WHO chief concedes 'slow' response to Congo sex abuse claims

WHO chief concedes 'slow' response to Congo sex abuse claims
3 min read
The head of the UN World Health Organization acknowledged the agency's response to sexual abuse allegations involving employees who worked in Congo during an Ebola outbreak was "slow".
Senior WHO management knew of multiple cases of misconduct in Congo. [Getty Images]

The head of the World Health Organization acknowledged the UN health agency's response to sexual abuse allegations involving employees who worked in Congo during an Ebola outbreak was "slow", following an Associated Press investigation that found senior WHO management knew of multiple cases of misconduct.

As WHO’s highest decision-making body meets this week, countries were tackling subjects like how to reform the UN health agency's emergencies program after its missteps in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. The World Health Assembly hasn't devoted a specific agenda item to the alleged misconduct in Congo, but a roundtable talk on preventing "sexual exploitation and abuse" is scheduled for Friday.

Diplomats, however, have already pressed WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on the issue behind closed doors. At least six countries raised concerns last week about how the agency was handling sexual abuse and exploitation, citing recent press reports. Tedros tried to allay their worries.

"I can understand the frustration," he told a committee meeting of WHO’s Executive Board on May 19. According to a recording of the meeting obtained by the AP, the director-general said it took time to deal with security problems in Congo, to install a commission to investigate sex abuse claims and to get the group up and running.

"The way this thing was run until now, although it was slow...I hope it will satisfy," Tedros said.

WHO's press office declined to comment on Tedros’ description of a slow response but said the commission was "committed to conducting a comprehensive investigation into all recent allegations, including those relating to management actions." The group's co-chairs were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement with WHO.

The panel commissioned by WHO does not include any law enforcement agencies to investigate if any of the reported sexual exploitation was criminal and its reports will be submitted only to WHO.

Tedros created the panel in October, after news reports surfaced about sex abuse during WHO’s efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic in Congo from 2018 to 2020. At the time, Tedros said he was "outraged" and would move quickly to punish those responsible.

But more than seven months later, the panel has yet to publicly release any details about its work or findings. The commission began its work in Congo on May 3 and expects to publish a report at the end of August, the group said.

Many countries said they expected more action, citing the AP’s recent story.

"We have discussed the allegations in meetings with WHO leadership," said Dag-Inge Ulstein, Norway’s foreign minister, in an email. "We have reiterated the imperative need to handle such allegations swiftly and thoroughly."

An AP investigation published earlier this month found members of WHO's senior management were told of sexual abuse concerns in 2019 involving at least two doctors employed by the agency during the Ebola epidemic in Congo.