WHO Director General Lee Dies Suddenly

by Duncan Hollis

This morning the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr. Lee Jong-wook, passed away following a sudden illness. Dr. Lee collapsed on Saturday at one of the functions opening the WHO’s Annual Assembly meeting in Geneva and died early this morning after surgery to remove a blood clot from his brain.

Dr. Lee leaves behind an impressive legacy. He is being remembered for his ambitious “3×5” AIDS program – seeking to put 3 million people on AIDS medicines by the end of 2005. Although fewer than half that number have received the medications to date, Dr. Lee’s efforts were transformative by getting people to think seriously about how to provide cheaper AIDS drugs to the developing world. More recently, Dr. Lee was at the forefront of warning about the possibilty of a pandemic flu outbreak.

For my part, Dr. Lee’s legacy serves as a reminder of how important international organizations (IOs) and those who lead them can be to world affairs. At a time when it’s fashionable to debate the continuing relevance of the UN Security Counsel or international tribunals, the WHO offers a less controversial example of the utility of IOs to our increasingly globalized existence. Whether it’s as routine as ICAO keeping planes in the air, or as political as the IAEA’s efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, specialized IOs can–and in fact do–offer solutions that would not be available simply through unilateral (or even multilateral) state action. Thus, as WHO delegates mourn the loss of Dr. Lee this week, it’s important to note that they’ll also be hard at work on improving a reporting system to identify outbreaks of the bird flu for purposes of mobilizing efforts to prevent or combat any pandemic. I offer them my condolences and wish them luck.


One Response

  1. I’m weak-willed: so much for the blogging break….

    That’s an interesting Freudian slip: ‘UN Security Counsel‘!

    On both the existing and possible role of the WHO vis-a-vis international law, please see Allyn L. Taylor, ‘Governing the Globalization of Public Health,’ from The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Fall 2004), 500-508, available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=630517

    …the final chapter, ‘Global Public Goods for Health: From Theory to Policy,’ in Richard Smith, Robert Beaglehole, David Woodward, and Nick Drager, eds., Global Public Goods for Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003),

    Chapter 4, ‘The World Health Organization,’ in David P. Fidler, International Law and Public Health: Materials on and Analysis of Global Health Jurisprudence (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publ., 2000),

    and finally, on the difficulties encountered in the attempt to formulate a normative social choice rule that might be implemented in a practical policy-making context for an IO like the WTO, please see John E. Roemer, ‘Distributing Health: The Allocation of Resources by an International Agency,’ and the response by Paul Seabright that follows in Martha C. Nussbaum and Amartya Sen, eds., The Quality of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993; A study prepared for the World Institute for Devolopment Economics Research [WIDER] of the United Nations University, Helsinki, Finland).

    IOs and (especially) INGOs are not beyond reproach (or ‘critique;’ and more so for some than others), but I wholeheartedly concur with the statement that ‘specialized IOs can–and in fact do–offer solutions that would not be available simply through unilateral (or even multilateral) state action.’

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