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Watchdog urges Helen Clark to resign from global COVID-19 inquiry over concerns she'll give WHO, China 'a free pass'

Newshub logo Newshub 10/11/2020 Matt Burrows
Hillel Neuer, Helen Clark are posing for a picture: Watch: Helen Clark admits the chance to lead the WHO's COVID-19 review is "terrifying" - but one she couldn't refuse. © Video - Newshub; Image - YouTube/Getty Watch: Helen Clark admits the chance to lead the WHO's COVID-19 review is "terrifying" - but one she couldn't refuse.

A UN watchdog is urging Helen Clark to step down from leading the World Health Organization (WHO) inquiry into COVID-19's origins, saying she "can't credibly investigate China's role" in the pandemic.

Hillel Neuer, a lawyer and activist who heads up human rights organisation UN Watch, says the former New Zealand Prime Minister should resign on account of her close ties with the Chinese government and praise of the WHO's response, which she is charged with investigating.

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Clark, alongside former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, were in July appointed co-chairs of the WHO's Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response - an inquiry into the origins and global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

But the appointment of Clark riled Neuer, who at the time described her as "an apologist for WHO wrongdoing" and drew attention to her close professional relationship with controversial UN Goodwill Ambassador James Chau.

Chau was in June the subject of a complaint to the WHO filed by 100 non-governmental organisations, which claimed he has "systematically abused his UN position to whitewash Beijing's role in the virus outbreak".

Clark earlier this year appeared on his TV show The China Current - a programme UN Watch says is funded by a top Beijing official with ties to the Chinese Communist Party - and was endorsed by Chinese President Xi Jinping for UN Secretary-General in 2016 . 

Ahead of the release of the Clark and Sirleaf's first progress report on Wednesday (NZ time), Neuer doubled down on his criticism of Clark and urged her to step down from the role.

In a press release sent to media on Wednesday, he says he has legitimate concerns that Clark will give both China and the WHO "a free pass" that could "seriously undermine the credibility of the panel's findings".

"Clark's numerous statements this year praising the WHO for the very actions she is meant to investigate, as well as her history of close ties with Beijing - which backed her recent bid to become UN chief - give rise to the appearance of bias," he said.

"That is why we have written Ms Clark a formal letter today, documenting the problematic statements, and urging her to step down from her role as co-chair of the inquiry."

That public letter, which details more than a dozen endorsements or comments that UN Watch sees as concerning for someone in her position, urges her to recuse herself from the inquiry.

"The coronavirus pandemic has seriously impacted the lives of virtually everyone in the world. Assessing the origins, spread, and response to the outbreak is essential for the future of humanity," he said.

"Regrettably, as shown above, your numerous partisan statements defending the WHO's response to the pandemic disqualify you from objectively investigating this question.

"Your close ties to the Chinese government likewise pose a conflict of interest and create the appearance of bias that undermines your ability to impartially investigate the role of China, where the coronavirus began."

Neuer isn't alone in his criticism of how the WHO's COVID-19 inquiry is unfolding. On Tuesday, the US called for a "transparent and inclusive" investigation into the origins of the pandemic, criticising the WHO of being China's puppet.

Garrett Grigsby, head of the global affairs office at the US Department of Health and Human Services, told the WHO's ministerial assembly the investigation so far "appears to be inconsistent" with its mandate.

"Understanding the origins of COVID-19 through a transparent and inclusive investigation is what must be done to meet the mandate," he added.

Newshub reached out to Helen Clark for comment, but had not received a response at time of publishing.

After her appointment, she told The AM Show she believes she's well-suited for the role as there's a lot of geopolitics surrounding the review.

"When you're looking at the WHO-led response you're also looking at how countries responded to it; did countries play their part? There is a broader focus there," she said in an interview with The AM Show.

"I think we have to come to this with open minds - I think one of the reasons they've come to me is I'm seen as an independent person [and] a lot of countries have worked with me."

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