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The Syrian government and its allies have repeatedly hit hospitals and medical clinics with airstrikes in opposition areas during Syria's civil war. So when the country was added to the World Health Organization's executive board, some Western countries and many doctors on the ground were surprised. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: When we speak with Dr. Abdalhamied Sharaf Aldeen in northern Syria by phone, he counts the number of hospitals and medical clinics he's been in when they were hit by Syrian or Russian airstrikes.
ABDALHAMIED SHARAF ALDEEN: (Speaking Arabic).
SHERLOCK: It became terrifyingly routine, but he thinks it's at least eight different medical facilities in the rebel-held province of Idlib. Some of the hospitals were destroyed, others just damaged. He tells us what it was like.
ALDEEN: (Through interpreter) If we were in the operating room, we couldn't leave the patients even if our lives were in danger. If I wasn't with a patient, I would immediately go to the basement if the hospital had one.
SHERLOCK: Syria denies targeting civilians and says it does not intentionally attack hospitals. But strikes on health facilities and detentions of medical staff by the Syrian government have been documented in detail in these 10 years of war. Aid organizations and rights groups say these are both deliberate and violate international law, so you can imagine the surprise of many when last month Syria was appointed to the World Health Organization's executive board.
HOUSSAM AL-NAHHAS: It was really, really shocking.
SHERLOCK: Houssam al-Nahhas is a researcher at the U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights. Nahhas is in the U.S. now, but in 2012 he was jailed by the regime in Syria.
NAHHAS: I was detained for providing health care in Syria in 2012 and tortured for my work as a health care provider back then. And then I worked in different hospitals that were targeted by the Syrian government.
SHERLOCK: Nahhas says his group, along with the Syrian American Medical Society, have written to the WHO, asking them to overturn Syria's nomination to the executive board.
NAHHAS: This is really give a bad message to countries, to individuals that, again, like, violating human rights can be ignored.
SHERLOCK: The U.S., the U.K. and Germany have also expressed concerns about Syria's appointment. The WHO turned down multiple requests for an interview with NPR. They did provide a written statement which says that Syria's appointment to the executive board for a three-year term is part of a, quote, "standard process." The organization doesn't choose its board members. It's the member states in the Eastern Mediterranean group who nominated Syria. The WHO says it's not the organization's mandate to, quote, "find political solutions" and that it just aims to achieve better health outcomes for all people. Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, says Syria's appointment - it's still damaging.
CHARLES LISTER: I think it makes a mockery of the organization whether the World Health Organization itself is responsible for the election results or not.
SHERLOCK: Lister says Syria's newfound position could help it cover up its actions.
LISTER: It could also help strengthen the regime's hand in pushing back against or even directly influencing the U.N.'s investigations and the results of those investigations into its attacks against hospitals, its blocking of aid delivery.
SHERLOCK: Syria's health minister is currently under EU sanctions, but now he's also Syria's representative to the WHO executive board with the chance to influence the organization's policies on Syria and the wider world. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.
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