Congo-Kinshasa: the scandal of sexual abuse shakes the World Health Organization, but what now?

Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo – “It’s a dark day for the WHO.”

A damning report found that the World Health Organization failed to prevent and address widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo – an investigation sparked by an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

WHO staff became aware of the allegations in early May 2019, but it was not until October 2020 that an independent commission was established, a month after our investigation was published. It featured over 50 women who said they were attracted to sex-for-work programs. Additional reports revealed more than 20 other victims.

Six victims reacted to the report on Wednesday, telling The New Humanitarian that investigators – paid by the WHO (commission chairs worked on a voluntary basis) – had not explained what its findings might mean. One woman said multiple investigators harassed her every day, asking her to relive details of alleged abuse she allegedly suffered from a WHO employee.

Although the commission was established in October 2020, it took investigators nearly seven months to begin interviews in Congo, where Ebola killed some 2,300 people in Ituri and North Kivu provinces between August 2018. and June 2020 – the second deadliest outbreak on record.

“It wasn’t clear when investigators told us how they were going to help or if they were just trying to locate the alleged perpetrators,” said one of the 11 women who allowed The New Humanitarian to share contact details with the Commission. investigators. “It was also not clear if they could help us find financial support. They just didn’t tell me.”

Another said she felt “harassed” by investigators working for the commission.

“Honestly, their investigation really started to bother me. I had to continually remember things that I wanted to forget,” she said. “They called me every day. They started to really upset me, forcing me to go back to bad memories. As they were harassing me, I stopped talking to them.”

Commission investigators confirmed that the alleged victims were promised jobs in exchange for “relationships,” or were sexually exploited to keep their jobs in the response.

“To get ahead in the job you had to have sex … Everyone had sex in exchange for something. It was very common,” one woman told investigators, according to the 35-page report by the commission, published Tuesday.

Although the commission recommended that reparations be considered for victims, this is unlikely to happen in the United Nations system: so far, victims of sexual abuse have often only received psychological counseling. or help finding a job, or nothing at all.

Together, journalists from The New Humanitarian and commission investigators interviewed some 150 victims. At least nine said they were raped, including a 13-year-old girl. The allegations involved both national and international WHO staff.

“It’s a dark day for the WHO,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, told a press conference in Geneva on Tuesday to announce the report’s findings. “But by highlighting the failures of individuals and the organization, we hope victims feel their voices have been heard and acted upon.”

Who knew what and when?

The commission’s report raises serious questions about WHO’s top leaders and why they were unaware of the extent of the problem. Tedros, for example, visited Congo 14 times during the Ebola response, while other staff members made even more visits.

Tedros, who said on Tuesday he took “ultimate” responsibility for the breaches, said he was not aware of the allegations until the investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation was cleared. published in September 2020.

But the independent commission’s report said WHO staff were aware of the allegations as early as May 2019, noting that “individual negligence can constitute professional misconduct.”

The panel also said he should have belonged to WHO senior management in the Ebola response at the time – regional emergency director Ibrahima Socé Fall, incident manager Michel Yao and deputy director general for Michael Ryan health emergencies – take appropriate action. These could, he suggested, have included requesting assistance from other United Nations bodies that are much better equipped to prevent and deal with such allegations in emergency situations.

The widespread sexual abuse allegations against the WHO are the latest in a series of repeated sex scandals that have plagued the UN for decades. Despite promises of “zero tolerance”, allegations against UN workers and peacekeepers continue to mount. And despite the promises of a “survivor and victim centered” approach, little is often done for victims.

Some critics questioned the independence of the commission’s investigation and noted that many of the allegations were criminal.

“The process itself is the opposite of justice,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign, which seeks to end impunity for sexual offenses committed by the United Nations personnel. “The UN is the only agency in the world authorized to investigate itself. WHO’s chief experts have been handpicked to head a commission to examine criminal allegations against staff and senior officials of the agency. “

Priyanka Chirimar, lawyer and founder of Action Against Prohibited Conduct, said she was surprised the commission – given that some 500,000 documents were reviewed in the investigation – did not recommend specific action against the alleged perpetrators.

“Despite the blatantly criminal nature of the many incidents recounted in the report, the (independent commission) does not urge referral to national authorities for criminal prosecution alongside the internal disciplinary process,” Chirimar said, noting that the commission’s report went to some extent to absolve high-level WHO staff even though they found WHO to be aware of the abuse. “The report is unedited, claims diagrams without demonstrating them, filled with incomplete sentences and simply disorganized.”

Lack of training and awareness on SEA

More than 80 alleged perpetrators have been partially identified by investigators.

Of these, 21 have been confirmed as working for WHO. Four of the 21 were made redundant, while the remaining 17 had already stopped working for the WHO. Two others, who have been described as senior executives, have also been placed on administrative leave, although they have not been appointed.

Most of the women interviewed by The New Humanitarian accused WHO officials of sexual abuse. Others have blamed NGO workers in the Ebola response.

The abuse, often perpetrated by men who refused to wear condoms, led to 29 pregnancies, according to the report.

The commission also noted that Ebola response teams were “totally oblivious” to the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse or how to deal with it, even though the UN has faced hundreds of allegations. sexual abuse in other emergencies.

The commission also found that only a fraction of the WHO staff involved in the Ebola response – 371 out of some 2,800 – had participated in training on the prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation, and that more than 73 % of intervention roles were occupied by men – a finding consistent with that of The New Humanitarian.

“The review team was also able to establish that the WHO has done little to educate local populations about sexual exploitation and abuse,” the report notes.

The independent commission also criticized the WHO for a “systematic tendency” to dismiss all reports of sexual exploitation and abuse unless they are in writing, noting “the disparity between the number of alleged victims. .. which emerged during the investigations and the total absence of reports of sexual exploitation and abuse at the institutional level during the period under consideration.

Tedros, who said a number of reforms were already underway, vowed to discuss a management action plan with UN member states within the next nine days, putting “transparency” at the top of the bill. center of his concerns. It also requested the WHO Health Emergencies Program Independent Advisory and Oversight Committee to monitor and report on progress.

Paisley Dodds reported from London; Robert Flummerfelt reported from Goma. Additional reports were made by Titilope Ajayi and Emmeline Booth. Edited by Andrew Gully.

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