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Russian attacks on Ukraine health facilities rebuked

The World Health Assembly voted to condemn and call for an immediate end to Russia's military attacks on Ukraine's hospitals, clinics and ambulances.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits a soldier at a military hospital in March
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits a soldier at a military hospital in March (AN/President of Ukraine)

GENEVA (AN) — Delegates to the World Health Assembly overwhelmingly condemned and demanded an immediate halt to Russia's targeted military attacks on Ukraine's hospitals, clinics and ambulances, which have killed and injured more than 200 civilians.

By a vote of 88-12, the 194-nation governing body of the World Health Organization approved a Ukraine-sponsored resolution on Thursday about the health emergency facing Ukrainians that have remained or fled their nation due to Russia's invasion.

The resolution was sponsored by more than 50 nations including Turkey, the United States and all but one — Hungary — of the European Union's 27 member nations. Though 183 nations were eligible to vote on the resolution, only 100 cast ballots. As many as 53 nations abstained, while 30 others were absent.

The resolution "condemns in the strongest terms" the Russian government's "military aggression against Ukraine, including attacks on health care facilities." It says Russia's aggression creates "exceptional circumstances, causing a serious impediment to the health of the population of Ukraine, as well as having regional and wider than regional health impacts."

Russia should "immediately cease any attacks on hospitals and other healthcare facilities," the resolution says, and "fully respect and protect all medical personnel and humanitarian personnel exclusively engaged in medical duties, their means of transport and equipment." The resolution also calls on Russia to respect and protect all those that are "sick and wounded, including civilians, health and humanitarian aid workers, healthcare systems."

Included in the resolution is a threat to deny Russia's ability to participate in the U.N. health agency. If the country keeps acting "to the detriment of the health situation in Ukraine, at regional and global levels," the resolution says, WHO should apply " relevant articles" of its foundational Constitution, adopted in 1948.

WHO is calling for investigations into the 235 documented health care attacks carried out by Russia in Ukraine that have killed 75 people and injured 59 others since Russia's invasion on February 24, according to a report from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, lambasted a competing resolution from Russia and Syria as "shamefully dishonest" and as "a cynical attempt to dupe this assembly" through the use of "subterfuge." Other Ukrainian diplomats described the war as a “catastrophic health crisis” for civilians that includes casualties, lack of medicines, and mental health challenges.

The competing resolution drew only 15 votes of support, including from China; 66 nations voted against it. As many as 70 nations abstained, while 32 were absent. Most of Europe, North America and South America lined up behind Ukraine. Most of Africa and the Middle East abstained from voting on either of the resolutions. Asia was more divided, with India and Pakistan abstaining from both votes.

France’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Jérôme Bonnafont, said on behalf of the European Union that Russia's proposal was "a cynical attempt to whitewash the war" by Russia. “The only action needed by Russia is to stop the war,” he said. Canada’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Tamara Mawhinney, urged the assembly to vote for Ukraine’s resolution and not let Russian diplomats push disinformation.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Bathsheba Nell Crocker, said “not even maternity hospitals have been spared” by Russia. “But the true toll this war has taken is far greater,” she said. “There is no reason for any of this. It is wanton destruction. … 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?”

'Let's be honest'

The approved resolution directs Tedros, as director-general, to "make available the staffing, financial resources, and leadership support needed across all three levels of the organization for an effective and accountable humanitarian and emergency health response" in Ukraine.

It also specifies that the health response on the ground that is under WHO’s leadership must adhere to "the best standards on prevention of and response to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment and, in collaboration with other agencies, provide adequate health care and support to the victims, and document cases of sexual abuse, including by the military."

Tedros was told to submit to a report next year that assesses how well WHO carries out the resolution and examines "the direct and indirect impact of the Russian Federation's aggression against Ukraine on the health of the population of Ukraine, as well as regional and wider than regional health impacts."

Russia's Deputy U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Alexander Alimov, called Ukraine's resolution “politicized,” “one-sided,” and “biased," as the competing resolution from Russia and Syria had no references to who began the war or the attacks on hospitals, clinics and other health facilities.

“They are trying to transform WHO into a forum for score-settling and political debates,” said Alimov, adding that Russia's proposal was "constructive, it is not politicized, and it seeks to bring about the most rapid resolution to this crisis.”

Syria’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Hussam Edin Aala, also said Ukraine's resolution tries to politicize the process. “We see this as a resolution that is not impartial," he said. "We see this as a resolution that has nothing to do with the proper competencies of WHO.”

Syria's close ally Russia joined Syria's war in 2015 as its military appeared to be giving way to rebel fighters. Russia provided air support to the Syrian government that helped it regained control of most of the nation.

There have been at least 8,628 civilian casualties recorded in Ukraine, including 3,974 killed and 4,654 injured, according to the latest figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR.

Among those, 259 children were killed and 402 children were injured. The U.N. agency emphasizes that those are only the confirmed numbers of deaths and injuries; the actual figures are likely considerably higher.

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