About fifty countries have said “Worried” Friday, May 28 in light of allegations that leaders of the World Health Organization (WHO) failed to report cases of sexual assault by staff members of that organization and “Frustrated” given the slowness and lack of transparency of the investigation.
In mid-May, new charges of sexual assault were brought against aid workers, including those from the World Health Organization, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We expressed our concern after media reports suggesting that WHO management was aware of cases of sexual exploitation, assault and sexual harassment and failed to report them as required by the protocol of the ‘UN and WHO, as have allegations that staff members tried to cover up these cases ”, is it written in a statement read by Canada during the World Health Assembly. It is signed by 53 countries including the 27 Member States of the European Union, the United States but also Japan, Australia and Brazil.
Jobs in exchange for sex
Member countries and the WHO Secretariat – including its Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – have “Vigorously and transparently debated this subject” last week, underlines the joint statement. This diplomatic vocabulary generally reflects lively exchanges.
Commitments made by WHO management during this meeting “Must be the start of a new chapter, which will be based on speed, transparency and accountability”, warned the US delegate, Stephanie Psaki.
According to an investigation released on May 12, conducted jointly by the humanitarian news agency The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “22 women from the town of Butembo reported that male aid workers responding to an Ebola crisis (…) offered them jobs in exchange for sex ”.
In 2020, a similar investigation reported 51 cases in the city of Beni, also in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Fourteen of these women “Said the men identified themselves as WHO workers”, underlined the investigators, about facts dating back to 2019.
In total, six organizations and one ministry are implicated in these alleged acts of their employees: the WHO, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), the medical charity Alima, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the International Medical Corps (IMC) as well as the Ministry of Health of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
An Associated Press (AP) news agency investigation based on internal emails implicated two doctors working for the WHO, one of whom bragged about his ties to Dr Tedros. These two doctors dismissed these accusations.
According to AP, the investigation found that, “Despite their public denials, senior WHO officials were not only aware of these accusations of sexual assault in 2019 but were also asked how to react”. The news agency names Dr Tedros and Mike Ryan, the emergency response manager.
A report expected at the end of August
On Friday, Dr Tedros spoke before the publication of the text and recalled that he had set up an independent commission which has started its work on these allegations and which is due to submit a report at the end of August.
“Investigators have the power to follow evidence wherever it leads”, promised the Director General, acknowledging that many member countries are “Frustrated” by the slowness of the procedures and the lack of transparency.
“I know I speak for all of my colleagues and the organization when I say that we take these accusations very seriously. Responding to them and rectifying the situation are the very essence of who we are ”, added the director general, who has only just launched his campaign for his re-election.
But clearly, things are not going fast enough in the eyes of the signatories. Stephanie Psaki demanded quarterly and substantial information on the status of the investigation, but also on the concrete actions taken by the WHO.