Russia’s War in Ukraine Grabs Center Stage in WHA as Delegates Prepare to Vote on Competing Resolutions
World Health Assembly on Thursday morning, as member states launch debate over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

GENEVA –Russia’s war in Ukraine grabbed centre stage at the World Health Assembly Thursday as delegates prepared to take up competing draft resolutions on Ukraine’s health emergency: one denouncing Russia and supported by Turkey, Ukraine, the United States and all European Union members except for Hungary; the other co-sponsored only by Russia and Syria.

Although the resolutions – which address health conditions in Ukraine and neighbouring refugee-hosting countries – were only due to come to the Assembly’s floor in the afternoon, delegates began trading charges over the war in the morning while discussing a World Health Organization report on the Ukraine emergency as well as a broader report from WHO’s Independent Oversight & Advisory Committee of the Health Emergency Programme (IOAC) on the agency’s responses to global emergencies. 

Ukranian backed resolution calls for immediate halt to attacks on health facilities

Mapping of the co-sponsors of the Ukraine-backed and Russian resolution on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the World Health Assembly. The Russian city-enclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania is also etched in red on the maa.

The Ukrainian-backed resolution condemns “in the strongest terms, Russian Federation’s military aggression against Ukraine, including attacks on health care facilities.”

It further expresses “grave concerns over the ongoing health emergency in Ukraine and refugee receiving and hosting countries, triggered by the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine.”  And it causes for an increase in contributions to the WHO Emergency Appeal for Ukraine. 

Co-sponsors include Albania, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxemburg, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States.

The competing Russian-sponsored resolution, backed by Syria, omits any reference to who began the war or Russia’s attacks on health facilities. But it calls for the rules of war around medical and humanitarian relief, safe passage of medical supplies and personnel to be respected, and support for WHO emergency relief efforts.

Ukraine describes “catastrophic health crisis”

Ukraine’s UN Geneva Mission First Secretary Taras Popelniuk said Russia’s invasion on February 24 is causing a “catastrophic health crisis” that extends well beyond the many deaths, injuries and trauma inflicted on civilians. He cited damage to hundreds of health care facilities and services, causing disruptions in acute and chronic treatments, less access to medicine and added mental health burdens “so huge that they need additional assessment.”

He said that over 100 health facilities had been destroyed and 500 damaged.

As the delegates spoke, the latest figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) showed 8,628 civilian casualties were recorded in Ukraine, including 3,974 killed and 4,654 injured. Among those, 259 children were killed and 402 children were injured. OHCHR said it believes the actual figures are considerably higher.

Already in April, WHO reported the “grim milestone” of 103 verified attacks aimed at health care providers since the start of the war – attacks that killed 73 people and injured 51 others. Of those attacks, 89 directed against health facilities and 13 targeted ambulances and other health transport providers.

France’s U.N. Ambassador in Geneva Jérôme Bonnafont said Russia, one of the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the powerful 15-nation UN Security Council, was “clearly violating” the principles of the UN Charter. The opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and its proposed resolution – was widespread among Europe’s delegates, particularly ones with shared borders.

“Let’s be honest. What we are witnessing in Ukraine is genocide,” said Poland’s U.N. Ambassador Zbigniew Czech. “This draft is only a cynical attempt to complicate our work.”

WHO Emergencies work will be strengthed by more stable finance

While many delegates veered into the emotional Ukraine crisis, others also took time to focus on the broader issues WHO is facing in strengthening its own health emergencies response.

That is the focus of the report of the IOAC committee, chaired by Felicity Harvey, which describes the challenges faced internally by the global health agency in its emergency response.

“The World Health Emergency program continues to be overstretched and understaffed,” said Germany’s Bjorn Kummel, summing up key conclusions of the IOAC review.  “The HR management with high level of short term contracts is a concern and must be adequately addressed. Given the circumstances the program does a great job despite occasional unacceptable derailing moments such as in the DRC,” he added, referring to the ongoing investigation of sexual misconduct and abuse by WHO staff and consultants during the 2018-2020 Ebola crisis.

He also pointed out to mental health challenges faced by staff, noting that “The IOC speaks of intolerable level of toxicity and incivility on social media against WHO and its staff members and we appreciate that the IOAC is drawing attention to this issue.

“Many of the problems resigned from the chronic underfunding. We fully agree with the IOAC that the solutions formulated by the Working Group on Sustainable Financing will be the single most important contribution to the improvement of the program,” Kummel concluded referring to the successful passage Tuesday of a new WHA resolution that would increase fixed member state contributions to 50% of WHO’s core budget by 2029-30 in an effort to stabilise budget planning.

“Not surprisingly, Germany believes that WHO should play a central role not only in the global health architecture for pandemic preparedness and response, but also the discussions on this topic,” Kummel added, referring to a recent WHO White Paper on global health institutional reform. Related to that, he stressed that WHO needs to play a “central role” in the new FIF (Financial Intermediary Fund) for emergency relief that has been proposed by global health leaders, to be hosted at the World Bank.

Image Credits: John Heilprin , Konrad Adenauer Stiftung .

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.