Former Prime Minister Helen Clark says an attack on her role on a global pandemic panel was "a politically motivated smear," full of "absurd allegations and distortions."
The Geneva-based UN Watch group had issued an open letter to Clark, demanding she step down from her role as co-chair of the WHO's independent panel investigating the Covid-19 pandemic.
The group alleged Clark's had "close ties" to China and had backed the WHO's handling of the pandemic, which showed a "bias that undermines [her] ability to impartially investigate" the outbreak.
However, Clark said the letter was full of "falsehoods", including its comments about her links with China.
"I have no ties with China at all. The open letter publicised by a small group in Geneva consists of a mix of outright falsehoods, misrepresentation and distortion. It is in other words a smear."
Clark was appointed co-chair of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response in July. The panel will examine the origin of and global response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as accusations China failed to alert the world to the Covid-19 catastrophe.
UN Watch describes itself as a watchdog of the UN, and a human rights organisation.
Clark said the group had consistently been critical of multi-lateralism, and anyone who supported it.
"I think the attack on me is in essence a way of attacking the independent panel. But in doing so, they have smeared me. To say I am under the influence of a foreign power when I am an independent chair of an independent panel, it borders on defamation."
It described Clark as a "good friend of the Beijing regime", and claimed President Xi Jinping supported her failed bid for the position of UN Secretary-General in 2016.
Clark said that was one of the most absurd claims in the letter. President Xi had never expressed support for her 2016 bid, she said.
"It is widely believed that China actually cast one of the three vetoes against it in the UN Security Council."
The Herald could find no public expression of support by Xi for Clark.
During her bid in 2016, former Prime Minister John Key visited Beijing and said he believed Xi was supportive of Clark, and considered her a "good friend" to China as her government had signed the free trade agreement between the two countries in 2008.
However, he said Xi had not said if China would support her for the role.
UN Watch also alleged she had close ties to Hong Kong-based TV anchor James Chau, a WHO "Goodwill Ambassador", whom the group said was accused of abusing his UN position to whitewash Beijing's role in the virus outbreak.
Clark said she had no close ties to Chau, having only talked to him for two interviews over the years.
"The same interviewer regularly interviews global personalities, including this year the Prime Minister of Norway and Professor Jeffrey Sachs. To suggest that such interviews are improper is to threaten freedom of speech."
It also questioned Clark's independence from the WHO, saying she had "defended the WHO, despite its failure to swiftly label Covid-19 a 'pandemic', and instead put the onus on countries for not acting sooner".
It pointed to social media and comments by Clark in which she had hesitated to criticise the WHO or China over the pandemic.
The group's executive director, Hillel Neuer, said it gave rise to concerns the WHO and Beijing would "get a free pass" from the investigation.
"You also criticised the 'flat-footed response' of the international community, and hastened to add, 'Let's except from that the World Health Organisation,' which 'has really tried to give global leadership'."
Clark said it was a "political motivated smear" trying to besmirch the panel.
Clark will serve in the co-chair role alongside former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Clark had said she hesitiated before accepting the role because she felt the panel's task was "mission impossible".
* This article was originally published without comment from Helen Clark. Comment has since been added.