World Health Organization welcomes Syria to its Executive Board despite protests 

The Syrian government’s Minister of Health Hassan Ghabbash (edited by Enab Baladi)

The Syrian government’s Minister of Health Hassan Ghabbash (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Zeynep Masri

Despite protest from local and international civil society organizations, health and humanitarian workers, and criticism from some countries, the Syrian regime participated in the 149th session of the Executive Board of World Health Organization (WHO) through video conference on 2 June with the participation of representatives from 34 countries elected for a three-year term, including the regime’s government, which was granted a seat in the Board after its election on 28 May.

The Syrian regime’s Minister of Health Hassan Ghabbash, who represented the regime’s government in the session, said that “Syria believes in working according to the United Nations (UN) Charter and international law and it is keen to assume its responsibilities in the Board and to work effectively and constructively in the framework of multilateral action to support sustainable development.”

On 3 June, the local pro-government al-Watan newspaper reported that Ghabbash called for providing the necessary assistance to the Board’s member countries to enhance their ability in building flexible and advanced health systems, particularly in the light of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Member States’ delegations attending the 74th session of the World Health Assembly (WHA74)_ the decision-making body of WHO_ held on 28 May, did not debate or express dissent on Syria becoming a member of WHO’s Executive Board, among other newly elected countries.

WHO: “We are neither equipped nor mandated to find political solutions”

The appointment decision of the regime for membership at WHO’s Executive Board has outraged Syrian activists, medical professionals, and humanitarian organizations operating in areas outside the regime’s control. Statements condemning and denouncing the decision were issued, accusing WHO of “rewarding” the regime for its internationally documented violations in the health sector, calling it to reverse its decision. 

Enab Baladi contacted WHO Communications Officer for Emergencies Inas Hamam via email to comment on the appointment of the regime’s government as a Member State at the WHO’s Executive Board for a three-year term, despite the regime’s direct targeting of health personnel and destruction of health facilities. Hamam’s response was as follows: “As per the standard process, countries elected to WHO’s Executive Board are designated by the Member States from each of WHO’s six regions, who nominate a candidate from the same region based on a quota system.”

She added, “Syria was elected to the Executive Board by the 22 countries of WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region.”

Hamam pointed out that “WHO’s mandate is to achieve better health outcomes for all people, including populations in all countries. WHO is neither equipped nor mandated to find political solutions, and continuously calls on all parties in conflict-affected countries to respect the right to health, to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to health care, and to protect health care.”

She mentioned that “WHO implements its response activities through its main office in Damascus and sub-offices across Syria, supported by cross-border operations from a hub in Gaziantep, Turkey.”

Hamam said, “Under the leadership of WHO, the health cluster in Syria (established in 2012) brings together a network of 200 health sector partners (including cross-border partners) to support the health response for all Syrians across the whole country.”

SAMS’ open letter to WHO

The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) sent an open letter to WHO’s Director-General opposing the election of the Syrian government to the WHO Executive Board given its “appalling record of ten years of deliberate, widespread, and systematic attacks on Syrian health facilities and personnel, and clear evidence of discrimination in the delivery of health care, including prevention and treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The letter read, “Members of the Executive Board take part in the advice and implementation of the World Health Assembly’s decisions, policies, and resolutions. The most recent session of the Executive Board that started on 02 June includes a discussion of WHO reform, the process for the election of the Director-General, and revision of programmatic and financial reports.”

“Such discussions are of critical importance as WHO seeks to carry out its life-saving mission worldwide. Consequently, these meetings should be reserved for the Member States with the highest qualifications and international standing, in order to positively engage and properly represent the best of the health sector at the international level.” 

In the letter, the PHR mentioned that “As of March 2021, the organization has documented 599 attacks on at least 350 separate health facilities and documented the killing of 930 medical personnel. From March 2011 through March 2021, 540 of these attacks have allegedly been committed by the Syrian government and its allies.”

The PHR added that “While efforts have been made to limit further attacks on health, including the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR No. 2286) and the establishment of a Humanitarian Notification System for the prevention of attacks on humanitarian facilities in Syria.”

“According to the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, in the period following the adoption of UNSCR No. 2286, there were 442 documented attacks on health facilities in Syria alone,” the letter mentioned.

Protest and condemnation

In the WHA74, none of the Member States’ representatives objected to the regime’s election for membership at WHO’s Executive Board. President of the Assembly Dechen Wangmo from Bhutan said after reading out the names of the 12 candidate countries for WHO’s Executive Board, including Syria, “As I see no one wishing to take the floor, I understand there is no objection, I, therefore, declare the 12th members elected.” 

Germany, France, the United States, Qatar, and Turkey, were some of the Member States’ representatives who attended the WHA74, and the fact that they confirmed the regime’s election with no debate or dissent caused a burst of outrage and condemnation.

At the local level, Idlib Health Directorate workers held a protest on 31 May against the WHO’s decision to appoint the regime to its Executive Board for a three-year term.

Violet organization, which runs health programs in northern Syria besides other service projects, condemned the WHO’s decision which it considered “disconnected from reality,” particularly as it comes from a UN agency that has a fundamental role in directing and coordinating authority on international health and medical personnel.  

The Syria Civil Defence organization (SCD), also known as the White Helmets, issued a statement on 30 May saying, “As civil society organizations, we are frustrated and in great shock at the election of the criminal regime as a new member of WHO’s Executive Board.”

The Syrian Networks League (SNL) also released a statement on 29 May denouncing the regime’s election as a member at the WHO’s Executive Board, considering it a “setback” for efforts to support the cause of protecting health facilities, medical personnel, and humanitarian and rescue workers.

Internationally, British officials have criticized the WHO’s move, and the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office James Cleverly tweeted on 3 June that “Syria’s appointment to WHO’s Executive Board stands in stark contrast to the regime’s consistent targeting of medical facilities and workers.”

The UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and UN in Geneva, British diplomat Simon Manley, tweeted, “Disappointed to see Syria appointed to WHO’s Executive Board.”

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, “I am anything but happy with this decision,” when asked about his opinion on the Syrian regime’s election to WHO’s Executive Board. 

WHO’s Executive Board is composed of 34 technically qualified members elected for three-year terms. The annual Board meeting is held in January when the members agree upon the agenda for the World Health Assembly and the resolutions to be considered by the Health Assembly.

A second shorter meeting takes place in May as a follow-up to the Health Assembly. The main duties of the Board are to implement the decisions and policies of the Health Assembly and generally facilitate its work.

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