The World Health Organization (WHO) has admitted Tuesday that employees of the organization committed abuse and sexual exploitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the Ebola crisis. This was confirmed on Tuesday by the director general of the organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus , who has described the events as “disgusting treason.” At the end of May, some 50 member countries of the WHO publicly expressed their frustration at the slowness of the investigations and the lack of transparency in the handling of the scandal.
The case of rape and sexual abuse in the Congo came to light thanks to research by The New Humanitarian and Reuters Foundation. The commission also found, after conducting dozens of interviews, “the perception of impunity of the institution’s staff by the alleged victims,” as well as the fact that in front of the dozens of victims who came forward, there was “a total absence Reporting of cases » at the institutional level. “Interviews with key agency officials conducted by the review team clearly demonstrate that the organization, focused primarily on eradicating the Ebola epidemic, was completely unprepared to deal with the risks / incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse.” says the report.
“The first thing I want to say is to the victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and abuse described in the commission’s report. Sorry. I regret what the people who were employed by WHO to serve and protect them did to them, “said Tedros at the beginning of his speech Tedros. The director general of the WHO has called the facts “unforgivable”: “I find it difficult to find the words to describe my feelings when I first read the report of the Commission,” he lamented.
Likewise, the director of WHO has assumed the “responsibility” of the organization for the “behavior” of persons who, using their employment in the institution, committed the sexual crimes. In addition, he has apologized for “any failure in the systems that has allowed this behavior” and has stressed his “personal responsibility” to undertake changes in WHO.
The report: a “harrowing read”
Tedros appointed an independent commission in November last year to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse during the WHO’s response to the 10th Ebola epidemic in the North Kivu and Ituri regions. The report of the work of this commission has been published this Tuesday, and has a “harrowing reading” , has specified in a press conference the head of the WHO.
The commission has identified almost 60 possible victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, most of them are women with an average age of 20 years, and 21 alleged perpetrators, who were WHO employees at the time of the events, although the victims They have provided the names of 62 other abusers who, as of yet, have not been identified. For those cases, WHO has hired an external investigation service to assess what additional steps are required, the head of the organization has indicated.
The report details how the abuses were committed against poor women and in a precarious situation. Several WHO employees promised them a job that, once the women consented to sexual intercourse, was denied. In turn, cases are also reported in which women who already had a job were forced by their superiors to have sexual relations under threat of losing their job.
In addition, of these cases, the report denounces at least nine cases of rape.
Four of the abusers were still employees of the WHO when the complaints became known. But their contracts have already been terminated and they have been banned from working with WHO in the future. In addition, complaints will be forwarded to the relevant authorities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for investigation. Complaints will also be sent to the abusers’ countries of origin.
On the other hand, the report has detected “negligence” on the part of some people in the management of some of the reported incidents, something that is also being investigated through an external service. “In my opinion, the failure of WHO employees to respond adequately to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse is as serious as the events themselves,” Tedros accused. For this reason, two senior officials are on administrative leave, while the other people who may be involved will be temporarily relieved until the facts are clarified.
Comprehensive reform of the WHO
In this context, WHO will undergo a comprehensive reform of policies and processes to address sexual exploitation and abuse, as the report concludes that the health agency has “clear structural flaws and a lack of preparedness to manage the risks of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse ”, while also pointing to“ individual neglect ”and a“ predominantly male response team ”. Currently 73.4% of the WHO workforce is male.
The response to Ebola in North Kivu and Ituri was “a large and complex operation in a highly insecure region, requiring large-scale recruitment of local and international staff.” “But none of that is an excuse for sexual exploitation and abuse. We accept that we should have taken stricter measures to select candidates and ensure more effective HR processes, ”Tedros assumed. Procedures that are also being reviewed, since the commission has found a ” massive hiring of workers without tender and without checking the background.”
The evaluation commission has made seven recommendations , with 20 specific actions, many of which are ‘already underway’, while in the next ten days a ‘comprehensive management’ action plan will be provided to the Member States with ‘the transparency in the center ”. Also, to “further strengthen accountability”, the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee of the WHO Health Emergencies Program will monitor and report “transparently” on progress.
“It is a dark day for WHO,” Tedros lamented, as “the conduct described is a disgusting betrayal of the people” the organization serves. “We are well aware that we need to rebuild trust with the people we serve, with our Member States, with our partners and with our workforce,” concluded the head of WHO.