Is the WHO Complicit in Syrian War Crimes?

Is the WHO Complicit in Syrian War Crimes?

Throughout the bitter years of conflict in Syria, numerous UN officials have, on several occasions, decried their helplessness in undertaking their aid missions. These officials have always unequivocally placed blame on the two warring sides of the conflict. On the one hand, they condemn the Syrian regime, for greatly restricting the organizations’ freedom of movement to certain areas of the country. Meanwhile, working with other armed forces leaves them vulnerable to all sorts of chaos, theft, kidnapping, and even murder.

As the security and military situation continued to devolve, the agencies justified coordinating with the Syrian regime on the basis of maintaining their aid while ensuring the lowest possible presence in the field as possible, rather than complete withdrawal. Thereby, they could continue working towards their goals of “saving lives,” and “mitigating the humanitarian and health effects” of war.

Nonetheless, this exposed them to widespread accusations of bias towards the regime, and of conspiring with it to target civilians, even going so far as to accuse the agencies of war crimes.

In addition to the UN’s specific brand of bureaucratic complications, along with the humanitarian considerations that are often divorced from a clear political stance, there are also the unique complications of the situation in Syria. In reality, one conclusion can be arrived at; that the UN has suffered a major failure in its humanitarian mission in Syria.

The reasons are doubtlessly many, and cannot be solely attributed to each respective organization. Rather, it appears that the entire constitutive framework needs to be revisited. Among the most notable examples is the performance of the World Health Organization (WHO), and the repeated allegations it has faced. Has it colluded with the Syrian regime? There is no definitive answer. Did it fail on its mission in Syria? Again, there is no conclusive response, but certainly, it has not succeeded.

In efforts to illustrate the extent of the UN’s crisis in Syria, we review some of the major pitfalls of the WHO during its mission there. While we cannot ensure the veracity of everything that has been claimed, but where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire, and it is worth mentioning them, at least.

“Apologists for Assad”

Medical doctor, activist, and researcher Annie Sparrow’s reputation precedes her. She has worked in the medical field for over 15 years, and has monitored the situation in Syria since its eruption, in coordination with organizations such as Human Rights Watch, and others. In her latest report published in Middle East Eye, Sparrow accuses the WHO of colluding with Assad and covering up for war crimes. She publishes a number of documents evidencing what she claims to be the agency’s distortion of the facts through its representative Elizabeth Hoff. Through these documents, Hoff is claimed to have adopted the Syrian regime’s narrative, and worked with the defence ministry through suspect operations.

According to the report, despite spending millions of dollars on public health, the agency has arrived at a catastrophic situation in Syria. The numbers speak for themselves. The average life expectancy has gone down from 70.8 years in 2010 to 55.4 in 2015. This alone is a terrifying number, particularly in comparison to other war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Iraq, where the average life expectancy range from sixty-one to sixty-nine years.

On the other hand, Sparrow states that dozens of those who have been evacuated, displaced, or besieged, or who live in opposition strongholds, fall outside of the scope of aid offered by the agency, which purports neutrality. The reason, according to Sparrow, is as follows: “As can be seen by a speech made by Elizabeth Hoff, WHO’s representative to Syria, to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 19 November 2016, WHO has prioritised warm relations with the Syrian government over meeting the most acute needs of the Syrian people.”

Sparrow’s report attributes a number of worrying mistakes to Hoff, among which are:

    • Covering up infectious diseases, including polio

According to the report, despite the Syrian government’s insistence that vaccination rates reached 99% between 2009 and 2010, while vaccination coverage for immunization against diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus was at 100%, numbers cited by the UNICEF and the WHO itself contradict this.

Hoff nonetheless defended the Syrian government’s statistics during a Security Council session. The main contention in the report is “though Hoff may not know it given her lack of medical expertise, if national coverage rates had really been as high ‘before the conflict’ as she and the Assad government insist, polio would never have re-appeared in 2013.”

Sparrow notes that attributing the surge in polio to the war alone is “lazy, and wrong,” noting that polio did not make a comeback in the eight years of war in Iraq, and yet it exploded after just two years of the conflict in Syria.

    • Neglecting the true perpetrators of attacks on medical units

According to Sparrow, Hoff referred to 126 attacks on medical units from January to September 2016, however overlooking the main perpetrators, i.e. the Syrian regime in cooperation with its Russian ally. The report continues to state: “According to Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), of some 400 attacks on 276 separate healthcare facilities between March 2011 and July 2016, Syrian and Russian forces have been responsible for more than 90 percent.

Of the 768 medics killed during this period as documented by PHR, 713 (almost 93 percent) were killed by the Syrian and Russian government forces.”

Sparrow further points to Hoff’s welcoming of the health situation in regime-controlled areas, in contrast to her condemnation of the situation in rebel-held areas, without considering the reasons that led to this imbalance.

    • Collusion with the regime

In another article co-written by Sparrow and George Russell, titled “Blood and war: How a UN agency cooperates with Assad,” the WHO is revealed to have repeatedly falsifying information to donors and the media regarding their support for the Syrian Ministry of Defense between 2014 and 2016. During that time, the agency purchased millions of dollars worth of blood storage bags and blood-testing kits.

While Sparrow notes that while the WHO specifically has a long history of negligence towards humanitarian principles, the UN has essentially provided the Syrian ministry of defence with subsidies that “free up defence ministry funds that would have been spent on these blood-related needs, enabling them to be used to finance the targeting of hospitals and civilian infrastructure, and the incarceration and torture ofdoctors [sic].”

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    • Neutral terminology for charged issues

The WHO never took a stance against the siege imposed on a number of areas, failing to explain its inability to reach these areas for years on end, and instead describing them as “hard to reach” and “besieged” locations.

    • Shukria Mekdad hired as WHO consultant

The appointment of Shukria Mekdad, spouse of the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad, as health consultant for the agency at the beginning of 2016 was the cause of much controversy. Specialized in assessing the mental health of displaced Syrians, her recruitment was defended by Hoff at the time on the basis that Mekdad was the most qualified for the job, and that the agency “recruited people from across the political spectrum.” Nonetheless, the public sphere questioned Mekdad’s integrity and impartiality, given that her husband is a party in the war.

    • Assad controls UN agency work

Last August, The Guardian published an extensive article highlighting the millions of dollars that were funnelled from UN agencies to the Syrian regime. According to the report, the UN allocated over $13 million to the Syrian government to develop the agricultural sector, while about $4 million worth of fuel has been purchased from state-owned Sadcop/Mahroukat. Meanwhile, the WHO spent $5 million on supporting the defense ministry-controlled Syrian blood bank, amid fears that blood transfusions would only be provided to military casualties, and not civilians.

Moreover, according to The Guardian, both the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) have partnered with Asma Al-Assad’s Syria Trust for Development, having provided it with approximately $8.5 million. Additionally, UNICEF has dispensed $267,933 to the Al-Bustan Association, owned by Rami Makhlouf, a close associate of Assad’s.

Further documentation shows that UN agencies have signed deals with 258 companies with connections to the Assad regime, for sums as high as $54 million.

Haifa Zeiater

Haifaa Zaatar is a Lebanese journalist who worked for Al-Safir newspaper, as well as France24 Arabic.

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