Former U.S. President Trump (how pleasing to say “former”) was not a fan of the World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, he had withdrawn his country from the organization effective this coming July. President Biden has since cancelled the withdrawal.

But was Trump onto something? He questioned the WHO’s uncritical acceptance of China’s explanation of the source of Covid and now so have more reliable actors. And the recent appointment of Syria to the organization’s executive board is deeply disturbing.

The Syrian government, under the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, has notoriously attacked hospitals during the country’s civil war. Physicians for Human Rights has documented 540 attacks by the Syrian government and its allies since the war began in 2011. It claims the regime has killed 827 medical personnel through military attacks, torture and execution. All of this is in addition to a host of other war crimes, quite aside from the brutal suppression of its people.

So how does this monster regime get a seat on the WHO’s board? The decision was made by the member states of WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean group, a collection of countries not known for their commitment to human rights, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and, of course, Syria.

We cannot expect an outstanding candidate from this group and we didn’t get one. Syria’s representative will be the country’s health minister, a man on the sanctions lists of both the UK and the EU.

Any member of the WHO could have sought to stop the appointment by raising an objection when the nomination was brought to the health assembly and forced a vote. No one did. A host of critics have called for the appointment to be revoked, but it isn’t clear how that can now be done.

The Syrian regime’s presence on the WHO’s board mocks the organization and indeed the United Nations itself, so was Trump right to withdraw?

The short answer is no. If humanity is to function as a community rather than as a collection of tribes, as it must if we are to survive the threats we have created for ourselves, we will have to accept the fact of our very imperfect nature. Much of our species has advanced to a relatively high degree of human rights and much hasn’t. The part that has has a responsibility to work toward raising the standards for all. If any part, particularly a part as critical as the United States, opts out, it puts all of us in danger, including itself. There is no escaping a now globalized world, nor the overarching threats that face it.

All communities have their irresponsible members. The global community is no exception. Nonetheless, the United Nations and its agencies, such as the WHO, are the best forum in which to collaborate on our common challenges. Working with certain undesirables is, unfortunately, part of the process. Also part of the process is working to oppose the appointment of bad actors to critical agencies.

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