Dozens of countries voiced alarm on Friday at reports that World Health Organization leaders knew of sexual abuse allegations against the UN agency’s staff and failed to report them.
Fifty-three countries, including the United States, the European Union, Britain and Japan, issued a joint statement demanding WHO chiefs display “strong and exemplary leadership” on preventing sexual abuse, following media reports WHO management knew of alleged cases in the DR Congo and did not act.
A report by the Associated Press news agency earlier this month said internal emails revealed that the management was aware of sexual abuse claims in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019.
Delivering the statement to the WHO’s main annual assembly, Canadian Ambassador Leslie Norton said the tone “must be set from the top” and that the signatories 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.
Countries, she said, had raised the issue in a “robust and transparent manner” during a closed-door meeting of the WHO executive board last week.
“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 53 countries, which also included Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico Switzerland and Uruguay, said adequately tackling the problem required cultural change.
“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 was left reeling last September after a year-long probe conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian documented alleged exploitation and abuse of women by staff parachuted into the DR Congo’s 2018-2020 Ebola crisis.
The investigation 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, locate 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, 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, who is eyeing a second five-year term in charge of the WHO, 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.”
In a separate statement, the United States said it was time for “a new chapter — one that is based on timeliness of transparency and accountability”.
Washington wanted quarterly updates and tangible progress “so accountability and healing can begin”.
And Britain made clear that funding streams were underpinned by “zero tolerance for ignoring, covering up or deliberately mishandling allegations”.