “anti-Israel votes” at the United Nations. To this reproach, German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded during a regular question-and-answer session in the Federal Parliament on 18 December 2019, stating that “a commitment to the State of Israel […] does not mean 100 per cent agreement with all of Israel’s political actions.”

Category: International organisations

 

 

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  • Stefan Talmon is Professor of Public Law, Public International Law and European Union Law, and Director at the Institute of Public International Law at the University of Bonn. He is also a Supernumerary Fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and practices as a Barrister from Twenty Essex, London. He is the editor of GPIL.

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