Former AG Byrne linked to world health job


Ireland's former European Commissioner, David Byrne, has emerged in speculation in Brussels as a potential candidate for the vacant position of director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which will be filled later in the year.

Mr Byrne worked as a special envoy for the WHO for a six- month period after he completed his term as an EU commissioner for health and consumer protection in October 2004. The former Attorney General's job as WHO special envoy was to supervise the revision of the international health regulations which widened their scope to cover all public health emergencies.

The last director general of the WHO, Dr Lee Jong-wook, died in May, following a sudden illness, less than halfway through his term of office. The process of finding a successor will get under way next month and will be concluded by November 9th.

The position is filled by an election process with the 36-member executive committee of the WHO, representing the 192 member states, making the final decision. Mr Byrne's name has emerged in discussions in Brussels about the likely candidate to be put forward by the EU.

It is understood that so far no approach has been made to Mr Byrne and it will not happen until the likely support base for potential candidates is teased out in informal discussions during the next month or so.

Much will depend on whether it is deemed to be the turn of the EU to fill the top position and whether the job should go to a technocrat or to a more political figure capable of raising the political profile of the organisation. There are usually intense negotiations before the names of candidates are put forward.

The current deputy director general of the WHO, Margaret Chung, a native of Hong Kong, is regarded as a strong contender. There is also a strong view that another Asian should be selected as Dr Lee did not serve out his term. A candidate from the American continent has not been ruled out either.

To get the job Mr Byrne would first have to be nominated by the Government and then be the official candidate of the EU. He would be unlikely to let his name go forward unless there was a strong chance of a European getting the job.

The late Dr Lee was a doctor with experience in the ranks of the WHO before his election to the position in January 2003 for a five-year term. His predecessor was the former Norwegian prime minister, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, a medical doctor and politician with an international reputation.

When commissioner, Mr Byrne developed close links between the EU and the WTO. he worked closely with Dr Brundtland in devising a co-ordinated approach to the tobacco issue.

His appointment as a special envoy to supervise the negotiation of new international health regulations was a recognition of the standing he had developed with the WTO.

Mr Byrne worked closely with the director-general to resolve outstanding difficulties and develop support for an agreed approach to public health emergencies of international concern.