GENEVA, Switzerland — The World Health Organization’s main donor countries demanded Friday that it speeds up and broadens reforms aimed at preventing sexual abuse by staff in the field.
The UN health agency has been under intense pressure to make far-reaching changes following revelations in 2020 of widespread sexual abuse by humanitarian workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Speaking before the WHO executive board Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that he and the organisation he leads are “committed to zero tolerance for sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, and for inaction against it.” He insisted the agency had dramatically scaled up its efforts to root out the problem since the allegations surfaced of rape and other sexual abuse by humanitarian workers, including WHO employees, in the DR Congo.
An independent commission released a devastating report last September which found that 21 WHO employees participating in the response to a 2018-20 Ebola outbreak in the DRC had committed abuses against dozens of people.
– ‘Horrifying’ – Tedros, who at the time described the commission’s findings as “horrifying”, stressed to WHO member states Friday that preventing sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment was a top priority.
The WHO, he said, is working to make it easier to report abuse, and to ensure accountability for perpetrators and compensation for victims.
He said that the number of complaints filed over alleged sexual abuse and harassment had risen significantly.
This, he said, was an “indication that the system is beginning to work better and that victims and bystanders are more willing to raise an alarm.” The UN health agency is currently investigating 12 allegations of sexual abuse and 25 allegations of harassment, he said.
Over the past two weeks, three new abuse complaints have been filed in the Central African Republic, the DRC and in Congo-Brazzaville, he added.
– Broader reforms needed –
While hailing some of the steps taken, a number of countries said the job was far from over.
“We acknowledge the recent progress WHO has made, but recognise broader organisational reforms are needed,” US ambassador Sheba Crocker told the executive board meeting.
She urged the WHO to do more to “encourage reporting”, and called for deeper reviews of “policy, reporting mechanisms, investigations, and consequences for perpetrators as well as managers who fail to respond effectively.” Speaking for the European Union, Bernard Derebergue of France meanwhile stressed that it was “paramount that robust, long-term strategies and mechanisms are in place.” “We look forward to the implementation of a victim- and survivor-centred approach to preventing (sexual abuse and harassment) across all levels of the WHO.” Speaking on behalf of a long list of member states, British ambassador Simon Manley meanwhile demanded more transparency.
Countries, he said, should receive “regular updates… on the processes WHO is putting in place, including the package of support offered to victims and survivors.” Responding to the comments, Tedros acknowledged more remained to be done, vowing to keep working to boost transparency and “do everything to build a better culture.” “You don’t need to have a concern,” he said.
Friday’s hearing came a day after the WHO vowed to address separate management concerns after former and current staff accused the head of the agency’s Western Pacific region of racism and misconduct.
Japanese doctor Takeshi Kasai, who denied the allegations, is accused presiding over a “toxic atmosphere” at the WHO regional office in Manila, with a culture of “systemic bullying and public ridiculing”.
He was also accused of mismanaging the pandemic, abusing his power to secure his re-election and nepotism.
A number of countries voiced alarm at the claims.
“These allegations must be thoroughly investigated in a fair and transparent manner,” Crocker said.