Countries call for WHO swift action on sexual abuse

GENEVA, Switzerland -- More than 50 countries on Tuesday told the World Health Organization that they wanted perpetrators of sexual abuse within the WHO to be swiftly held to account.

Survivors of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (SEAH) must also be given proper support, the countries told the UN health agency's executive board meeting.

The WHO 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.

British ambassador Simon Manley delivered a joint statement on behalf of 57 countries, voicing "deep concerns" about allegations of SEAH, and the alleged abuse of authority by WHO staff and contractors.

The countries included all 27 EU member states, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Chile, Japan, the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Ukraine.

They recognised that progress had been made in recent years, and praised the bravery of survivors and whistleblowers in speaking out.

"Building a culture based on integrity, transparency and accountability is crucial," the countries said.

"We encourage WHO management to set the tone and lead by example in these areas, particularly by establishing clear responsibility and accountability lines.

"We strongly support WHO's investment in capacity-building and training for staff. This work should build awareness of the power differentials and inequalities between victims and perpetrators that lie at the root of SEAH."

They called for a shift towards an approach centred on victims and survivors.

"Complaints must be addressed in a timely manner, and perpetrators held to account, so we strongly support efforts to strengthen WHO's investigative capacity," the member states said.

"We expect prompt and confidential reporting to be provided to member states, including on the actions taken to address SEAH."

The 34-member executive board's job is to advise the World Health Assembly of member states -- the WHO's decision-making body -- and implement its decisions.

The 152nd session of the WHO executive board started on Monday and runs until February 7.

The WHO says it has zero tolerance for any form of sexual misconduct by any of its workforce and takes prompt action whenever an allegation is raised.