May 8, 2020 / 7:41 PM / 25 days ago

To mention or not to mention WHO, that is U.N. Security Council question

NEW YORK (Reuters) - For more than six weeks the U.N. Security Council has been trying to agree on a resolution to confront the coronavirus pandemic, only to be stymied by a stand-off between China and the United States over whether to mention the World Health Organization.

The United States does not want a reference to the WHO in the text, diplomats said, which ultimately aims to back a March 23 call by U.N. chief Antonio Guterres for a ceasefire in global conflicts so the world can focus on the pandemic.

Washington halted funding for the WHO, a U.N. agency, after President Donald Trump accused it of being “China-centric” and promoting China’s “disinformation” about the outbreak, assertions the WHO denies.

The U.S. criticism prompted a staunch defense of the WHO during council negotiations by China, where the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, emerged late last year, so far killing nearly 275,000 people globally.

While the Security Council - charged with maintaining international peace and security - cannot do much to deal with the coronavirus itself, diplomats and analysts say it could have projected unity by backing Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire.

“This would have been a much more effective appeal for a ceasefire if it had come a month ago. Now it feels a bit lame and late,” said Richard Gowan, the U.N. director for the Crisis Group, conflict prevention advocates. “The council has lost some credibility as the weeks have gone by, mainly thanks to U.S. obstructionism.”

Diplomats said both China and the United States have raised the prospect of a veto on the issue of whether WHO is mentioned or not. A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes by France, Russia, Britain, the United States or China to pass.

‘PETTY’

It appeared the 15-member body had reached a compromise late on Thursday, diplomats said and according to the latest version of a French- and Tunisian drafted-resolution.

Instead of naming the WHO, the draft text, which was seen by Reuters, “emphasizes the urgent need to support all countries, as well as all relevant entities of the United Nations system, including specialized health agencies.” The WHO is the only such agency.

The United States rejected that language on Friday, diplomats said, because it was an obvious reference to the Geneva-based WHO.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said the council should move forward with either a resolution limited to supporting Guterres’ ceasefire call or a broad resolution urging countries to commit to transparency and accountability in the context of COVID-19.

Trump ramped up criticism of WHO after he and Chinese President Xi Jinping essentially agreed, in a March 27 phone call, to an informal truce in a war of words, during which Trump referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.”

Last week, Trump again sharpened his rhetoric against China over the pandemic, signaling an end to the truce. On Wednesday U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of “refusing to share the information we need to keep people safe.” Beijing accused Pompeo of telling lies.

Some diplomats and analysts also questioned China’s motives in advocating for the WHO at the Security Council, which they said was unusual because Beijing would traditionally argue that the work of the agency was outside the council’s peace and security mandate.

“The battle over naming WHO is the veritable dictionary definition of small-minded petty obstruction and dysfunctionality,” Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, posted on Twitter.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Adler

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