At least 21 employees of the World Health Organization allegedly committed rape, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during an Ebola outbreak from 2018 to 2020, an official investigation has found.
The employees, including many who promised jobs to vulnerable women and girls in exchange for sex, ranged from security guards and drivers to senior doctors, consultants and epidemiologists – both Congolese and foreigners – according to the final report of a year-long independent review commissioned by the WHO.
In total, 84 incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation in the Ebola zone were reported, with victims as young as 13. There were nine rape allegations among the recorded incidents.
Some of the WHO employees even administered abortion pills to their victims when they became pregnant, the report found.
“This is a dark day for WHO,” said the agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
The report’s findings are “a sickening betrayal of the people we serve,” he told a media briefing in Geneva Tuesday. “We want the perpetrators to know there will be severe consequences for their actions.”
The WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, said the agency is “humbled, horrified and heartbroken” by the findings.
Dr. Tedros said he had made 14 visits to the Ebola zone during the outbreak and was never informed of the sexual-abuse allegations. “Probably I should have asked questions,” he said.
But he did not respond directly when a reporter asked him if he intended to resign. This month, several European and African countries said they had nominated him for a second five-year term to begin next May.
One of the sexual-abuse allegations was known within the WHO as early as May 2, 2019, according to e-mails uncovered by the investigation. Yet senior WHO staff did not launch an investigation or even seek further information at the time because they decided the complainant was not a “beneficiary of WHO services.”
Dr. Tedros said the report was harrowing to read. He personally apologized to the victims. “I’m sorry for what was done to you by people who were employed by WHO to serve and protect you,” he said.
“I’m sorry for the ongoing suffering that these events must cause. I’m sorry that you had to relive them in talking to the commission about your experiences. Thank you for your courage in doing so. What happened to you should never happen to anyone. It is inexcusable.”
He said it is his “top priority” to ensure that the perpetrators are held to account.
Of the 21 employees identified by the investigators, four were still working for the United Nations health agency this month. Their contracts have now been terminated, Dr. Tedros said.
All 21 have been banned from future WHO employment, and other UN agencies will be notified about them, he said. The WHO is also sending evidence of the rapes to the authorities in the DRC and the home countries of the alleged perpetrators.
In addition, two of the agency’s senior staff have been placed on administrative leave for failing to take proper action in response to sexual-abuse complaints, and others are being investigated.
“In my view, the failure of WHO employees to respond adequately to reports of sexual exploitation and abuse is as bad as the events themselves,” Dr. Tedros said.
The agency will take steps to improve its staff screening, recruitment, training and standards of behaviour, beginning with leaders and managers, he said.
The victims believed the WHO employees would have impunity for their abuses, the report found. While the investigation found 75 alleged victims of abuse, there was “a total absence of reports of sexual exploitation and abuse at the institutional level during the reporting period,” the report says. “The consequences of reporting may be perceived as too negative compared to any benefit it would bring.”
During the Ebola outbreak, the WHO was “completely unprepared” to deal with the risks of sexual exploitation and abuse, the report says.
Among the many cases it describes was one of an expatriate WHO epidemiologist who exploited a young nurse’s desperation for a better-paying job. He told her she “had to become his girlfriend” to get it, the report says. She rejected his advances and did not get the job.
Another expatriate epidemiologist repeatedly told a female employee that he would get her fired if she refused to have sex with him. When she finally gave in to the threats and became pregnant, he gave her abortion pills, the report says.
The abuses were first reported in September, 2020, by journalists from The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Their investigation, citing reports by 51 women, said the sexual abuse and exploitation was perpetrated by men from the WHO and other aid agencies, including UNICEF, Oxfam, World Vision and Médecins Sans Frontières.
The WHO requested an investigation by an independent commission, headed by Aichatou Mindaoudou, a former cabinet minister in Niger, and Julienne Lusenge, a human-rights activist in the DRC. The co-chairs appointed three other members, including Carol Doucet, a Canadian expert on women’s rights and sexual abuse.
Paula Donovan, co-director of independent group AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign, which seeks an end to impunity for sexual offences by UN personnel, said the WHO should not have been allowed to choose experts to investigate itself for criminal wrongdoing.
“The WHO is still deciding whether, when or in which cases to alert police and courts,” Ms. Donovan said in a statement Tuesday.
“This is not justice for victims. The UN’s member governments must immediately order all UN bureaucrats to step away and allow a bone fide criminal investigation to commence.”
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