World Health Assembly Takes Aim at Russian ‘Aggression’ in Ukraine – in a (Mostly) United Front 
Djibouti Health Minister and World Health Assembly President Dr Ahmed Robleh Abdilleh in action on Monday

GENEVA – Russia’s attacks on healthcare facilities amid its war in Ukraine took center stage on the first full day of the World Health Assembly (WHA), where 46 mostly European nations including Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States proposed a draft resolution “condemning in the strongest terms” Russia’s invasion and the attacks on health facilities, calling on all 194 of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) member nations to “maintain or increase support for the UN-led response” to the war in Europe.

The resolution emerged from WHO’s Regional Committee for Europe, which adopted it at a special session on 10 May. It calls on WHO’s Regional Director for Europe to consider temporarily closing Russia’s regional office and suspending all regional meetings in Russia, including technical and expert meetings. 

It also urges Russia “to fully respect and protect all medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, their means of transport and equipment” and to show “respect for and protection of the sick and wounded, including civilians, health and humanitarian aid workers, healthcare systems consistent with the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols, and with broader international humanitarian law.”

The resolution also urges all WHO member nations to “adhere to international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and WHO norms and standards; to allow and facilitate safe, rapid and unhindered access to populations in need of assistance by staff deployed by the World Health Organization on the ground, and by all other medical and humanitarian personnel; [and] to ensure the free flow of essential medicines, medical equipment and other health technologies in all conflict and non-conflict areas.”

Scarier than a pandemic

Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska, told the Assembly that Ukraine and WHO have had years of “fruitful relations” and, at least until recently, nothing could have been scarier than a pandemic.

“But it turned out differently. Russia’s war has shown horrors we could not have imagined,” she said by videoconference. “WHO is committed to protecting the most crucial human rights – to life and health. Now they are both being violated in Ukraine. No Ukrainian, neither adults nor children, can be sure that they will wake up tomorrow, that a missile will not fly into their house. Doctors cannot be sure that their ambulances will not be bombed on the way to a patient.”

On the same day, her husband, President Volodymyr Zelensky, spoke by videoconference to the World Economic Forum in Davos and called for help to come “as fast as possible” to arm Ukraine for victory and help rebuild the country after the war.

The draft resolution put forward by Ukraine was co-sponsored by 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, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom and United States.

Russia appeals for ‘non-politicized’ discussion

Among the holdouts from the co-sponsor list were Hungary – the only one missing from the 27-nation EU bloc – along with Israel and Switzerland.

Russia won some scattered applause in the Assembly when one of its diplomats urged colleagues not to allow WHO to become “politicized” – in keeping with the nations’ social media posts. 

Russia’s Mission in Geneva tweeted that “Russia looks forward to forging common solutions to the pressing global health challenges. We expect non-politicized, constructive and consensual deliverables of #WHA75, moving us towards a healthier planet.”

Separately, a Russian diplomat at Russia’ Mission in Geneva said he was resigning his position because he was ashamed of his government’s invasion of Ukraine. In a letter posted on his LinkedIn account, Boris Bondarev, a counselor for arms control, disarmament, nonproliferation and export control, said he resigned on Monday.

“Long overdue, but today I resign from civil service. Enough is enough,” he began. “For twenty years of my diplomatic career I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24 of this year. The aggressive war unleashed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin against Ukraine, and in fact against the entire Western world, is not only a crime against the Ukrainian people, but also, perhaps, the most serious crime against the people of Russia, with a bold letter Z crossing out all hopes and prospects for a prosperous free society in our country.”

“Those who conceived this war want only one thing – to remain in power forever, live in pompous tasteless palaces, sail on yachts comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian Navy, enjoying unlimited power and complete impunity,” he continued. “To achieve that they are willing to sacrifice as many lives as it takes. Thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have already died just for this.”

As the Assembly got underway, WHO said it verified 30 additional attacks on health care facilities in Ukraine. As of Monday, it said, 75 deaths and 59 injuries can be traced to 248 verified attacks on health care facilities in Ukraine from February 24, the day that Russia invaded, until May 19.

“It is a true catastrophe for millions of people. The World Health Assembly needs to discuss this,” Germany’s Health Minister Dr Karl Wilhelm Lauterbach urged colleagues.

“I call on everyone to support the resolution presented by Ukraine to this assembly.” Norway’s Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said her nation strongly supports Ukraine and WHO has a strong role to play in helping maintain peace. When nations stand together, she said, they are stronger and “that is what this time calls for.”

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