The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

World Health Organization (WHO)

The World Health Organization (WHO) was founded in 1946 and currently has 194 Member States and two associate members (observers). It is one of the specialized agencies of the UN, and its headquarters are in Geneva.


WHO’s objective is “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.” To achieve this aim, it acts as “the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.” In 1978, the organization set the goal of Health for All by 2000.

Its mission statement defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” WHO follows a guiding principle, which is that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental human rights of every human-being.” Furthermore, governments are responsible for the health of their people and must therefore take the appropriate medical and social measures.


The World Health Assembly is WHO’s plenary organ. Its members are highly qualified experts in the field of health, preferably representing the relevant national body, usually the health ministry.

The Assembly meets once per year and elects the thirty-two members of its Executive Board, which meets every six months. The Member States are elected for three years, and the representatives they designate act in their capacity as individual experts and not as government representatives. The Director-General is nominated for a five-year term. Since 2006, it is Dr. Margaret Chan (2006–2010, nominated in May 2012 for a second term).

WHO is regionally organized, with each section containing a Regional Committee (Member States and associates) and a Regional Office (the administrative body). The six regions are Africa, the Americas, Eastern Mediterranean, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Western Pacific.

More than 8,000 people from more than 150 countries work for WHO in 147 country offices, six regional offices, and the headquarters.


  • Cooperation with States: Member States must submit annual reports to WHO on new measures they have adopted and progress they have achieved in improving the health of their populations. On an operational level, the Secretariat and Offices work directly with the relevant ministries in the Member States.
  • Cooperation with NGOs: The organization can establish “official relations” with NGOs, based on a procedure giving them consultative status. However, any contact with a national NGO is subject to approval by the Member State concerned.
  • International health legislation: The Assembly develops and adopts international conventions that are then open to ratification by Member States. Each State commits to declaring, within six months, whether it will ratify. If a State refuses, it must justify its reasons.

The Assembly is mandated to make recommendations to Member States on their health policies.

It also has the authority to regulate certain issues directly within the Member States, unless a State formally opposes it, on a case-by-case basis. This authority relates to measures concerning quarantine, listing of diseases, methods of public hygiene, diagnosis, and pharmaceutical norms.

  • International medical action: The role of WHO is not restricted to the elaboration of international health legislation. The organization also implements activities favoring the improvement of a country’s health conditions (e.g., through vaccination campaigns). These activities are financed by special extra-budgetary contributions.

In situations of emergency, it also collaborates with the relevant organs in the UN system, participating in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), for instance, through its Division of Emergency and Humanitarian Action. WHO provides epidemiological monitoring and health emergency training, run by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). ▸ Medical dutiesMedical servicesWounded and sick persons

World Health Organization

20, avenue Appia

CH 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 791 21 11

Fax: (41) 22 791 07 46

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