The World Health Organization on Wednesday decried attacks on health facilities in Ukraine, but took pains to avoid naming Russia or President Vladimir Putin as the aggressors in the escalating war.
WHO officials called Russia out by name just once during the hour-long briefing on Ukraine. Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of WHO’s emergencies programs, asked Russia to “reconsider its position” after a reporter specifically asked why the organization wasn’t criticizing the Kremlin.
“WHO is deeply concerned about the unfolding humanitarian emergency in Ukraine,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the leader of the 194-nation organization, told reporters at a press briefing in Geneva.
Tedros, flanked by other WHO experts, called for the rapid establishment of a humanitarian corridor to send critical health supplies to those in need. He noted that the WHO has confirmed one deadly attack on a hospital and is working to verify several others.
“Attacks on health care are in violation of international humanitarian law,” he said.
But his opening remarks made no mention of Russia, a WHO member and the country that launched the invasion of Ukraine a week ago.
The first question of the briefing, asked by a CNN journalist stationed in western Ukraine, noted that “the name of the aggressor, Russia, is nowhere to be found” in past WHO statements.
“Have we reached a point, where these types of unforgiveable actions are happening before our very eyes and again verified by credible parties, that we are not able to call out a member state?” CNN asked.
Ryan, a leader of WHO’s Covid response team, responded, “There’s no doubt in this case that the military operations, invasion, whatever you want to call it, in Ukraine, is causing untold suffering to the people of Ukraine.”
WHO “does not want to be drawn into the politics of that process,” he said. “But there is no question [that Tedros] … has always been on the side of peace.”
“What we try to do is honor the organization’s commitment to standing besides those who are suffering, and leave the politics of punishing the perpetrators to others who are better capable of doing that,” he said.
“We are not politicians, we are a health-care organization,” Ryan noted, while insisting that WHO has not been “in any way unclear” about their advocacy against conflict.
He added: “We call on the parties, and particularly call on the government of Russia to reconsider its position in the light of the suffering that’s being generated against Ukraine.”
The WHO has previously come under fire for taking too soft a stance on member states amid crises. The U.S. had repeatedly slammed the organization for failing to take action as the coronavirus spread out of China in 2020.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generated an unprecedented global response. International bodies including the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russian institutions, officials and oligarchs, entities ranging from state governments to private corporations have taken actions to pressure on the Kremlin.
Tedros on Wednesday said he has not yet spoken either to Putin or to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who this week was reportedly stationed in a bunker in Kyiv as Russian shelling of major Ukrainian cities grew more intense.
“We haven’t spoken to them yet. But it’s very important to do that,” Tedros said in response to a reporter’s question.
He had noted at the start of the briefing that the WHO is aiming to deliver medical supplies for Ukraine, including 36 metric tons of trauma-care materials to 1,000 patients that will arrive in Poland on Thursday.
“There is an urgent need to establish a corridor to ensure humanitarian workers and supplies have safe and continuous access to reach people in need,” he said.
Tedros said that WHO has so far released $5.2 million from its emergency funds, but needs $45 million for Ukraine alone over the next three months.
“We are also deeply concerned about reports of attacks on health facilities and health workers,” Tedros said. He cited “several unconfirmed reports” of attacks on health infrastructure, as well as one confirmed “heavy-weapons attack” on a hospital last week that killed four people.