By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA – Major Western donors have pressed the World Health Organization to launch a deeper external probe demanding how a major sexual abuse scandal in the Democratic Republic of Congo involving its staff was allowed to happen, diplomats told Reuters.
Some 83 aid workers, a quarter of them employed by the WHO, were involved in sexual exploitation and abuse during the country’s Ebola epidemic from 2018 to 2020, an independent commission said last month.
Women accused local and foreign aid workers of demanding sex in exchange for jobs and there were nine alleged rapes, the panel said in a report on the large-scale abuse in North Kivu and Ituri provinces.
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and aides have shared its draft action plan with major donors – including the United States, Britain, European powers, Canada and Australia – prompting their calls for an external oversight body while the WHO also revamps internal policies, diplomats said.
The probe should examine how WHO management reacted to growing allegations and aim to establish wider accountability, they said.
The management plan, currently being revised and expected to be presented to WHO‘s 194 member states on Thursday, should set out robust action and identify management failures to prevent future abuses in emergency operations, they added.
“My understanding for the delay is they are actually beefing it up,” a Western diplomat told Reuters.
The WHO said in an email reply that it has consulted staff, member states and others on its comprehensive plan to address the report’s recommendations and prevention in its operations.
“The consultations with member states continue this week. WHO will integrate their feedback into the plan; we aim to finalise it shortly and present it to member states,” it said.
A second Western diplomat said: “The draft needs to specifically mention and include an external investigation and be independent.”
The UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) would be well-suited to lead the review “which should find mechanisms to ensure accountability goes as high as it needs to”, he said.
“A lot of countries view these reports with enormous concern and are looking to the WHO for a major response that goes beyond treating the symptoms of the problem and makes sure something like this can never happen again,” he added.
Tedros, who is seeking re-election next year, has said that WHO had terminated the contracts of four WHO employees and his priority was to hold perpetrators to account. His U.N. agency would address “management and staff failures”.
Tedros, who visited Congo 14 times during the outbreak, launched the initial probe a year ago after an investigation by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian in which more than 50 women accused aid workers from the WHO and other charities of demanding sex.
The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), asked whether any of its employees were implicated in the scandal, told Reuters on Wednesday: “At this point we have not received any information linking any of the subjects identified to UNICEF.”
The commission cited “clear (WHO) structural failures and unpreparedness to manage the risks of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse” and internal emails showing that the agency was aware of some incidents by May 2019.
A third diplomat said: “Clearly it is an unfinished investigation.
“We don’t have full sight of the delegation of authority or management reporting process,” she said, adding that a cultural change was required, with greater emphasis on prevention and risk mitigation measures.
Another diplomat said: “We are calling for zero tolerance to be embedded in operations. We will be watching closely.”