WHO Chief Fires Back in Clash with Russia
The World Health Organization’s Executive Board meeting

The Russian delegation to the World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board (EB) called the report on the work of the UN health agency’s response to the Ukraine war “politicised,” prompting a spirited defense from the agency chief.

Russia pressured the UN health agency to revise a report related to its emergency response in Ukraine, prompting a tense exchange with WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Saturday while also clashing with the United States and its European allies over descriptions of the humanitarian crisis sparked by Russia’s war on the country. 

Russia’s delegation to the EB accused the WHO Secretariat of preparing a one-sided report on its emergency response in the embattled country, which it said politicised references to Ukraine, describing the Russian military action as an “invasion”.  Russia said that the single-word description was evidence that WHO’s leaders were under political pressure.

The report on WHO’s response to the Ukraine emergency was filed as a follow-up to a May World Health Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine, which was approved in May. The report was considered in Saturday’s session along with a broader WHO report, which referred to Ukraine as one of eight acute global health emergencies among the 50 emergencies to which WHO was responding.

Unusual move at EB meetings

Despite the EB chair’s attempts at mediation, the decision was made to merely “note” the report – in contrast to the norm at EB meetings to reach decisions by consensus.

The EB’s Chair Dr Kerstin Vesna Petrič of Slovenia asked EB delegations, which include both Russia and the US, to agree that the Secretariat will continue to work on the report “with a view to presenting, comprehensive, balanced validated data. It’s understanding that all relevant aspects will be included.”

US Ambassador Bathsheba Nell Crocker also urged the Secretariat to include language in the report stating that Russia’s latest attacks that have caused “unspeakable harm to civilians and critical infrastructure in Ukraine.”

Ukraine operating theatre destroyed

A testy vote in showdown with Russia

Despite Petrič’s attempt to compromise, Russia insisted upon a roll-call over the EB report – documents that are typically approved by consensus. Petrič then led delegations in a vote to “note” its report on WHO’s humanitarian and emergency health response to the war in Ukraine.

Among the 34 EB delegations with the right to vote, only 22 delegates were in the room at the time of the vote and participated; the motion passed by a vote of 18-4 with six abstentions.

The US and Denmark delegations, among others, accused Russia of undermining the work of the Secretariat.


WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus responds to Russia’s charges of politicisation.

The last word

Defending himself and his office against charges of politicisation, Tedros fired back that “it would not be right that we conclude this without me saying something.”

He assured the assembly that “this report was written truthfully and in good faith,” and urged any member nation to come to the Secretariat with any concerns if they feel there are specific issues or facts that are wrong.

Tedros vehemently defended his use of the word “invasion” in the humanitarian and emergency health response report to describe what happened in Ukraine.

“I used the same word in a speech last year,” he noted. “I couldn’t find any other word that would represent it because it’s the truth. What could I say?”

“The report is truthful and was written in good faith, and it’s my report and I take full responsibility,” he said, adding the report was written a while ago and would be updated. “We didn’t try to politicize anything. … There was no pressure.”

Last year’s, WHA resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine passed by 88 votes to 12 – but the 53 abstentions reflected the discomfort of many members, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, with the debate that they perceived as polarising the global health body.

Image Credits: WHO.

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.