WHO decision to admit Syria to executive board shocks hospital attack survivors

Hundreds of health facilities have been targeted by the Syrian military in the decade-long conflict

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Syrian health workers have expressed anger and astonishment after the World Health Organisation decided to elect Syria to its executive board, despite the Syrian government bombing health facilities as recently as March.

Health workers interviewed by The National have survived Syrian Air Force attacks on hospitals and lost colleagues during the decade-long civil war.

The UN agencies continue to fail to do the right thing, which is to call the Assad regime what it is: criminal

The Violet Organisation, which runs health programmes across opposition-held north-west Syria, is one of several organisations that have documented Syrian government attacks on health centres.

It says 595 medical facilities, including hospitals, were destroyed by President Bashar Al Assad's regime up to February this year.

Medical staff at the hospital in Aaqrabat, Idlib province, held signs condemning the election to the WHO board of Mr Assad's government, which for the past 10 years has killed healthcare workers, bombed hospitals and obstructed access to medical aid.

Other medical workers voiced their frustration in front of destroyed hospitals and ambulances, hoping to remind the WHO of the crimes committed by Mr Assad’s regime.

Raed Al Saleh, Head of Syria's Civil Defence –  also known as The White Helmets – said the WHO's nomination was "appalling".

"The UN agencies continue to fail to do the right thing, which is to call the Assad regime what it is: criminal," he told The National.

“It also shows how WHO and other UN agencies are disconnected from reality.”

The WHO announced on Friday that Syria had been elected as a member of the executive board for three years, one of 34 international representatives.

The board implements decisions and policies of the WHO Health Assembly.

Fouad Sayed, Founder of Violet Organisation, told The National he was "shocked" that Syria had been approved to join.

“It is unacceptable and unjustified, based on the crimes the Syrian regime committed against health workers and facilities across Syria,” Mr Sayed said.

WHO Eastern Mediterranean emergency communications manager Inas Hamam told The National that Syria was nominated as per standard process.

"Syria was elected to the executive board by the 22 countries of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region," Ms Hamam said.

She did not respond to questions regarding the Syrian regime targeting medical facilities.

Over the past 10 years, Syrian government bombing has killed 930 healthcare workers, while a further 3,329 have been arrested, according to the Violet Organisation.

The most recent bombing of a hospital by the Syrian regime was on March 21, when Atarib Hospital in west Aleppo was targeted by artillery.

Eight people were killed and more than a dozen staff and patients were injured.

Mr Al Saleh from the White Helmets said he has witnessed tens of attacks by the regime on medical facilities and hospitals – including strikes on ambulances during rescue missions.

“All these attacks have the same nature: they are deliberate and devastating,” Mr Al Saleh said.

The White Helmets alone have lost 289 volunteers to regime attacks, the majority killed by what are known as "double taps", where medical workers arrive on scene in the aftermath of a bombardment, only to be intentionally targeted with a second wave of strikes.

“The WHO should immediately reverse this decision,” Mr Al Saleh said.

Ms Hamam at the WHO said the organisation's "mandate is to achieve better health outcomes for all people".

“We are neither equipped nor mandated to find political solutions, and we continuously call on all parties in conflict-affected countries to respect the right to health, to ensure that the most vulnerable have access to health care.”

Mr Sayed from the Violet Organisation, which lost medical staff as a result of a double-tap strike in the north-western city of Ma'arat Nu'man in June 2019, is concerned about how the Syrian regime will influence the WHO's decision-making.

He and other medical and humanitarian organisations operating in Idlib province – now home to nearly three million people who have fled regime bombardment in other areas of Syria – fear the regime will push the WHO to stop operating in the north-west and force the UN agency to work through Damascus.

Mohamad Daboul, a nurse working in field hospitals and health centres serving the displaced in the north-west, told The National the WHO should be punishing the regime for its violations.

"The presence of a representative of Syria in the WHO will negatively affect the decisions of the global health organisation towards the medical sector in the north," Mr Daboul said.

Dr Hassan Hamidi, a specialist in general and trauma surgery who has worked in hospitals in the cities of Hama and Idlib, said he was sure the regime would take WHO medical aid and distribute it to its military and its allies – Iranian militias and Lebanese Shiite extremists Hezbollah – leaving the displaced in the north-west to suffer.

"These actions of the regime were already revealed and documented; aid which came from the WHO was found in the warehouses of Assad's army during the liberation of several towns by the Free Syrian Army," Dr Hamidi told The National.

Mr Al Saleh highlighted the siege of Eastern Ghouta between 2013 and 2018, and the regime's tactic of depriving medical aid to rebel-held areas.

He questioned how the WHO can claim to lead global health responses when members of its executive body have spent the past 10 years obstructing these processes.

“If Syria continues to sit on the Executive Board, the Syrian regime will continue to weaponise the WHO’s internal procedures and policies for political gains,” Mr Al Saleh said.