Fri | Sep 29, 2023

‘Loophole’ excuses WHO officials accused of misconduct

Published:Monday | February 6, 2023 | 6:31 PM
In this Saturday, June 15, 2019 file photo, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus arrives by helicopter at Ruhenda airport in Butembo, eastern Congo, to visit operations aimed at preventing the spread of Ebola and treating its victims. A confidential UN report into the alleged missteps by senior World Health Organization staffers in how they handled a sexual misconduct case during an Ebola outbreak in Congo found their response didn't violate the agency’s policies because of what some officials described as a “loophole.” The report was submitted to WHO last month and wasn't released publicly. It was obtained by the Associated Press. (AP Photo/Kudra Maliro, File)

LONDON (AP) — A confidential United Nations report into alleged missteps by senior World Health Organization staffers in the way they handled a sexual misconduct case during an Ebola outbreak in Congo found their response didn't violate the agency's policies because of what some officials described as a “loophole” in how the WHO defines victims of such behaviour.

The report, which was submitted to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last month and wasn't released publicly, was obtained by The Associated Press.

The WHO did not respond to requests for comment.

The UN investigation comes after a 2021 review by a panel appointed by Tedros found that three WHO managers fumbled a sexual misconduct case first reported by the AP earlier that year, involving a UN health agency doctor signing a contract to buy land for a young woman he reportedly impregnated.

Last week, Tedros said UN investigators concluded the “managerial misconduct” charges were unsubstantiated and the three staffers returned to work after being on administrative leave.

The WHO chief said the agency would seek advice from experts on how to handle the inconsistencies between the two reports.

The investigators said Tedros was informed of the sexual misconduct allegations in 2019 and had been warned of worrying gaps in the WHO's misconduct policies the previous year.

“If these issues were brought to Tedros' attention and no action was taken, (WHO) member states must demand accountability,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a global health expert at Columbia University.

Tedros has previously said he became aware of sexual misconduct complaints in Congo only after media reports in September 2020 and learned of the specific case reported by the AP when it was published. He said anyone connected to sexual misconduct faced consequences including dismissal.

To date, no senior WHO staffers linked to the abuse and exploitation have been fired.

In May 2021, an AP investigation revealed senior WHO management was told of sexual exploitation during the agency's efforts to stop Ebola in eastern Congo from 2018-2020 but did little to stop it.

Among the cases WHO management were warned about was the allegation that Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu, an infection control specialist sent to Beni, had impregnated a young woman.

Ngandu met the woman at a restaurant one evening shortly after he arrived - and following mandatory WHO training on the prevention of sexual misconduct.

According to the UN report, the two had sex later that evening and Ngandu gave her some money the next morning.

The relationship soured and the woman and her aunt later went to the WHO office in Beni to complain that Ngandu had impregnated her. AP obtained a notarised agreement Ngandu and the woman, in which he agreed to cover her health care costs and buy her land.

The deal, also signed by two WHO staffers, was meant to protect the WHO's reputation, Ngandu said.

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