Objective of the World Health Organization

Generally speaking, an international regime upholds its own constitution. This constitution has a function similar to the corresponding legal corpus in the Chinese legal system. It not only stipulates the legal status, objective, operating principles, organisational structure, procedures and rights and obligations of member states but also serves as a basis for granting the legitimacy for power of the overarching organisation (Rao, 1996, pp. 254-255). The Constitution of WHO opens by laying out explicitly the principles by which WHO abides: Health is defined not as the mere absence of disease or infirmity but rather as the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of a fundamental human right and regardless of race, religion, political belief or economic or social condition. The health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of achieving peace and security and is dependent upon the fullest cooperation of individuals and states. The objective of WHO is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible health”.

Driven by this objective, WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This gr ants WHO an active role in a wide range of public health issues, not just to health care in the narrow sense. The preamble to the Constitution of WHO not only entails considerations for trade, biosafety and human rights but also indicates the importance of other areas of the international regimes to the mission of WHO and the “implicit power” of it to participate in the work of other international regimes.

Functions of the World Health Organization

Article 2 of the Constitution of WHO defines the organisation’s functions. It not only stipulates WHO’s extensive responsibilities in the control of global infectious diseases but also establishes its quasi-legislative functions, including the introduction of international conventions, international agreements, public health governance regulations and the establishment of international tenus and standards. In addition. Article 2 establishes the authority of WHO as the directing and coordinating authority on international health work, indicating that WHO has the authority to coordinate inconsistent international public health rules adopted by different international organisations (Constitution of the World Health Organization, pp. 2-3). In general, the functions of WHO fall into the following categories.

First, WHO has the power to adopt a convention or an agreement. An international convention, like an international law, is a multilateral treaty achieved though meetings involving international organisations or presided over by an international organisation. A convention can help make a member state’s behaviour predictable in increasingly wide-ranging and close international exchanges. Therefore, since its establishment, WHO, drawing on the practices of the International Labour Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and other international organisations, regulates international actions of member states in the field of public health through convention-making.8 The World Health Assembly has the authority to adopt public health conventions or agreements. Article 19 of the Constitution stipulates that “the Health Assembly shall have authority to adopt conventions or agreements with respect to any matter within the competence of the Organization” (p. 7). A convention or an agr eement will be adopted if it can secure a two-thirds majority of the Health Assembly and legally bind member states once procedurally adopted by due constitutional processes within each sovereignty.

Second, WHO may ratify international public health regulations. Article 21 of the Constitution stipulates that the Health Assembly shall have authority to adopt regulations concerning: 1) sanitary and quarantine requirements and other procedures designed to prevent the international spread of disease; 2) nomenclatures with respect to diseases, causes of death and public health practices; 3) standards with respect to diagnostic procedures for international use; 4) standards with respect to the safety, purity and potency of biological, pharmaceutical and similar products moving in international commerce and 5) advertising and labelling of biological, pharmaceutical and similar products moving in international commerce. Regulations adopted pursuant to Article 21 shall come into force for all members after due notice has been given of their adoption by the Health Assembly except for such members as may notify the director-general of rejection or reservations within the period stated in the notice. As a result, WHO has advanced the amendment procedure of a treaty to its conclusion procedure and formally established a “contracting out” method. In other words, although regulations proposed according to Article 21 of the Constitution shall be discussed and negotiated by member states and shall only pass after receiving a simple majority vote, the minority member states who vote against can still choose not to comply with part or all of these regulations based on their special circumstances. This flexibility in enforcing regulations prevents treaties adopted by the Health Assembly from being nullified due to the reservations of a minority of countries.

Finally, WHO is authorised to make recommendations to ember states. Article 23 of the Constitution stipulates that “the Health Assembly shall have authority to make recommendations to Members with respect to any matter within the competence of the Organization” (p. 8). Such recommendations shall not be conceived of as a form of interference in the domestic affairs of its member states. Member states are also under no obligation to bring such recommendations to the attention of then national functional authorities within a specified period to make appropriate legislative or administrative arrangements, hi other words, such recommendations are not legally binding on member states. It is noteworthy that with the increasing interdependence in the field of global health security, WHO’s recommendation has expanded in scope, and the “right to knowledge” of WHO has made such recommendations influential in global health governance. For example, dining the SARS epidemic in 2003, WHO had issued recommendations to individual toiuists, rather than to member states, urging them not to travel to Toronto, Canada, or to China.

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