At a regional meeting in Geneva, the vast majority of European WHO members supported the resolution. In doing so, they ignored Russian claims that a member state’s disapproval was a “gross violation” of the WHO’s founding charter and that the closure of the Moscow hub, whose mission is to curb NCDs across the continent, would lead to suffering. †
In a statement to reporters after the vote, Russian health official Alexei Kuznetsov said the non-binding resolution was “exclusively political” and would not affect medical care in Russia.
The vote in Geneva was just the latest example of how Russia has become isolated from votes at international institutions since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Moscow has been censored in two separate United Nations General Assembly resolutions and was removed from the UN Human Rights Council meeting on April 7.
The impact of these movements has been largely symbolic. Some other attempts to isolate Moscow, including the suggestion that Russia should be expelled from Group 20, have failed.
But the resolution at WHO could have more concrete implications: the closure of the WHO’s European Office for the Prevention and Control of NCDs, which has been based in Moscow since 2014.
It would also put Moscow further at odds with the WHO, a UN agency that has come into the limelight over the coronavirus pandemic. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus visited Ukraine last week and condemned Russia’s attacks on health care there. He also warned of the risks of communicable diseases, including Covid-19, as a consequence of the fighting.
“We continue to call on the Russian Federation to end this war,” Tedros said at a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday.
The resolution passed on Tuesday called on Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, to ensure “technical cooperation and assistance from” the WHO office in Moscow and the “possible relocation of the aforementioned office to an area outside consider the Russian Federation”.
Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko has lobbied to close the Moscow office and move it to the “true center around which the Eastern European countries are now united – Kiev”. The resolution also called on Kluge to “consider temporarily suspending all regional meetings in the Russian Federation.”
The resolution was passed with 43 votes in favour. Only Belarus and Tajikistan supported Moscow in opposing the resolution, while Armenia and Kazakhstan abstained.
While the resolution has avoided some harsher penalties, including the possible suspension of Moscow’s voting rights at WHO meetings and the closure of a separate WHO office in Moscow, the breather may be short: when the World Health Assembly, the highest representative body of the WHO, meeting later in May, could approve more censorship.
Before the vote Tuesday, Kluge gave a stark account of the “terrible” health consequences of the war in Ukraine, saying at least 3,382 civilians, including children, have died in the conflict, with 13 million people displaced and millions more. in need of help. The head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said separately on Tuesday that the actual civilian death toll is “thousands higher” than the confirmed UN figure. Ukrainian officials estimate that as many as 20,000 have been killed in Mariupol alone.
“Nothing is more destructive to health than attacking it beforehand,” Kluge said. He added that the Russian attack on hospitals across the country has prevented injured people from accessing health care.
Other civilians, he said, suffered not only from war-related injuries, but also from a range of other health problems, including the coronavirus, cancer and mental health problems.
“Forty percent of households have at least one member who needs chronic treatment they can no longer find,” he said, adding that only a handful of hospitals were able to function during the strikes.
Kluge estimates the lack of access to drugs and hospital treatment has resulted in at least 3,000 “preventable” deaths. He said the effects of the war would “flow through generations to come”.
A Belgian doctor, Kluge, has not indicated how the WHO will deal with the resolution.