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Opinion The WHO doesn’t only have a China problem — it has a dictator problem

A member of a nongovernmental aid organization measures residents’ temperatures as a preventive measure against covid-19 in Kafr Takharim, Syria, on Tuesday.
A member of a nongovernmental aid organization measures residents’ temperatures as a preventive measure against covid-19 in Kafr Takharim, Syria, on Tuesday. (Ghaith Alsayed/AP)
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This week, President Trump announced that he is suspending U.S. funding for the World Health Organization. He accused the organization of taking “China’s assurances at face value” and pushing “China’s misinformation” about the coronavirus outbreak there.

He’s not wrong. On that count, the WHO is guilty as charged. But the WHO’s penchant for cozying up to dictatorships at the expense of public health is not limited to China. Just look at its shameful track record in Syria.

The WHO has done the same things and worse when it comes to the regime led by Bashar al-Assad. Its behavior is emblematic of a greater problem in United Nations organizations that argue that their need to work with terrible governments justifies actions to further those regimes’ agendas.

Syria’s people are extremely vulnerable to covid-19. Syria is also where the WHO is striving to maintain good relations with a regime that is bombing hospitals, using starvation as a weapon of war, and driving millions into homelessness or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. Conditions in those camps were subhuman long before the pandemic.

Global Opinions writer Josh Rogin has obtained a 2018 U.S. diplomatic cable urging Washington to better support a Chinese lab researching bat coronaviruses. (Video: Josh Rogin/The Washington Post)

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As humanitarian aid worker Simone Jeger wrote last year, almost all U.N. aid money goes through Damascus. Assad dictates how the funds are disbursed, stealing huge portions for his coffers, his cronies and the Syrian military. This has the effect of undermining international sanctions and bolstering Assad’s army, essentially helping him slaughter civilians and win the war.

For example, Syria’s blood bank is controlled by its defense ministry, which cannot procure blood because it is heavily sanctioned — so the WHO supplies it directly. That same ministry bombs medical facilities in opposition areas and steals blood products from aid shipments headed there. In 2016, the Syrian deputy defense minister praised a top WHO official for “efforts to alleviate the unjust economic embargo on Syria.”

After WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with Syria’s health minister in Geneva last year, Syrian state media proudly reported the director general’s praise for Syria’s health system. A WHO Twitter account parroted that line.

Last month, Jeger wrote privately to Nima Saeed Abid, the WHO’s top representative in Syria, to ask him to provide coronavirus-related assistance to Syrians in opposition areas, IDP camps and Assad’s network of prisons, where tens of thousands of innocent civilians are being tortured to death.

Abid responded in an email that Jeger shared with me. He wrote that the WHO assesses the risk of coronavirus as high throughout Syria, and even higher in camps and prisons. But, he said, the WHO has no choice but to work through the government, which includes relying on its reporting on coronavirus numbers.

“We have assurance from the ministry of health that they will transparently share the information. How much they will do? It depends on their policy,” Abid wrote. He added that the WHO can help Assad’s prisoners only if the regime requests it.

The Syrian government had reported only 33 coronavirus cases as of Thursday, after weeks of denying any outbreak. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights spoke with doctors in four Syrian provinces who said coronavirus cases were spreading but the authorities have ordered them to stay silent. The government has closed schools and canceled events, but has avoided more serious containment steps.

The regime continues to import foreign fighters from places such as Iran, Iraq and Pakistan — some of whom, along with other travelers, are returning to their home countries to be diagnosed with coronavirus. According to Mazen Gharibah, a Syrian researcher at the London School of Economics, Syria’s intelligence apparatus is treating the coronavirus as a “security threat,” punishing anyone who puts out information countering the official narrative.

If that sounds similar to how the Chinese authorities handled their coronavirus outbreak, it is. But the whole world is now scrutinizing China’s response while nobody is watching Syria — even though the risks in both places are the same. The coronavirus in Syria won’t stay in Syria. Turning a blind eye will result in deaths in other countries.

“The WHO works hand-in-glove with the most brutal regimes, praising their health programs while ignoring or even subsidizing their war crimes,” said David Adesnik, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “In Syria, even the deliberate bombing of hospitals hasn’t led the WHO to reconsider its relationship with Assad. The WHO has a dictator problem because U.N. relief agencies all have a dictator problem.”

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U.N. agencies tell themselves they need to compromise to maintain access to vulnerable populations, but dictators such as Assad just string them along. The Trump administration is trying to change the WHO’s attitude toward China by withholding money. It’s not likely to work. But what if the WHO stopped supporting the Assad regime until it allows real medical assistance to go to all civilians in need?

The U.N. system and the WHO badly need reform, but it’s not just about China. The coronavirus pandemic shows why we can no longer let dictators abuse international support to bolster their power, line their pockets, expand their cruelty and put our lives at risk.

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Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Examining the WHO and the what-if’s of the pandemic

John Pomfret: Taiwan must participate in the WHO. Global health is too important to play politics.

Lawrence O. Gostin and Matthew M. Kavanagh: Why Trump and his allies’ criticisms of the WHO are wrong

Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon: Trump announced the U.S. will suspend WHO funding. That could leave another global initiative under China’s influence.

The Post’s View: Trump’s scapegoating of the WHO comes at an especially bad moment