United States Slams Syria and Belarus on Health & Human Rights at WHO Forum – Ahead of Biden-Putin “Geneva Summit”
The United States representative to the Executive Board on Wednesday – speaks out sharply about Syrian and Belarus health and human rights violations.  

United States charges against Syria and Belarus for human rights abuses, including reference to a “ruthless Assad regime”, were a major theme at Wednesday’s World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board meeting – in what may also be a signal by Washington to Russia ahead of a high profile “Geneva Summit” that the US is going to take a harder tact on human rights.    

US President Joe Biden and Russia’s Valdimir Putin are set to meet on June 16 in Geneva for the first time since Biden became president.  The meeting follows four years in which US President Donald Trump was perceived by many critics as often courting Putin’s favor while sidestepping divisive issues such as the human rights record of Russia and its proxies.  

The US statements may also be a signal to WHO member states – that if the global health forum is going to remain a place where Taiwan is sidelined and politically-charged debates on health conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories regularly take place – then Washington will have its say on issues that concern it, as well. 

Last week the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took centre stage for a full day at the World Health Assembly gathering of all 194 WHO member states during a debate on a WHA resolution decrying “Health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory, including east Jerusalem and the occupied Syrian Golan”. The prolonged discussion drew protests not only from the US delegate, but also from the United Kingdom and other allies that noted the WHA accords no comparable amount of attention to health conditions specific to other conflict zones and humanitarian settings.  

Election of New Executive Board Members 

The debate over Syria and Belarus occurred as both countries were elected to represent their respective regions in the WHO Governing Board  – the 34-member state steering committee that is supposed to guide and watchdog the activities of WHO at close range. 

Palestine and Taiwan excepting, member states usually try to avoid direct attacks on other members. They even more rarely criticize the selections of countries from other regions to the governing body, per se.  But in today’s session, the criticism was sharp and repeated – beginning with protests by the United States, as an outgoing EB member concluding its own three-year term.   

“We know that members of the Executive Board are expected to uphold universal values and human rights. Unfortunately, we have grave concerns that the governments of two new board members, Belarus and Syria do not share these values as demonstrated by their respective human rights violations and abuses against their own citizens – as overwhelmingly condemned by the international community,” said the US representative to the EB in a statement. 

Added the US, “In particular, we know Syria’s track record of conducting chemical weapons attacks, harming civilians and striking medical facilities, as well as first responders. The United States takes this opportunity to reinforce the expectations of members of the Executive Board, and call on the governments of both Belarus and and Syria to respect human rights. We also call on Syria to allow for the unimpeded access of life saving humanitarian aid, including medical supplies, regardless of where those in need are located.”

Syria and Belarus Reply 

Syria decries “politicization” of WHO forum.

The US comments brought swift and sharp replies from Syria and Belarus, also supported by Russia – which accused the United States of, in Syria’s words, “politicization of the WHO”    

Protesting the allegations of chemical weapons use and bombings of health facilities, Syria’s representative accused the US of “an effort to destabilize our countries by supporting terrorism, as well as aggression and occupation…. That destroy the quality of life in our countries.”

As the language became even more heated, Syrian charged that the US allegations of chemical weapons use by Damascus were “part of fake news campaigns that have no justification,” adding that “the United States actually creates humanitarian crises by pillaging human and economic resources, supporting militias and terrorist groups.”

The debate would better be consigned to the UN Human Rights Council, Belarus added, saying: “When we think about the flagrant violations of human rights in the US, we’re thinking about things like racism, violation of the right to peaceful process. We have seen also that millions of people in the United States are deprived of their right to medical care in many cases. I do hope that in the future such discussion will be held only in the Human Rights Council – and not here at the Executive Board –  and we would hope that a similar approach would be taken by other countries, our partners here within the WHO Executive Board.” 

US Comes Back Again 

Belarus lashes back at US record on racism and civil rights.

At the EB’s afternoon session, however, the United States came back to the Syrian issue again – focusing, in particular, on the destruction of health facilities by the “ruthless Assad regime”. 

The comments were a clear reference to the pattern of Syrian bombings and artillery fire aimed at hospitals and clinics located in areas held by Kurdish or other opposition forces – although the opposition groups were not cited by name.  

“We condemn in the strongest terms the repeated attacks impacting health and other civilian facilities throughout the conflict in Syria,” said the US.   

“We do believe issues raised by my government are within the purview of the UN. In fact, the evidence compiled by the UN’s Board of Inquiry clearly supports what we have known throughout this conflict:  the ruthless Assad regime and its allies have destroyed, hospitals, schools, and civilian infrastructure. 

In addition, Washington added, the US sanctions against the Syrian regime, “generally do not target provision of humanitarian goods including medicine, medical supplies and food to Syria. 

“The Syrian sanctions program provides authorizations, exemptions and general licenses for humanitarian aid and medical supplies to reach the Syrian people, including US-funded humanitarian aid to regime-held areas. 

“The regime is the one obstructing the access to humanitarian and medical assistance to all Syrians in need.” 

As for Belarus, the United States said the government had a demonstrated record of “human rights violations condemned by the international community; in particular the regime continues to deploy mass detentions, police brutality, and other abuses against peaceful protesters journalists and other members of civil society.”

In one note of irony, Turkey sided with the United States with regards to its criticism of Syria.  Said the Turkish representative attending the EB meeting as an observer: “Turkey would like to note its concern that in light of the Syrian regime’s record in targeting civilian healthcare facilities and health workers, its representation at the board is regrettable.”

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.