Administration Has 'Grave Concerns' About Election of Syria, Belarus to WHO Board, But Made No Attempt to Prevent It

By Patrick Goodenough | June 4, 2021 | 4:34am EDT
Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  (Photo by Leah Millis/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Photo by Leah Millis/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

( – The Biden administration has criticized the recent elevation of Syria and Belarus onto the executive board of the World Health Organization (WHO) – but when given the opportunity to raise objections or call for a recorded vote, neither the U.S. nor any other delegation did so.

At the State Department on Wednesday, deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter said in response to a question that the administration had “grave concerns” about the “election” of the two countries for three-year terms on the 34-member executive board.

At a WHO executive board meeting in Geneva the same day, U.S. representative Amy Norris White expressed “grave concerns” that the two governments do not share the values required for members of the board – specifically, upholding “universal values and human rights.”

“In particular, we note Syria’s track record of conducting chemical weapons attacks harming civilians and striking medical facilities as well as first responders,” she said.

“The United States takes this opportunity to reinforce the expectation of members of the executive board and calls on the governments of both Belarus and Syria to respect human rights.”

The Bashar Assad and Alexander Lukashenko regimes were handed the seats last Friday, the closing day of the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly (WHA).

The “election,” as with many in U.N. system, did not actually involve a vote. Instead, WHA president Dechen Wangmo, the health minister of Bhutan, read out the names of 12 candidates for the 12 vacancies.

“If elected, these 12 members would provide a balanced distribution of the board as a whole,” she said, before reading out the names in alphabetical order: “Afghanistan, Belarus, Denmark, France, Japan, Malaysia, Paraguay, Peru, Rwanda, Slovenia, Syrian Arab Republic, and Timor-Leste.”

“Is the assembly prepared, in accordance with the rule 80 of the Rules of Procedure, to elect these 12 members as proposed?” she asked.

After waiting a couple of moments, Wangmo continued, “As I see no-one wishing to take the floor, I understand that there is no objection. I therefore declare the 12 member[s] elected.”

(Rule 80 says elections should “normally be held by secret ballot” but that “in the absence of any objection, the Health Assembly may decide to proceed without taking a ballot on an agreed candidate or list of candidates.”)

The 12 nominees were chosen and put forward by the WHA’s General Committee, a 25-member body formed on the opening day of the annual assembly.

This year’s General Committee, selected on the opening day of the WHA, included the United States.

“As a member of the General Committee, the United States had the ability to challenge any appointment to this board by calling for a vote,” House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) observed on Thursday. “Yet the Biden administration let the election go by consensus, only speaking out afterwards.”

“It is unconscionable the Biden administration tacitly approved Belarus and Syria’s election to the World Health Organization’s executive board by not formally calling for a vote and objecting to their candidacy,” he said.

“Assad has killed and tortured tens of thousands of Syrians, including using chemical weapons against them. Lukashenko’s illegitimate regime murders its people in the streets and recently scrambled a MiG to divert a commercial airliner to Minsk in order to arrest a journalist,” McCaul said.

“These despots do not belong anywhere near leadership positions in any United Nations body – especially the agency tasked with protecting the world’s health.

Queries sent to the State Department and the U.S. Mission in Geneva about the decision not to object or call for a recorded vote brought no response by press time.

‘Terrible message’

“Electing Syria to govern the world's top health body is like hiring a pyromaniac to be the town fire chief,” commented U.N. Watch executive director Hillel Neuer. “Syria’s Assad regime systematically bombs hospitals and clinics, killing doctors, nurses, and others as they care for the sick and injured.”

“Health professionals have also been arrested, disappeared, imprisoned, tortured and executed. Electing this murderous regime to govern the world’s top health body is an insult to Assad’s millions of victims, and sends a terrible message.”

The Biden administration’s approach to the WHO executive board election recalls that of the Obama administration on occasion, when faced by a candidate deemed unsuitable for a U.N. leadership post.

In 2010, Iran was a candidate for a four-year term of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, beginning the following year.

The election took place in the 54-member Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the U.N. body that coordinates socio-economic affairs.

Neither the U.S. nor any other democracy in ECOSOC raised an objection to the clerical regime having a seat on a body dealing with gender equality and the advancement of women. Iran duly got the position “by acclamation” – that is, without a vote.

Four years later, ECOSOC again handed Iran a seat on the CSW. Again, the Obama administration did not object or call for a recorded vote that would have put the nomination to the test.

Yet after Iran was given the seat “by acclamation” for another four years, then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power in a tweet called the move “an outrage.”

And several weeks later, the administration again criticized the filling of a U.N. post – this time at the Human Rights Council in Geneva – after not objecting publicly earlier when it had the chance to do so.

Last April, Iran once stood again for a seat on CSW.  This time, the Biden administration did press for a recorded vote.  Iran got the seat, with the support of 43 of the 53 ECOSOC members voting.

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