THE HEAD OF the World Health Organization has apologised after independent investigators probing allegations of sexual abuse in the DR Congo by the UN agency’s staff issued a damning indictment citing “clear structural failures” and “individual negligence”.
“The first thing I want to say to the victims and survivors, I am sorry,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference.
“It is my top priority that the perpetrators are not excused but held (to) account,” he added.
The abuses were committed by personnel hired locally as well as members of international teams in the country to fight an Ebola outbreak from 2018 to 2020.
The commission interviewed dozens of women who were offered work in exchange for sex, or who were victims of rape.
At the same news conference, the WHO’s Africa director Matshidiso Moeti said: “As WHO leadership we apologise to these people, to the women and girls.”
The 35-page report paints a grim picture, noting “the scale of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse in the response to the 10th Ebola outbreak, all of which contributed to the increased vulnerability of ‘alleged victims’ who were not provided with the necessary support and assistance required for such degrading experiences”.
The special commission cited “individual negligence that may amount to professional misconduct” in the report, which Tedros said “makes for harrowing reading”.
It also said it found “clear structural failures and unpreparedness to manage the risks of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse” in the poor central African country.
And the investigators underscored a “perception of impunity of the institution’s staff on the part of alleged victims”.
Following media reports in May that WHO management knew of alleged cases in the DR Congo and did not act, 53 countries, including the United States, the 27 member states of the European Union, as well as Britain and Japan, had jointly demanded that the WHO display “strong and exemplary leadership” on preventing sexual abuse.
A year-long probe conducted last September by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian had already documented alleged exploitation and abuse of women by international staff during the 2018-20 Ebola crisis.
The investigation found that more than 50 women had accused Ebola aid workers — chiefly from the WHO but also from other UN agencies and leading non-governmental organisations — of sexual exploitation, including propositioning them, forcing them to have sex in exchange for a job or terminating contracts when they refused.
To join the fight to roll back the Ebola epidemic, well-paid aid workers flooded into the poor region.
With more than 2,200 recorded deaths, the 10th epidemic is considered the worst to hit the DR Congo since 1976, lasting from August 2018 to June 2020.
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“Observations from the review team’s interviews with key officials… show that the organisation, focused primarily on eradicating the Ebola epidemic, was completely unprepared to deal with the risks/incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse,” Thursday’s report said.
“It is therefore not surprising that it was totally unprepared for the scale of sexual exploitation and abuse incidents.”
The report says WHO leadership was aware of sex abuse allegations a full six weeks earlier than it initially claimed.
It quotes an email to the WHO’s ethics point man Andreas Mlitzke concerning such allegations in the eastern province of North Kivu.
It said the “message was sufficiently explicit and was in fact the first report of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse involving WHO staff during the response to the 10th Ebola outbreak.”
The WHO “was aware of these incidents already in early May 2019 and not in mid-June 2019 as argued by Mlitzke,” it said.