Donald Trump threatens to withdraw WHO funding. Concerns about depiction of Tongan shipwreck story. Cyclone hits Bay of Bengal. Félicien Kabuga to be tried for Rwanda genocide. International borders reopening cautiously. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Trump issues WHO reforms ultimatum

President Donald Trump flanked by White House coronavirus response co-ordinator Dr Deborah Birx and Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
President Donald Trump flanked by White House coronavirus response co-ordinator Dr Deborah Birx and Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Credit: Drew Angerer / Getty Images


China: On Monday night, United States President Donald Trump sent a four-page letter to the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, accusing him of a pro-China bias that had worsened the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Trump threatened to stop funding the WHO unless it committed to major – albeit unspecified – reforms within 30 days. “Your political gamesmanship on this issue was deadly,” he wrote.

Trump’s letter, posted on Twitter, was delivered during a two-day summit of WHO member states, which this week became the battleground for growing tensions between the US and China over the origins of the pandemic.

Shortly before Trump issued his ultimatum, Xi Jinping addressed the summit and insisted China had acted with “openness, transparency and responsibility”. He said China had co-operated with the WHO and promised to make a vaccine a “global public good”. His speech made no mention of the virus’s origins in Wuhan, but did express condolences to families of victims around the world.

Trump declined to appear at the summit.

In the lead-up to the summit, China had been under pressure over calls – led by Australia – for an inquiry into the pandemic. On Tuesday, China relented, and co-sponsored the motion setting up the review. This followed China’s furious response to Australia’s demand for an inquiry, which Beijing described as a “politically motivated” move to assist Washington’s anti-China campaign.

Eventually, the diplomatic push for the inquiry was led by the European Union, which drafted the proposal and, along with Australia, helped to rally support among the WHO’s 194 member states. No states objected, and the motion was adopted without a vote.


Tonga: Earlier this month, the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman published an account of an incident in 1965, in which six teenagers from Tonga were marooned on an uninhabited island, named ‘Atā, for more than a year. Bregman recounted how the boys set up a food garden, kept a permanent fire, stored water in hollowed-out tree trunks, and survived on fish, coconuts, birds, wild taro, bananas and chickens. They were eventually discovered by an Australian sea captain who was passing the island and spotted a “wild creature [who] leaped from the cliffside and plunged into the water”.

Bregman’s article, published by The Guardian as an edited extract from his book, was headlined “The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months”. Within days, it was read by millions and was the subject of a rush to buy the film rights.

But the article, and the flood of interest, has raised concerns about whether the boys – now in their 60s and 70s – were fairly depicted.

Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, a Torres Strait Islander and Tongan writer, told ABC News this week that Bregman’s story was “told through a colonial lens … and told in a way that didn’t even prioritise the story of the men”.

Bregman noted that his account was based on interviews with the sea captain and two of the boys, and that his book explores the Pacific slave trade on ‘Atā and elsewhere.

New Zealand film director Taika Waititi said in a tweet he loved the story, but added: “Prioritize Polynesian (Tongan if possible!) filmmakers … to keep the Pasifika voice authentic.”

Bay of Bengal: Three million people were evacuated this week as one of the strongest cyclones on record struck the Bay of Bengal, killing at least 24 people. The tropical cyclone destroyed thousands of homes across India and Bangladesh. Both countries have suffered devastating losses from past cyclones in the Bay of Bengal but have since attempted to improve their capacity to conduct mass evacuations.


Rwanda: In the early 1990s, Félicien Kabuga, one of Rwanda’s wealthiest people, began using his fortune from tea and coffee estates to import hundreds of thousands of machetes and hoes. He also founded Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, a radio station that called for the mass murder of the Tutsi minority.

From April to July 1994, about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate members of the Hutu majority in Rwanda were slaughtered during a 100-day genocide. Many were killed with weapons that Kabuga provided to the notorious Interahamwe militia, which he set up. The militiamen reportedly wore uniforms that he purchased and drove in vehicles he provided. Many of the killers received instructions from Kabuga’s radio station, which identified targets and called for specific areas to be attacked.

After the genocide, Kabuga became one of the world’s most wanted fugitives. Last weekend, he was arrested, living under a false name in a rented apartment outside Paris. During more than two decades on the run, he allegedly spent most of his time in Kenya, where authorities are believed to have helped him, and also lived in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo before moving to France three years ago.

Now aged 84, Kabuga is due to be tried by an international criminal tribunal in Tanzania on seven counts, including genocide. The trial may shed further light on the Rwandan genocide, as well as how he evaded authorities for so long.


Taiwan: Countries around the world have suppressed Covid-19 outbreaks with varied success, prompting them to start grappling with how – or whether – they can safely allow international tourists to return.

Taiwan, whose response to the pandemic has been one of the world’s most successful, will next month work on a trial with Stanford University of a testing regime that might allow for the resumption of international travel. The trial will begin with a sample of 500 people flying from San Francisco, who will have to test negative before boarding and will then be tested in Taiwan every two days. For the trial, the sample group will be subject to Taiwan’s mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Jason Wang, of Stanford’s school of medicine, told the Financial Times the trial might lead to airports setting up quick pre-flight testing stations to allow travellers to have shorter quarantines at their destination.

Elsewhere, countries with low infection rates, such as Australia and New Zealand, have explored opening a “travel bubble” that could allow tourism to resume. The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania created a similar bubble last week.

Others are reopening borders, despite the dangers.

Italy has announced it will allow European travellers to visit from June 3 without a quarantine as it tries to bring back tourists ahead of the European summer holidays. Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, described the move as a “calculated risk”.

Italy’s ban on travellers from outside Europe ends from June 15, though it could be extended. Australia’s official travel advice for Italy, and everywhere else, is: “Do not go overseas.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2020 as "Trump issues WHO reforms ultimatum".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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