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WHO: the world's most powerful international organisation?
  1. Lai-Ha Chan
  1. Correspondence to Dr Lai-Ha Chan, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, China Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney, PO Box 123, Broadway, NSW 2007, Australia; Lai-Ha.Chan{at}

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In light of the outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the recent A/H1N1(swine influenza), this article argues that the World Health Organization (WHO) is growing to be the most powerful international organisation—even more influential than the United Nations (UN) Security Council. ‘Power’ here is defined as the ability to perform and act effectively to get a desired outcome.

The ability to perform: WHO versus UN Security Council

The WHO has myriad functions. One of them is on providing advice on health policy to its member states. Although the UN is the largest intergovernmental organisation and serves as the progenitor of most UN agencies, the veto power vested in the five permanent members of its Security Council often hinders its decision-making. In contrast, no country can veto the WHO's decisions to issue health advisories. Even UN Security Council permanent members bow to pressure from the WHO as soon as it issues emergency travel advisories. China's evolving relationship with the WHO provides an instructive example. In the first several months of the SARS outbreak, China denied and downplayed the severity of the disease. In early 2003, it even obstructed the entry of the WHO assessment teams into the country for investigation …

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.