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WHO's European countries say Moscow office should be moved

In this March 5, 2022 file photo, people fleeing the town of Irpin, Ukraine, cross the Irpin river on an improvised path under a bridge destroyed by Ukrainian troops to slow the Russian military's advance. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

LONDON (AP) -- Members of the World Health Organization's European region have condemned Russia's war in Ukraine, which could result in moving one of the agency's offices out of Russia and suspending all meetings there until Moscow pulls its troops out of Ukraine.

    In a statement after a resolution passed on Tuesday, countries in the WHO's European region said they were "highly concerned" over the situation in Ukraine that was "triggered by the unprovoked and unjustified military aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine." More than 40 countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and the U.K., voted in favor of the statement, while Russia, Belarus and Tajikistan voted against it.

    The resolution said the WHO should do "whatever is possible to support the government in Ukraine" and to consider the possible relocation of the United Nations health agency's Moscow-based European Office for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases to another country. It also asked the WHO's European director to consider temporarily suspending all meetings in Russia until the country withdraws its military forces from Ukraine.

    To date, the WHO has confirmed more than 200 attacks on health facilities and first responders in Ukraine, resulting in at least 75 deaths.

    After a recent trip to Ukraine where he spoke with health workers and victims of the invasion, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that "what Ukraine really needs more than anything else is peace," and appealed to Russia to stop its war.

    Still, some academics doubted the European resolution would have much impact.

    Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO's Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University, called it "a weak rebuke that won't bother" Russian President Vladimir Putin. He called instead for the WHO to remove Russia's voting rights at the World Health Assembly, the WHO's annual meeting of its member countries, scheduled for later this month.

    "It's absolutely within the World Health Assembly's powers to suspend Russia's vote," Gostin said, saying the suspension should be based on Russia's violation of international law by attacking health facilities and blocking humanitarian corridors.

    "This would not be political, but it would be related to WHO's core mission of protecting health," he said, adding that the agency has previously suspended countries' voting rights, most notably South Africa's during its apartheid era.

    Gostin said the move would not stop the war, but was still worthwhile.

    "It would be a very powerful statement by the entire global community and might at least give Putin pause to continue so blatantly attacking hospitals and health workers and not allowing humanitarian corridors."

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