WHO Executive Board to Meet on Fate of Western Pacific Regional Director After Countries Vote to Remove Him from Post
The World Health Organization’s 152nd Executive Board meeting in February 2023 – now set to convene again in a special closed session next week.

WHO’s Executive Board is set to meet again next week in a special closed session to consider the fate of the Regional Director of WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office (WPRO), who has been accused of racism and harassment of staff at the Manila-based office.  

In a meeting earlier this week, WHO member states from the Asian Pacific region reportedly voted by a narrow margin to remove Dr Takeshi Kasai from his post as Regional Director, Health Policy Watch has learned. 

WHO did not comment on the report, which was corroborated by multiple sources. 

The special EB session is set to meet on the matter on 6th and 7th March in line with the mandate outlined in a memorandum circulated last month at the 152nd regular session of the WHO governing board

The EB memorandum stated that a special session would be convened “should such sessions be required to consider the outcome of the investigation process in respect of allegations concerning the Regional Director for the Western Pacific”.

Directors in all six WHO’s regional offices are elected by the member states of the region in which they serve and then these appointments are confirmed by the WHO Executive Board, with the regional director’s contract issued by the WHO Director General. 

Investigation of Regional Director is on agenda

In the wake of the vote by the WPRO to remove Kasai from his position as Regional Director, the EB would be almost certainly be bound by WHO rules to confirm his removal from the post. They would also have to recommend to WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus what other steps to take regarding Kasai’s future as a WHO staff member. 

The WHO investigation has corroborated at least four of the allegations that had been brought against the Kasai, according to sources.  However Japan, a major WHO donor, led the minority faction against Kasai’s removal in the regional meeting and can be expected to muster significant political pressure against further action. 

The EB memo from early February does not elaborate publicly, however on what steps might be considered, stating only that: “The procedure for considering the findings of the investigation and related decisions, reflecting the advice of the Independent Expert Oversight Advisory Committee, was set out in the confidential briefing note of 16 November 2022 ….. and was discussed at the informal briefing for members of the Board held on 29 November 2022.”

The vote by a WHO Regional Committee to remove an elected director on the basis of such allegations is unprecedented in WHO´s history.

Put on administrative leave in 2022 

Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, at a press conference in 2021.

In September 2022 Kasai was put on administrative leave by WHO after the formal investigation was launched into a range of staff allegations against him. 

At the time, WHO did not specify the reasons for Kasai’s indefinite removal, stating only that: “WHO is not in a position to comment on matters pertaining to ongoing investigations.” 

The WHO region is home to almost 1.9 billion people across 37 countries crossing vast ethnic and political divides from China to Australia. 

During his absence, WHO Deputy Director-General Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab has been overseeing the administration of the Regional Office. 

‘Toxic’ atmosphere

A medical doctor, Kasai, was alleged to have been presiding over a “toxic atmosphere” at the WHO regional office in Manila,  “with a culture of systemic bullying and public ridiculing.”  The allegations first came to light in an Associated Press report, published in January 2022. 

According to AP, more than 30 unidentified staffers sent a confidential complaint to WHO’s senior leadership and members of WHO’s Executive Board. However, Kasai denied using racist language or any other wrongdoing. 

Kasai began his term as regional director on 1 February 2019 after more than 15 years in various managerial and technical positions for WHO. He also was WHO’s representative to Vietnam from 2012 to 2014.

WHO Internal justice system in spotlight 

Over the past two years, WHO’s internal management of complaints around harassment, both sexual and managerial, has been the focus of increased scrutiny in the wake of a string of scandals and media reports involving senior and mid-senior WHO officials. 

Those have included allegations of a managerial cover-up of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment cases involving dozens of Congolese women during the agency’s 2018-2020 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Since then, several other complaints have surfaced against a number of high-profile WHO staff – including allegations by a young British doctor that she was sexually harassed by a senior WHO official at the World Health Summit in Berlin in October 2022. 

Those allegations involved WHO official Dr Temo Waqanivalu, who had reportedly been eyeing a run as a candidate to replace Kasai as the next WPRO Regional Director. 

In response to the string of allegations and reports of abuse, WHO says it has strengthened its Office of Investigative Services (OIS), and is investing more heavily into the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in its offices worldwide. 

But critics say that the agency’s internal justice system still lacks teeth. That has tended to leave victims intimidated and unwilling to pursue formal complaints against powerful officials whom they perceive as benefitting from protection at the top of WHO.  

Image Credits: WHO.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.