WHO staff face allegations of sexual abuse during Ebola outbreak

More than 80 individuals, including 21 World Health Organization workers, were involved in incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo as the central African nation battled the world’s second-largest Ebola outbreak on record, an official report has found.

In a long-awaited, 35-page independent inquiry published on Tuesday, the investigating commission said nine of the allegations were of rape, some of which were said to have occurred after offers of potential work. In certain cases, alleged perpetrators refused to wear condoms. Some of the alleged victims said they were coerced by their abusers into having abortions after becoming pregnant, “if necessary, by giving them drugs or even injections”.

The report said a total of 29 total pregnancies were recorded after sexual abuse, 22 of which were brought to term. The abuses, the report said, were perpetrated both by national and international staff. The epicentre of the Ebola outbreak, which lasted between 2018 and 2020, was in North Kivu, a conflict zone.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has been the WHO’s director-general since 2017, apologised to the victims in a press briefing on Tuesday.

“I’m sorry for what was done to you by people who were employed by WHO to serve and protect you,” he said, vowing further action and adding that the global health body had ended the contracts of four people who had still been employed by the organisation when it was made aware of the allegations against them.

“The failure of WHO employees to respond adequately to reports of sexual exploitation and abuse is as bad as the events themselves,” he added.

Tedros, the first African to lead the UN’s health body, is seeking re-election for a second term as director-general, according to people familiar with the matter, with no obvious rival.

His native Ethiopia has not officially said it will not back the reappointment of Tedros — once a senior member of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, which is engaged in a civil war with the government in Addis Ababa — but it is unlikely to do so, officials have previously hinted. He has called the situation in Tigray “horrific”, while Ethiopian officials had accused him of getting diplomatic support and weapons for the TPLF, which he denied.

Tedros said of the abuse allegations: “This issue was not raised to me. Probably I should have asked questions, and the next steps, what we’re doing, is we have to ask questions.” He did not respond to a question on whether he was considering stepping down as director-general. The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The report noted that investigators had been “unable to establish that Tedros” or other high-ranking officials “were individually, directly and immediately notified of any incident of sexual exploitation and abuse prior to their disclosure in the press”. It added it had “no information at this time that would give rise to personal responsibility on the part of Tedros [and other officials] in relation to wrong handling of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse”.

Aïchatou Mindaoudou, co-chair of the investigating commission, said investigators did not know at the beginning of the probe that there were “some at higher level at WHO who were aware of what was going on and did not act. We only discovered this during our investigation.”

The report said WHO first became aware of the incidents in early May 2019, according to internal documents the commission reviewed.

Julienne Lusenge, also co-chair, said there were “failures, negligence and lack of due process, investigations that were not immediately started based on allegations right after supervisors were informed”.

Investigators will travel to Goma in the DRC to present the report there, she said. Mindaoudou thanked journalists for first bringing the allegations to light.

The DRC had previously been a focus of sexual abuse scandals by the United Nations, mainly by peacekeepers.

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