WHO Indefinitely Removes Regional Director Over Racism, Abuse Claims
WHO Regional director put on indefinite leave
Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific, at a press conference.

The World Health Organization says it has put its regional director for the Western Pacific Region “on leave” while it carries out an investigation into him.

“The investigation is still ongoing,” the UN health agency said in a statement provided to Health Policy Watch. “WHO is not in a position to comment on matters pertaining to ongoing investigations.” 

Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO’s director for a region that is home to almost 1.9 billion people across 37 countries and areas, “is on leave,” according to WHO.

During his absence, WHO says, WHO’s Deputy Director-General Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab will assume responsibility for the region and “ensure business continuity.”

WHO did not specify the reasons for Kasai’s indefinite removal, which was first reported by The Associated Press based on internal correspondence it obtained.

However, it comes months after an AP investigation that revealed dozens of staffers accused him of racist, abusive and unethical behavior.

The staffers said his behavior undermined WHO’s efforts to stop the coronavirus pandemic in Asia.

The WHO logo on its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

WHO investigation into ‘toxic atmosphere’

The AP cited two senior WHO officials who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the press. They said Kasai was put on extended administrative leave after internal investigators substantiated some of the misconduct complaints.

The AP previously reported that more than 30 unidentified staffers sent a confidential complaint to WHO’s senior leadership and members of its Executive Board alleging Kasai created a “toxic atmosphere” in WHO’s offices across the Western Pacific. Kasai, a Japanese doctor, has denied using racist language or acting unprofessionally.

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

WHO advisory panel finds need to reform

In January, an advisory panel said WHO needs to reform lines of authority and responsibility across all aspects of its emergencies response operations in order to effectively prevent, report, and take measures against sexual exploitation and harrassment.

Those were the highlights of a final report by an Independent Oversight Advisory Committee (IOAC) of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, examining the claims of sexual exploitation and harrassment that first emerged in connection with WHO’s 2018-2020 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The report, presented in a session of the WHO Executive Board, marked another milestone in the follow-up to reports of sexual exploitation and abuse claims by some 75 Congolese women against 25 WHO workers deployed to the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 2018-2020 Ebola response.

A series of media reports have come to light in January about extensive sexual abuse scandals in DR Congo

Following the reports, WHO initiated an independent investigation, as well as initial internal reforms to improve staff training in the prevention of sexual exploitation and harrassment (PRSEH); deployment of more training staff; and new recruitment standards that also consider any exploitation and abuse issues in a candidate’s background, the IOAC report states.

But there remains “ deep, lingering frustration expressed by member and staff about the lack of transparency, delays in responding to incidents and holding perpetrators accountable, and the defensiveness with which the Organization has dealt with SEAH in the past,” states the report, presented to the EB.

And more comprehensive cultural and structural changes need to occur across WHO to reduce the risks of abuse from ever occurring in the first place, said Felicity Harvey, co-chair of the IOAC committee, in her presentation of the report to the WHO Executive Board.

Image Credits: WHO, Flickr – Guilhem Vellut, WHO.

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