New WHO and UN-wide System to Aid Victims of Sexual Exploitation Needed, says Independent Investigator
Sexual asssault
Families go to an Ebola treatment centre to visit a family member held in quarantine in Beni, North Kivu region, Democratic Republic of Congo.

The World Health Organiztion (WHO) has been far too slow in providing financial, psychological and legal assistance to victims of sexual assault and exploitation committed by its staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the 2018-2020 Ebola response, a veteran international investigator said at a WHO press conference on Friday.

Hervé Gogo, presenting his assessment of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) performance since the scandal first came to light in 2020, said that the problems are endemic to the United Nations (UN) system as a whole and that solutions need a system-wide approach.

“It took too much time,” Gogo said of the WHO support extended to over 100 victims in DRC who were raped, abused or lured into having sex in exchange for jobs or money by UN and WHO staffers. “Something needs to be done to streamline the process … particularly on the question of assistance to victims and survivors.”

Gogo’s findings are part of his review of WHO’s compliance with recommendations made in 2021 by an independent enquiry commissioned after The New Humanitarian uncovered the sexual abuses committed by over 80 UN and WHO staff in the DRC.

UN-wide provisions to victims are “not sufficient”

A health worker checks a child potentially infected with Ebola being carried on the back of a caregiver at the Ebola Treatment Centre of Beni, North-Kivu province, Democratic Republic of Congo, during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak.

The United Nations system lacks legal provisions for victims to receive compensation directly from the UN without first obtaining a favourable court ruling against one of its agencies. This process can take years, and even if the victim can identify the perpetrator – many cannot, as UN staffers often used fake credentials – proving the organisation is responsible for the actions of the abuser can be next to impossible.

This system is “not sufficient” to support victims of sexual abuse, said Gogo.

“Is it really possible to stick to this orthodoxy? Victims are faced with an impossible task,” he said. “We all really want victims to get compensated: The question is how. It all depends on member states to figure out how to create a mechanism of compensation without waiting for the court process to end.”

Despite the delays in assistance reaching victims, Gogo said the UN health agency’s efforts since the crisis are “more than a good start” to the overhaul of its sexual abuse and exploitation policies.

Search for justice continues in DRC

WHO to Share Information with Congolese Court in Sexual Abuse Cases of 13 Women

WHO has provided support to all 115 survivors of sexual assault in the DRC identified by the independent commission report regardless of whether the perpetrators were affiliated with WHO or other UN agencies, said Dr Gaya Gamhewege, the agency’s lead official in prevention and response to sexual misconduct.

WHO is also providing legal support to victims who decided to pursue local court cases against their alleged abusers. The agency has also complied with requests for information from local authorities in DRC about 16 people linked to WHO who are facing legal action in the country. Gamhewege did not provide any further information on the status of the cases.

“WHO will continue to support any and all survivors who need more support, even if they are affiliated to allegations by personnel from other agencies,” she said.

WHO terminated seven consultants in after finding sufficient evidence of misconduct in the wake of the scandal, Gamehwage said in an interview with Health Policy Watch in April. The agency also posted 14 former staff and consultants identified as alleged perpetrators by the Independent Commission on the UN ClearCheck database, blacklisting them from being hired in the UN.

‘Not a single finding’ showing Tedros knew about abuse claims or cover-up

WHO Member States re-elected Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to serve a second five-year term as Director-General of the WHO in May 2022.

Gogo, who previously served as a senior judicial officer in the UN mission in DRC, was emphatic that no evidence implicating WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus or his inner circle in covering up the sexual assaults in the DRC has been uncovered.

“There is not a single finding about any decision or any information that was shared DG,” Gogo told reporters. “There is nothing to hide.”

No high-ranking WHO officials have been disciplined as a result of the sexual assaults in the DRC. Three senior managers at the agency who were accused of covering up the allegations were reinstated in January after being cleared of charges by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), which investigated the cases at the request of WHO.

WHO Direct-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the WHO Executive Board they were reinstated because claims of managerial misconduct were “unsubstantiated”.

But a copy of the confidential OIOS report seen later by Health Policy Watch made clear the managers were not found innocent in the cover-up: They were saved by a legal loophole.

The report found that WHO policies at the time of the Ebola response in the DRC did not require manages to report sexual abuse allegations when the victim was not a direct “beneficiary” of WHO aid. Incidents involving women in the “broader community”, such as local residents or volunteers, were not covered by the reporting policies. This loophole has since been closed.

“UN OIOS did not find that managerial misconduct was substantiated against anybody,” said Gamhewage. “That’s really all I have to say on that.”

Mired in scandals, WHO says it is charting a new course

On a visit to the Congolese city of Goma in November 2022, WHO’s Dr Gaya Gamhewage committed to supporting survivors of sexual assault of the Ebola outbreak.

The UN health agency has been mired in a new wave of sexual misconduct scandals since British medical doctor Rosie James alleged a senior WHO official groped her at the World Health Summit in Berlin last October.

WHO received an increased number of sexual misconduct allegations reported in the first half of 2023. Gamhewage told reporters that WHO received 48 allegations of sexual misconduct in the first six months of the year. Six of the allegations have been supported by evidence and are currently being processed.

The uptick in reported cases is a “proxy indicator” that the agency’s accountability systems are improving, said Gamhewage.

“We know that when there were no allegations it didn’t mean that there were no cases,” said Gamhewage. “It is just that people did not have the confidence and the trust to come forward.” 

WHO has become more aggressive in pursuing sexual assault allegations in an effort to rehabilitate its image after years of scandals.

In April, Temo Waqanivalu was dismissed for allegedly harassing a James at the conference in Berlin.

In early May, Peter Ben Embarek, a senior WHO scientist leading the agency’s investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 virus, was also dismissed for sexual misconduct. Embarek was the sventh WHO staff member to be dismissed for sexual misconduct in the previous six months.

Since then, however, no new disciplinary actions against WHO personnel have been announced.

“Culture is changing,” Gamhewage said in her concluding remarks. “But we have a long, long way to go.”

Image Credits: Flickr: World Bank / Vincent Tremeau, UNICEF/Vincent Tremeau, WHO.

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