Exit the WHO

By Elena Viktorovna Safronova

Doctor of Law, Professor

Professor of the Department of Constitutional and international law, head of the Center for Trans- Border Legal Research at Belgorod State National Research University (Russia, Belgorod), author of more than 200 scientific and scientific-methodological works on the history of state and law, the history of political and legal doctrines, the theory and history of public international law.
Regular organizer and participant of international conferences, inter-regional, all-Russian and inter-university scientific events.


The problem of withdrawal from an international organization is directly related to the procedure for denunciation of an international treaty, which is the so-called institutional document - the Constitution of the WHO.

The WHO Constitution does not provide for a mechanism for the withdrawal of member states. There are many treaties in international law that do not contain provisions on the procedure for denunciation and withdrawal. The absence of withdrawal clauses in the charters cannot serve as an obstacle to voluntary termination of membership.


The basis for unilateral withdrawal from an organization is the principle of sovereign equality of states, according to which any state has the right to freely determine the expediency of staying in a particular organization.
This basis is reflected in the doctrine of international law. Thus, the Indian jurist, President of the International Court of Justice (1985-1988) Nagendra Singh, believed that unilateral withdrawal is possible on the grounds that “a sovereign state is bound only by what is enshrined in the treaty and cannot be bound by what is absent from the treaty” [1]. In his opinion, the prohibition of withdrawal is a broad and arbitrary interpretation of the competence of an international organization and a violation of the sovereign law of states. The same position is shared by Chinese scholar He Mingjun [2], who noted that a state can withdraw from an international organization due to its inherent attribute of sovereignty. The overwhelming majority of representatives of the Soviet and modern Russian doctrine of international law [3] advocates the possibility of exit, because the ban contradicts the principle of state sovereignty.


Additional arguments for the permissibility of membership termination:

          Firstly, there is a declaratory statement of the International Health Conference (New York,1946) to establish the World Health Organization, which provides that “a Member is not bound to remain in the Organization if its rights and obligations as such changed by an amendment of the Constitution in which it has not concurred and which it finds itself unable to accept” [4].

          Secondly, there is a reservation made by the United States when ratifying the WHO Constitution. The United States, when expressing its consent to be bound by the WHO Constitution, made a reservation securing the right to withdraw from the organization in a year after the announcement of this [5]. Having recognized it, WHO allowed the possibility of voluntary withdrawal. It was this clause that Trump tried to take advantage of in May 29, 2020, announcing the US withdrawal from the organization.

          Thirdly, Article 56 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969 “Denunciation of a treaty or withdrawal from a treaty that does not contain provisions for its termination, denunciation or withdrawal from it” provides two provisions of a universal nature: denunciation or withdrawal is possible if : (i) “it is established that the parties intended to allow the possibility of denunciation or withdrawal” (Art. 56(1)(a)); and (b) “if the nature of the contract implies the right of denunciation or withdrawal” (Art. 56(1)(b)) (the so-called implied right). As a common rule, withdrawal is not allowed from peace treaties or agreements on territorial delimitation; a denunciation of codification treaties is also prohibited. The charter of an international organization does not fall under the above categories; and the right to withdraw from the organization is always assumed, which, in particular, is confirmed by the opinion of the International Law Commission [6]. In this regard, pursuant to Article 56(2) of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties of 1969, withdrawal from the WHO Treaty is possible subject to prior notification of the upcoming denunciation at least 12 months before withdrawal.

          Fourthly, there is a known historical precedence. On February 12, 1949 the Deputy Minister of Health N.A. Vinogradov - USSR , the USSR informed the WHO Director General that the Soviet Union no longer considered itself a member of the World Health Organization. The Soviet Union used a notification procedure for terminating relations, which only a de facto sovereign state can exercise. The World Health Organization did not recognize the exit, which gave rise to the phenomenon of so-called “inactive members.” For almost a ten-year period, the USSR, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Czechoslovakia, as well as Poland, Hungary, and Mongolia were recognized as its “inactive members.” At this time, the countries of the socialist bloc created their own system of cooperation in the field of health care. The USSR returned to cooperation with the WHO only in 1956.

Thus, any sovereign state has a chance to change the situation. All that is required is they clearly express political will. In the context of Russia’s attempts to exit the paradigm of the new world order, it is worth turning to the experience of the USSR. At critical moments in history, the Soviet leadership was able to demonstrate its will and not remain isolated. In the current situation, the rich experience of developing regional cooperation between Eastern European countries in the field of health outside the World Health Organization may be useful.




1. Singh N. Termination of Membership of International Organization. L., Praeger, 1958, p. 176.

2. He Mingjun On the issue of the right of a state to withdraw from an international organization // Bulletin of Moscow University, Ser. 11. Law, No. 6, p. 97. (In Russian).

3 Lukashuk I.I. Modern law of international treaties. T. II. Effect of international treaties. M.; Wolters Kluwer, 2006, p. 496; Mikhailov V.S. On the issue of so-called “inactive members” of international organizations (using the example of membership in WHO), Soviet Yearbook of International Law, 1981, pp. 204 – 213; Osminin B.I. Legal models of termination and suspension by states of international treaties, Journal of Foreign Legislation and Comparative Law, 2019, No. 4 pp. 116-133. (in Russian)

4 Summary report on proceedings, minutes and final acts of the International Health Conference, New York, June 19- July 22, 1946 // Official Records of the World Health Organization. № 2. Geneva: WHO, 1948. p. 26.

5 Ratification of Constitution of the WHO by the United States, Eightieth Congress of the United States of America at the Second Session, the City of Washington, January 6, 1948 //Official records of the World Health Organization. No. 13 First World Health Assembly Geneva, June 24 to July 24, 1948, p. 383.

6 Fitzmaurice G.G. Second Report on the Law of Treaties. Document: A/CN.4/107 // Extract from the Yearbook of the International Law Commission, 1957, pp.1-70.