By Stephanie Nebehay and Hereward Holland
GENEVA – The head of the World Health Organization is coming under U.S.-led pressure to act quickly on a damning report on a sexual assault scandal that has engulfed it and other aid agencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Western diplomats say.
More than 80 aid workers, a quarter of whom were employed by the WHO, were involved in sexual abuse and exploitation during an Ebola epidemic in eastern Congo, an independent commission said on Tuesday.
The probe, launched by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was prompted by an investigation last year by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian in which more than 50 women accused aid workers from the WHO and other agencies of demanding sex in exchange for jobs between 2018-2020.
The commission’s report – delayed by a month due to fresh allegations and a widening investigation – was issued a week after the period for nominating the next WHO director-general closed.
The United States has initiated an effort among major WHO donors to issue a joint statement about their expectations and calling for WHO and Tedros to take swift action, several Western diplomats told Reuters, adding that consultations were under way with capitals. “The U.S. is leading,” said one.
Tedros gained wide support for a second five-year term, formally nominated by 17 EU members including major donors Germany and France and backed by countries in other regions, diplomats told Reuters on Sept. 23 as the deadline passed. The United States also backs him, they said.
His native Ethiopia has not supported his re-election bid, due to friction over the Tigray conflict, leaving Europe to formalise the nomination. He is still expected to be re-elected in the wake of the scandal, diplomats said.
Under WHO rules, the envelopes are to remain sealed until after Oct. 29, meaning it is possible that a country might have nominated another candidate for the May election.
Western diplomats voiced concern at the WHO “management failure” during the sexual violence in Congo. Middle managers were criticised but the top echelon including Tedros has emerged without being accused or directly linked, they added.
“The report is so bad. But it seems to clear him and senior management even by name,” a Western diplomat told Reuters. “Tedros really has to do his part and show leadership and take action as soon as possible.”
Another Western diplomat told Reuters: “It makes for sobering reading, like a throwback to another era.” She added: “I have no reason to doubt Tedros is committed to dealing with it.”
France has issued a statement urging Tedros to make good on his commitment to submit an action plan addressing the inquiry’s recommendations within 10 days.
Tedros, who visited Congo 14 times during the Ebola epidemic, told a press conference on Tuesday that no one had raised the allegations. He again pledged “zero tolerance” for sexual exploitation and apologised to the victims but declined to say whether he was considering resigning.
A senior official in Kenya’s foreign ministry dismissed the notion that his government would withdraw its support for Tedros’ re-nomination.
“Really? Isn’t that a little silly?” Macharia Kamau, principal secretary in Kenya’s foreign ministry, said in a text message when asked if Kenya’s stance on Tedros had changed due to the revelations.
Okello Oryem, Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, told Reuters that “Tedros is an African candidate” and that Uganda would not withdraw support.
“The NGOs making these allegations are from Western countries. Some of whom may not want Tedros to be there. It might be a plot by some Western countries to deny Africa this position,” he said.
“Tedros can not be held accountable for something that happened thousands of mile away in Congo.”
The commission found that at least 21 of 83 suspected perpetrators were employed by the WHO, and that the abuses, which included nine allegations of rape, were committed by both national and international staff.
A spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said that it was seeking information on aid workers from agencies other than WHO involved in the abuse, but declined to specify whether its own staff were implicated.
“We remain steadfast in our commitment to end sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector, to provide victims with assistance, and to hold perpetrators accountable,” he said.
Congo’s health minister, Jean-Jacques Mbungani Mbanda, said in a statement that it was now for authorities to “hold account all the presumed authors of these reprehensible acts”.
A former senior UN official who worked in Congo during the Ebola crisis said: “They should be fired, stripped of their UN immunity and handed over to the national prosecution authorities. They’ve committed crimes in that country and are subject to punishments of that country.”
“It’s an endemic problem in the UN so it’s not particular to the WHO, and so it’s not particular to Tedros. This happens every time in every kind of deployment to the Congo, people are getting away with sexual exploitation and abuse.”
Most UN personnel enjoy functional immunity, which means they can’t be taken to court for anything they have done as part of their work. But the secretary-general has has the power to waive that immunity if it “would impede the course of justice”.
The first Western diplomat said: “DNA samples were taken. I hope there is evidence to follow up.”
Activists said that sexual abuse and harassment were common in Congo and called for reforms. There have been many incidents of alleged sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in several missions in Africa in the past decade.
“Sexual abuse against women in exchange for access to employment or other benefits seems to be a widespread phenomenon in the DRC, including in the public administration, colleges and universities, churches, and businesses. It is the same within the UN system, international NGOs, and local organisations,” said Jean-Mobert Senga, DR Congo researcher at Amnesty International.
“…WHO and other UN institutions should now implement the report’s recommendations and take any step necessary to prevent such abuses from happening again, in DRC or elsewhere,” he said.