Syria's appointment to the World Health Organization's Executive Board is angering opposition groups and international medical organizations given the record of hundreds of documented attacks on medical centers and health workers by its regime and its allies during the country's civil war.
"It was really, really shocking," says Houssam al Nahhas, a researcher for the U.S.-based nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights, which investigates and documents human rights violations, told NPR.
He said he was tortured by the regime back in 2012 when he was a medical student treating protesters' injuries.
Syria was appointed May 28 as a board member. The group is made up of 34 member states, with representatives who hold three-year terms setting the WHO Health Assembly agenda and help to implement the organization's policies.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insisted in 2016 his regime was not attacking hospitals or targeting civilians, but organizations, including the World Health Organization itself and various United Nations bodies, have documented the attacks.
Physicians for Human Rights, which has documented 540 attacks by the Syrian government and allied forces since the civil war started in 2011, said the regime has killed 827 medical personnel through airstrikes or torture leading to death or execution.
Meanwhile, the White Helmets, a Syrian civil defense group, complained that adding Syria to the WHO executive board "rewards the Assad regime despite its systematic destruction of hospitals and health centers, in addition to a long list of other war crimes."
Physicians for Human Rights, along with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) has written to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus demanding he does all in his power to overturn Syria's election to the executive board.
The member states of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean group made the decision to add Syria to the board. Some of the group's countries include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Ghebreyesus does not have direct authority over who is on the board, but the letter to him asks him to criticize the appointment and take action similar to when he revoked the appointment of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe as a goodwill ambassador for the WHO in 2017.
WHO rejected NPR's requests for an interview and did not respond to written questions asking if the decision to add Syria to the board compares to the Mugabe appointment, but did provide a written statement saying Syria was added to the board through the "standard process," and member states, not the WHO, made the decision.
"WHO's mandate is to achieve better health outcomes for all people, including populations in all countries," the statement read. "We are neither equipped nor mandated to find political solutions."
Syrian health minister Dr. Hassan Muhammad al-Gabbash, who has been on sanctions lists from the United Kingdom and the European Union since 2020, will represent Syria on the WHO executive board.
The United States also has "grave concerns" to see Syria on the board, said State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter, adding the board members "have a duty to advance public health and likewise are expected to uphold universal values as well as human rights."
However, any member state could have objected when Syria was nominated, but no country, even the United States, objected, points out NPR.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Member Mike McCaul, R-Texas, accused the Biden administration of having "tacitly approved" Syria's election to the board, but a State Department spokesperson said the administration had "no advance notice" of the nomination.
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