World Health Assembly Passes Resolution Condemning Russian Aggression in Ukraine  – But Abstentions Reflect Divided Views
World Health Assembly Thursday 26 May just after votes on competing resolutions on the health crisis in Ukraine.

The World Health Assembly on Thursday approved a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by 88 votes to 12 – but the 53 abstentions reflected the discomfort of many member states with a debate that polarised the global health body. 

Russia’s counter-resolution only garnered 15 votes including those of Belarus, Burundi and Eritrea, with 66 countries voting against – but this time, a massive 70 countries abstained.

Most African nations abstained during both votes, as did many Middle Eastern nations, India and Pakistan. Some indicated discomfort with voting on a political issues, while others alluded to support received from Russia during COVID-19.

Most of Europe, the United States, Oceania and many Latin American countries supported the Ukrainian-backed resolution, which condemns “in the strongest terms, Russian Federation’s military aggression against Ukraine, including attacks on health care facilities”.

Unlike most of the African region, Ghana also supported the resolution, which also 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  calls for an increase in contributions to the WHO Emergency Appeal for Ukraine.

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

Ukraine delegation describes vote as a victory 

Ukraine´s representative to the UN Mission in Geneva, Ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko just after vote tally on WHA resolution condemning Russia´s invasion of Ukraine.

As much as the vote itself, the diverse reactions to the dual resolutions underlined the sharply divided perceptions over the war, and the role of WHO in responding to politically-laden conflicts between its member states.

The United Kingdom, one of the Ukraine resolution´s co-sponsors, described it as a vote ¨against war, against the lies, for peace and for health.¨ 

The US Mission to the UN in Geneva’s Ambassador Bathsheba Nell Crocker noted that “not even maternity hospitals have been spared” by Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine. “And the devastation is not limited to Ukraine. Impacts are being felt across the world. What is the impact of this war if not a health crisis?” she added.

Speaking just after the count was tallied, Ukraine´s representative to the UN Mission in Geneva, Ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko, representative thanked the WHA saying, ¨This is exactly the document which Ukraine was expecting from the World Health Organization to comprehensively address the health emergency caused by the Russian Federation. 

“This resolution sends a clear signal to the Russian Federation, stop your war against Ukraine, stop attacks on health facilities, respect international humanitarian and human rights law. 

“In voting down Russia´s draft, the World Health Assembly confirms that the responsibility for the health crisis in Ukraine rests exclusively with the Russian Federation… It is only through collective efforts that we will be able to address the health emergency in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world, in realizing the vision of health for peace and peace for health,” Filipenko concluded in remarks greeted by a round of applause from WHA delegates.

“We cannot ignore the abstentions but it´s good that we got 88 votes against and only 15 opposed,” Laremenko Oleksii, a member of the Ukraine delegation, told Health Policy Watch, adding that he believed the resolution would also boost donations to WHO´s  emergency aid effort. 

“It’s about depriving [Russia] of a platform for their propaganda,” another Ukrainian delegate to the Assembly added. 

Ongoing dialogue

Kenya’s delegate appealed for ongoing dialogue, while abstaining in both votes.

However, a number of leading developing countries, including Brazil and China, expressed concern that the WHO was being “politicised” and forced into “taking sides” over the war raging in Europe.

“WHO is not the right place for us to discuss” the war in Ukraine, China’s envoy asserted.

Kenya, which abstained on both votes, called for the “cessation of hostilities, and condemns all attacks on health care which are clear violations of international humanitarian law and human rights”. It also called for “continued dialogue and concerted efforts of all players within the multilateral setting”.

“We have observed with extreme distress how the war has had a ripple effect across the world, and we remain deeply concerned about the escalating food, energy and financial crisis, which has particularly dramatic impacts on developing countries,” added Kenya, raising a fear haunting most African countries.

Most countries, including those abstaining, expressed support for the efforts of the WHO to provide humanitarian health assistance to Ukraine and its neighbours assisting refugees. 

Ukraine and Russia exchange harsh words

Deputy Ambassador Alexander Alimov from the Russian UN Mission in Geneva called the Ukrainian resolution is “politicized,” “one-sided,” and “biased.”

“They are trying to transform WHO into a forum for score-settling and political debates,” he said of proponents of the competing resolution. By contrast, he said, Russia’s resolution “is constructive, it is not politicized, and it seeks to bring about the most rapid resolution to this crisis.”

But Crocker countered that: ¨This isn´t about politicization¨ adding that ¨Russia is asking you to look away” from the reality of the war’s impacts.

Before the vote, Filipenko, blasted Russia’s resolution as diplomatic double speak: “This is not just shamefully dishonest. It is also a cynical attempt to dupe this assembly. We urge you not to fall for this subterfuge,” she said.

The politically charged vote in the global health body comes at a pivotal moment in the grinding war in the Ukraine, with Russia now concentrating troops and firepower in the country´s eastern Donbas region. Full conquest of the Donbas is now the most immediate target for Moscow, keen to show some kind of decisive victory after abandoning its earlier aim of a quick and easy conquest of the capital Kiev, and overthrow of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Elaine Ruth Fletcher contributed to this story.

Image Credits: Health Policy Watch .

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