‘Escape loop’ excuses WHO officials accused of misconduct

LONDON — A confidential UN report into alleged missteps by senior World Health Organization officials in their handling of a case of sexual misconduct during an Ebola outbreak in Congo has revealed that their response did not violate agency policies due to what some officials described as a “loophole.” in how the WHO defines victims of such behavior.

The report, which was submitted to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last month and has not been made public, was obtained by The Associated Press. The WHO has not publicly described the contents of the report.

The UN investigation comes after a 2021 review by a panel appointed by Tedros found that three WHO officials groped a case of sexual misconduct first reported by the AP earlier this that year, involving a doctor from the United Nations health agency signing a contract to buy land for a young woman. would have been impregnated.

Last week, Tedros said UN investigators had concluded the charges of “managerial misconduct” were unfounded and that the three staff members had returned to work after being on administrative leave. The WHO chief said the agency would seek expert advice on how to handle inconsistencies between the two reports.

Investigators said Tedros was made aware of the sexual misconduct allegations in 2019 and was warned of worrying shortcomings in WHO misconduct policies the previous year.

“If these issues have been brought to the attention of Tedros and no action has been taken, (WHO) member states must demand accountability,” said global health expert Dr Irwin Redlener. at Columbia University.

Tedros has previously said he only became aware of complaints of sexual misconduct in Congo after media reports in September 2020 and learned of the specific case reported by the AP when it was published. He said anyone linked to sexual misconduct faced consequences, including dismissal. To date, no senior WHO official linked to abuse and exploitation has been dismissed.

In May 2021, an AP investigation found that senior WHO leadership had been made aware of sexual exploitation during the agency’s efforts to stop Ebola in eastern Congo from 2018 to 2020, but no didn’t do much to stop it.

The AP published a notarized agreement between former WHO doctor Jean-Paul Ngandu and the woman he allegedly pregnant, in which he agreed to cover her health costs and buy her land. The agreement, also signed by two WHO staff members, was aimed at protecting the reputation of the WHO, Ngandu said. The woman and her aunt went to the WHO office in Beni to complain about Ngandu, according to internal WHO correspondence.

“After the allegations were brought to WHO (HQ), a decision was made not to investigate the complaint on the grounds that it did not violate the WHO policy framework (sexual exploitation and abuse)” , says the UN report.

The review explained that the decision was made by officials from the legal, ethical and other departments of the UN health agency and was due to the fact that the woman was not a “recipient” of the assistance from the WHO, which means that she did not receive any emergency aid or humanitarian aid from the agency and, therefore, was not considered a victim under the policy of the WHO. WHO.

WHO staff members interviewed by UN investigators said it could be seen as a “loophole that could push complaints through the cracks”.

“Ngandu’s conduct did not violate any WHO standards of conduct (sexual exploitation and abuse),” the report said, describing his agreement to pay the woman as a “private financial settlement.”

UN investigators noted there were problems with the WHO’s policies on sexual misconduct, describing them as “a collective responsibility”. In February 2018, several staff members sent a memo to Tedros warning of policy shortcomings.

Experts have slammed the WHO’s defense, saying the agency should uphold the highest standards in handling sexual exploitation as it coordinates global responses to acute crises like COVID-19 and smallpox. of the monkey.

“Escaping accountability based on crazy words and technical language, like not being a ‘recipient’ of WHO aid is unacceptable,” said Larry Gostin, chair of global health at the University of Georgetown. “The fact that the United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services has excused this behavior based on this legal technicality shows that the UN and WHO do not take sexual abuse seriously.”

After reports of sexual misconduct in Congo were flagged, the WHO established a new office to prevent such behavior, headed by Dr. Gaya Gamhewage. In her interview with UN investigators, Gamhewage said that before starting her new job, she had no knowledge of the WHO’s sexual misconduct policies and had not even read them.

“Sexual exploitation and abuse was unfamiliar to him,” the report said.

The UN probe comes weeks after the AP published another story detailing sexual misconduct at the WHO, involving a Fijian doctor with a history of sexual assault allegations at the agency. , who was preparing to stand for election for the director-general of the WHO in the Western Pacific.

“These repeated instances of sexual assault, and arguably worse, its cover-up, are utterly intolerable,” said Columbia University’s Redlener. “It is possible that this Ngandu case did not technically violate WHO policy, but there is policy and then there is morality and ethics,” he said. “There is something deeply uncomfortable about what happened here.”

During the Ebola outbreak, Tedros traveled to Congo 14 times to personally oversee the WHO response.

“At a minimum, Tedros should promise and deliver a major overhaul of policies and accountability,” Redlener said. “One might even expect him to fail in his responsibilities and therefore have to resign.”


Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.


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