WHO Battles Sexual Misconduct and Abusive Behaviour, Sets Mid-November Deadline for Action Plan
Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, Deputy Director-General of the World Health Organization, during the Annual high-level discussion on human rights mainstreaming. 43rd session of the Human Rights Council , Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, February 24, 2020.
WHO Deputy Director-General Zsuzsanna Jakab announced new measures to curb sexual misconduct in the agency’s Western Pacific office. The region is set to elect its next regional director next week.

In the wake of an abuse scandal that led to the removal of its regional director, WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office on Friday announced a series of new measures to combat abusive behaviour and sexual exploitation among the region’s over 600 staff. 

Last March, in an unprecedented move, some countries in the 37-member region voted to sack Regional Director, Dr Takeshi Kasai, for the Western Pacific after several complaints from staff of abusive and racist behaviour. 

Speaking at the press briefing, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, who replaced him as acting regional director, said the organisation has prepared a country-specific agenda for the next regional director who will be elected on Tuesday, 17th October 2023. 

“We are focusing on the code of conduct and code of ethics which are global documents and need to be introduced and addressed in every part of the organisation,” said Jakab. “The WHO has a large number of zero-tolerance policies on abusive behaviour, sexual harassment, fraud and financial mismanagement just to mention a few.”

“We have systems and mechanisms in place on how staff members can report if they find or face any incident,” she added. 

The 37 member states set to vote by secret ballot for the new RD, countries span the Pacific region from China to Japan, New Zealand and Pacific island states, representing a combined population of 1.9 billion.  

In her comments at the briefing, Jakab addressed sexual harassment, toxic work culture and the behavioural and cultural changes that WHO is working to introduce. 

Dr Takeshi Kasai (left), began his term as WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific in February 2019. He was removed in March 2022 following a prolonged investigation of allegations of abusive conduct towards his staff.

While Kasai did not face allegations of sexual misconduct, the WHO has also been shaken by a series of such harassment cases including at headquarters and in its Africa region. 

A total of nine WHO staff in headquarters have been fired over the past year for harassment including Temo Wqanivalu, accused of misconduct at last year’s World Health Summit in Berlin, and most recently, Maurizio Barbeschi, former head of WHO’s Health Security unit.  

In January, three WHO headquarters officials were cleared of allegations of a managerial cover-up of sexual exploitation cases involving dozens of Congolese women during the agency’s 2018-2020 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

Legal cases against about a dozen WHO responders in the field are still being pursued by Congolese women in local courts, with WHO support. And WHO has invested millions in awareness-raising and prevention. 

But in July, a UN rapporteur criticized WHO for being far too slow in providing financial, psychological and legal assistance to victims of some 80 UN and WHO staff in the DRC. 

“This is a global issue. And actually, this was started by Dr Tedros after the events in one of the African countries. There is a very strong global policy in place and strong global leadership,” Jakab said, referring to the DRC scandal. 

Deadline of mid-November 

On a visit to the Congolese city of Goma in November 2022, Gaya Gamhewage, WHO’s lead official in prevention and response to sexual misconduct, committed to supporting survivors of sexual assault of the Ebola outbreak.

The WHO has set a deadline of mid-November to roll out a country-by-country action plan against sexual misconduct in WPRO’s 15 country offices. 

“I would like to assure you that this is a piece of work which is of high priority led by the Director General and regional directors. In our region particularly we reached out to all the country offices,” said Jakab. 

“Following some global and regional guidance, we worked with them to develop a country-by-country action plan which we are finalising now. We have received a number of action plans from the WRs [director of WHO country offices] and we’re hoping to do this by mid-November which is our global deadline.”

WHO also is strengthening mechanisms and building awareness about abuse prevention amongst staff members to help them address any complaints they may have. They can report to the WHO headquarters but also to the regional office.

In response to a question from Health Policy Watch, Jakab said, “We’ve invested quite a lot into strengthening our abilities and capacities at the regional office and country offices particularly on sexual misconduct and sexual exploitation.”

‘Open House’

The acting Regional Director said she has personally taken steps to hear complaints and identified incidents that “still exist” since her appointment in March.

“I have an open house and any staff member from the office can come to see me if they have any problems with disrespectful or abusive issues in the office. It was very helpful to identify the incidents that still exist. The number is going down and that was good for me to see. Whenever we saw an incident like this we took action immediately,” she said. 

Jakab is set to remain in office until 1 February, while the new RD transitions into the role. 

In that capacity, she said she has already prepared a medium and long-term follow-up action plan for the new RD , who is to be elected next week. 

There are five candidates running for election. They include Dr Song Li, proposed by China, Dr Susan Mercado, proposed by the Philippines, Dr Jimmie Rodgers, proposed by Solomon Islands, Dr Saia Ma’u Piukala, proposed by Tonga and Dr Tran Thi Giang Huong, proposed by Viet Nam. 

Geopolitics at Heart of Elections for New Director of WHO Western Pacific Region  


Following the election, the winner will then be appointed by the WHO executive board in January – usually a formality – for a five-year term. 

Kasai was elected in 2019 and became the first-ever Regional Director of the WHO to be fired in the history of the 75-year-old organisation.

The election is held in the Regional Committee headquarters in Manilla, attended by health ministers of the member-states. 

The next Regional Director’s name will be announced on Tuesday after the vote. Each of the five candidates will have an hour-long interview, a presentation followed by questions and then voting. Each has already been asked about their approach to the controversies that have hit the WHO hard. 

No compensation for complainants against fired WHO regional boss

In a move to stimulate more awareness about the need for reforms,  WHO has invited a number of staff members to report on their experiences to the Regional Committee. 

Although the investigation against Kasai is “finished on our side,” Jakab responded to a Health Policy Watch question saying there is no compensation for the complainants.

“The compensation is to make sure that this will never happen again,” said Jakab. “But we do not have any policy in the WHO which provides compensation for any of these behavioural issues.”

As the harassment issues form a backdrop to the elections, it is just one of the many challenges facing a region which includes vast development divides and geopolitical rivalries between countries such as China, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Australia. While China remains one of the world’s largest carbon emitters, Pacific Island States face an existential crisis with climate change-triggered rising sea levels – another fault line the new regional director must navigate.

Image Credits: Flickr, WHO, WHO.

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