WHO European Member States Denounce Russia Over Ukraine Invasion, Impact on Health Services
The Regional Committee meeting of European Member States denounces the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a virtual session Tuesday.

By an overwhelming vote of 43 to three with just two abstentions, WHO’s European member states approved a resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. 

The resolution, approved Tuesday in a special session of the WHO Regional Committee of member states, is a prelude to the tough global debate that can be expected at the World Health Assembly convening on 22-28 May in Geneva. 

The resolution, co-sponsored by some 36 WHO European member states including the European Union,  “condemns in the strongest terms Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, including attacks on health care facilities in Ukraine.”

The resolution also calls on the WHO office to consider relocating the European Office for Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) out of Russia.

The strong show of regional support for Ukraine was reflected by the fact that even Hungary, led by the hard-line Prime Minister Victor Orban with pro-Russian leanings, joined as a co-sponsor.

Israel, which had tried to straddle the fence in the early days of the Russian invasion due to fears over Russian recriminations via proxy forces in Syria, also voted “Yes”.  

Switzerland, while not a co-sponsor, broke ranks with its traditional position of diplomatic neutrality to vote “Yes” on the resolution – after doing so in a previous vote on a measure denouncing Ukraine at the United Nations General Assembly.  

Equally notable was the fact that Serbia, an EU candidate country with strong Moscow ties, absented itself from the vote, along with Azerbaijan. Armenia and Khazazhstan formally abstained. 

The only three countries to vote against the resolution were Russia, its military ally Belarus, and Tajikistan.  

Russia protests moves 

Russia’s Deputy Health Minister Andrey Plutnitskiy, at the European Regional Committee meeting.

Geopolitics  always has played a shadow role in WHO and with even greater vigour recently- from the US criticism of China over the origins of the COVID pandemic to the withdrawal of the United States from the WHO under the administration of former President Donald Trump. 

Smaller, but highly strategic regional scrambles also chronically shadow the deliberations – including Ethiopia’s bloody war in Tigray, the recent coup in Myanmar, and longstanding disputes over China’s claims to Taiwan and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. 

But against all of these, the Ukraine crisis is likely to take things to a new level in the upcoming WHA. Today’s session foreshadows what may be hours of debate and a long roll-call over the same resolution when it is considered by all 194 WHO member states. The warm-up was already evident today as Russia described the resolution’s passage as a “huge moment of harm”:  

“This resolution….  is aimed at destroying the collaboration in the sphere of health care in the European Region. It’s a huge moment of harm for the system of global health care,” said Russia’s Deputy Health Minister Andrey Plutnitskiy, protesting the decision after it was made by a lengthy roll call – a last resort in WHO meetings when member states cannot reach consensus. 

In the debate preceding the vote, he maintained that  the Russian invasion is aimed at protecting Russian-speaking minorities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine where Russian-speaking populations are persecuted and health facilities had been attacked – something that Norway labeled as a “false narrative”.    

As for the conflicts broader implications, Plutnitskiy said Ukraine’s recent remarks about how the invasion is impeding vital grain deliveries and would exacerbate world food shortages “is not a topic covered by the WHO mandate.”

Ukraine’s rebuttal – delivered in Russian

Ukraine’s representative to the WHO European Regional Committee meeting – makes remarks in Russian.

Speaking in Russian, Ukraine’s representative rebutted Russia’s claims that Ukraine had been persecuting its Russian-speaking population, saying “No one is persecuting anyone in Ukraine and I will speak in Russian to be heard in Russian.

“What the Russian Federation is doing is a violation of all international normas and standards. What has been said by the deputy minister of health ofthe Russian Federation is a lie.

“You can come to Ukraine at any time and I will take you to a hospital that provides medical assistance to all who need it, including Russian military personnel who have been injured.. and ended up in our hospitals.

“But you can never go to a hospital where our captives are being held because the Russian authorities will not allow this. Just like they will not allow Ukranian humanitarian corridors to get through with medication such as insulin.””

Country after country denounces attacks and impacts on health services

France’s representative to the WHO European Regional Committee meeting, speaking on behalf of the European Union

Meanwhile, a long line-up of other member states took time to denounce the invasion, which WHO now says has included some 200 confirmed attacks on health facilities since it began in late February: 

“We are meeting here today in a state of emergency to look at the heart-wrenching consequences of the unprovoked and unjustified invade military intervention of the Russian Federation,” said France, speaking on behalf of 27 EU member states. 

“The United Kingdom stands united with partners in condemning Russia’s outrageous attack on Ukraine,” added the UK’s representative at the meeting. 

France, condemned what it described as “deliberate attacks on health care,” and cited the “devastating impact” of harm done including: “restricted or impossible access to health services for millions of people… . the impact on maternal and newborn health; on people living with HIV AIDS, prevention of treatment of NCDs for the elderly; as well as mental health.  

“This aggression also heightens the risk of emergence and spread of infectious diseases given its impact on vaccination rates, access to water sanitation, and hygiene. It also raises the risk of human trafficking, gender based violence, food insecurity and potential nuclear, chemical biological hazards.”

Said Israel’s Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz: “The Russian ongoing attack is a serious violation of international order,” adding “it has severely restricted access to medicines, facilities and health services for the Ukrainian population. The war has also disrupted vaccination campaigns. Israel is concerned about the impact this has on efforts to tackle non- communicable diseases and chronic infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis… in addition to mental health and psychological needs.”

Not about politics but about lives 

Hans Kluge at the WHO Regional Committee meeting Tuesday

WHO’s Regional Director Hans Kluge meanwhile, said that he intended to visit Ukraine this coming weekend, for the third time in as many months, “to further scale up our response.”

Against the tense political overlay of the meeting, Kluge stressed that the need to “rise above politics is stronger than ever.

“We resolved to put health at the center of the [COVID] recovery” but meanwhile, “we still have a very acute phase” of the pandemic…. 

“When we discuss and debate the real lives of real people are on the line – millions of children, women and men – and we should never lose sight of that.” 

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