WHO Fires Another Senior Official for Sexual Misconduct
The WHO has fired Maurizio Barbeschi (left) for sexual misconduct.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has dismissed Dr Maurizio Barbeschi, former head of its Health Security Unit, for sexual misconduct after a three-year investigation that started in January 2020, according to The Telegraph.

Barbeschi had been on administrative leave since late 2021 as the global body investigated complaints against him, including that he removed his trousers during a meeting with a female colleague in a hotel room.

The Italian national and biosecurity expert has worked for WHO for the past 20 years and is also an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Medicine of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, according to his LinkedIn profile, which still reflects that he works for the WHO.

Earlier in the year, The Telegraph broke the story about the complaints against Maurizio after speaking to some of the women involved as well as some of his colleagues.

Allegations include that Maurizio “rested his hand on women’s thighs if they sat next to him in meetings”, tried to kiss a WHO consultant and urged women to “go and put their bikinis on” during a meeting.

WHO spokesperson Marcia Poole confirmed Maurizio’s dismissal “following findings of sexual misconduct against him and corresponding disciplinary process”.

“He was informed of the decision yesterday (6 September),” Poole told Health Policy Watch via email.

She added that perpetrators of sexual misconduct are entered into the UN “ClearCheck” screening database “as a matter of standard process to avoid their hiring or re-hiring by UN agencies”.

“Sexual misconduct of any kind by anyone working for WHO – be it as staff, consultant, partner – is unacceptable. Over the past two years WHO has been implementing a comprehensive programme of reform across the entire organisation to prevent sexual misconduct and ensure that there is no impunity if it happens,” said Poole, and encouraged anyone who may have been affected by sexual misconduct to “come forward through our confidential reporting mechanisms”.

Dr Gaya Gamhewage, Director of the WHO’s Prevention & Response to Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment.

More decisive action

The WHO has been trying to deal more decisively with sexual misconduct allegations within its staff following a huge sexual abuse scandal in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak.

A WHO independent commission concluded that 83 emergency responders, including 21 WHO employees and consultants, had likely abused dozens of Congolese women, obtaining sex in exchange for promises of jobs – also raping nine women outright. 

In the wake of that scandal, the WHO appointed Dr Gaya Gamhewage as its director of Prevention and Response to Sexual Misconduct and it has since hired more investigators for its Internal Oversight Services (IOS) department.

Earlier this year, Gamhewage told Health Policy Watch that her unit had terminated the contracts of four staff or consultants as a result of sexual misconduct allegations in the last quarter of 2022 – the most of any year so far. The contracts of a further three people were terminated between January and March.

New sexual misconduct policy

WHO’s new policy on Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct (PASM) came into effect on 8 March this year, with the aim of enhancing WHO’s legal and accountability frameworks “for achieving zero tolerance for sexual misconduct and inaction against it”.

In April, the WHO dismissed a senior manager at its Geneva Headquarters, Temo Waqanivalu, on charges of sexual misconduct. This followed a six-month investigation into allegations that Waqanivalu, who was in the running to be the Western Pacific’s regional director, had harassed a British doctor at the World Health Summit in Berlin last October. 

“In the last year, our investigation team acted on not just the cases that were highlighted in the media, but have completed 120 investigations into sexual misconduct, and 72 other investigations are ongoing,” Gamhewage told a media briefing in April.

In May, the global body dismissed scientist Peter Ben Embarek, one of the leaders of the independent team of scientists sent to Wuhan to investigate the origins of COVID-19.

He was dismissed “following findings of sexual misconduct against him and corresponding disciplinary process,” said WHO spokeswoman Marcia Poole told Associated Press.“The findings concern allegations relating to 2015 and 2017 that were first received by the WHO investigations team in 2018.”

Image Credits: United Nations, Israel in Geneva/ Nathan Chicheportiche.

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