53 countries demand answers from WHO on sex abuse claims
Geneva, Switzerland — Fifty-three countries voiced alarm on Friday at reports that World Health Organization (WHO) leaders knew of sexual abuse allegations against the UN agency’s staff and failed to report them.
In a joint statement, the United States, the European Union, Britain, Japan, and others demanded WHO chiefs display “strong and exemplary leadership” on preventing sexual abuse, following media reports that WHO management knew of alleged cases in DR Congo and did not act.
A report by the Associated Press news agency earlier this month said internal emails revealed that the WHO’s management was aware of sexual abuse claims in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019 and was asked how to handle it.
Delivering the joint statement to the WHO’s main annual assembly, Canadian Ambassador Leslie Norton said the tone “must be set from the top” and that the 53 countries wanted “credible outcomes” on tackling the issue.
“Since January 2018, we have been raising deep concerns about allegations relating to matters of sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment, as well as abuse of authority, in regard to WHO activities,” she said.
At a meeting of the WHO executive board’s program, budget, and administration committee last week, member states and the WHO secretariat discussed this issue in a “robust and transparent manner,” the statement said.
“We expressed alarm at the suggestions in the media that WHO management knew of reported cases of sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment and had failed to report them, as required by UN and WHO protocol, as well as at allegations that WHO staff acted to suppress the cases.”
The countries, also including Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico Switzerland, and Uruguay, said that adequately tackling the problem required cultural change across organizations and societies.
“It requires strong and exemplary leadership from managers and leaders throughout an organization with the tone being set from the top,” they said, stressing they wanted “appropriate disciplinary action” where allegations are substantiated.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the assembly that the organization was “greatly disturbed by these allegations”.
“Any form of abusive behavior is totally incompatible with WHO’s mission,” he said.
The WHO and two other UN agencies were left reeling last September after a report documented alleged exploitation and abuse of women by UN agency staff parachuted into the DR Congo’s 2018-2020 Ebola crisis.
The WHO, the International Organization for Migration, and the UN children’s agency UNICEF were cited in an investigative report published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian.
The year-long probe found that more than 50 women had accused Ebola aid workers — chiefly from the WHO but also from other UN agencies and leading non-governmental organizations — of sexual exploitation, including propositioning them, forcing them to have sex in exchange for a job, or terminating contracts when they refused.
The similarities between the accounts given by women in the eastern DRC city of Beni suggested the practices were widespread, the report said.
Independent probe in DRC
The WHO announced in October that it was setting up a seven-person independent commission to investigate the facts, find victims and hold perpetrators to account.
The probe is being co-chaired by Niger’s former foreign affairs minister Aichatou Mindaoudou and Julienne Lusenge, a DRC advocate for survivors of sexual violence in conflict.
The investigation, which is based in the DRC and backed by a WHO-based secretariat, issued a call for submissions on May 15 and said any information provided would be treated confidentially.
The commission is due to deliver its report by the end of August.
Tedros said he was aware that some member states were frustrated by the investigation’s pace.
He said the independent commission would investigate the recent media allegations, “including those of suppression of information”.
“We take these allegations very seriously. Addressing and rectifying them is utterly essential to who we are,” he said.
“We’re also determined to address the underlying systemic issues, and take whatever action is necessary.”
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