BREAKING: WHO Fires Director of Western Pacific Regional Office for Abusive Behaviour
The World Health Organization’s Executive Board 152nd meeting in February 2023

The World Health Organization on Wednesday said it is terminating the contract of the Director for the agency’s Western Pacific Regional Office (WPRO), following a prolonged investigation of allegations of abusive conduct towards his staff. 

The terse WHO announcement came at the conclusion of a two-day special session of the WHO Executive Board, tasked with reviewing the results of an internal WHO investigation into allegations of bullying as well as charges of racist behaviour leveled against Dr Takeshi Kasai, head of the WHO’s sprawling Manila office, one of six such regional offices maintained by WHO around the world.  

Last week, WHO member states in the Western Pacific Region voted to terminate Kasai’s contract as Regional Director – a post to which he was elected in 2019, after more than 15 years with the global health agency, Health Policy Watch reported.  

That left the Executive Board with little choice but to confirm Kasai’s removal from his RD post – and then recommend a course of action to WHO’s Director General in terms of his continuation with WHO in any role at all.  

According to Tuesday’s announcement, “The World Health Organization (WHO) received allegations of misconduct against the Regional Director for the Western Pacific during the latter half of 2021 and in 2022.  

“In line with the Organization’s policy of zero tolerance for abusive conduct, the allegations were investigated and subsequently reviewed in accordance with the normal procedures applicable to all WHO staff members. This included the right of the Regional Director to receive all relevant evidence and respond to the allegations in line with due process. These procedures resulted in findings of misconduct. 

“After careful consideration of the findings, and following consultation with the Regional Committee for the Western Pacific and the Executive Board, the Regional Director’s appointment has been terminated.”

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

WHO Internal Justice System Under Scrutiny  

The decision to fire Kasai is the first such decision to be taken following a string of high-profile investigations against a number of 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. But those cases ultimately failed to lead to the termination of three staff members that had been implicated. Since the victims were neither WHO staff or “beneficiaries” of aid the managers could not technically be held liable for failing to report their cases, an independent UN investigation decided.

Meanwhile, however, 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.  WHO has not yet announced any conclusion to its investigation into that case.

Kasai, in contrast, had been accused of abusive conduct and racism – but not sexual misconduct.  According to sources close to the Western Pacific Regional Office, four of the six original charges against him had been confirmed by a formal WHO investigation – leading to the vote last week in the WPRO Regional Committee.

Kasai’s removal was strenously opposed by Japan – which mustered 11 votes against his removal against 13 which voted in favor, sources told Health Policy Watch.   All six WHO Regional Directors are elected by member states, and confirmed by the Executive Board, rather than being appointed by the WHO Director General.

Election campaign for new WPRO RD to begin in April

In it’s announcement, WHO said that the election cycle for the next Regional Director for the Western Pacific will begin in April 2023, “when WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus invites Member States of the Region to submit proposed candidates.

“The election will take place at a closed meeting of the Regional Committee in October 2023, and the nomination will go to the Executive Board for approval. This follows the  standard process and timeframe, i.e. 5 years after the last election of a Regional Director for the Western Pacific.”

Ironically, Dr Temo Waqanivalu, a senior WHO official from Fiji, had reportedly been eyeing a run as a candidate to replace Kasai – until he was named in the media as the WHO staff member who allegedly harrassed a young UK colleague, Dr Rosie James, at the World Health Summit in Berlin.  Investigation into that case has been underway for over five months.

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.

Until the new Regional Director takes office, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, who has served as Officer-in-Charge of the Western Pacific Region since August 2022, will serve as acting Regional Director, WHO said.  Dr Jakab has served as Deputy Director-General since 2019; prior to that, she was the WHO Regional Director for Europe.

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

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.