WHO Internal Justice Needs Reforms; Staff On “Unequal Footing” With Administration  
Staff Association President Catherine Kororei Corsini

Shortcomings and failures in the World Health Organization’s internal justice system  –  laid bare during revelations of sexual abuse and exploitation in DR Congo –  require more systematic reform to make the system transparent, fair and equitable, the head of WHO’s Staff Association told WHO’s Executive Board governing body on Wednesday.  

“Delays in responding to allegations of wrongdoings still affect the work environment of too many WHO personnel,”  said Staff Association President Catherine Kororei Corsini, delivering both oral remarks and a written statement to the EB

While the DRC cases have received wide media attention, broader issues need to be resolved, she noted. Among those, she said that the Organization had yet to “revise and share its investigation policy, and to establish time targets and indicators for monitoring investigations.” 

“We need an internal justice system that is well functional and able to deliver in a timely manner. We need a system that all staff have confidence in. We have on several occasions said that justice delayed is indeed justice denied.” 

In a written statement that went further, the Staff Association added that staff members who feel that they have been wrongly accused remain on an “unequal footing” with the organization – when forced to take on expensive appeals of their cases beyond WHO internal channels – to the broader UN tribunal, of the International Labour Organization (ILOTA).  

“Today, many staff members are not able to exercise their right to an appeal process because they cannot afford the legal fees,” statement by Staff Associations representing some 9000 people employed in WHO’s global organization as well as UNAIDs. “Staff members who feel they are victims of wrong-doing by the Organization are in a disadvantaged situation vis-à-vis the Organization in terms of means for the defence of their case. In particular, staff members must personally spend considerable amounts of money from their salaries or savings to pay for a lawyer. 

“That is the case even when they benefit from the limited insurance coverage provided by the staff associations, a benefit that staff in regions do not have. Some staff are even obliged to take out a private financial loan to be able to afford the appeal process. The staff member is thus on an unequal footing with the Organization in the face of litigation.

“We need an internal justice system that is well functional and able to deliver in a timely manner. We need a system that all staff have confidence in. We have on several occasions said that justice delayed is indeed justice denied.” 

Comments Follow Reports of Sexual Abuse Scandals in DR Congo

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

The comments came on the heels of a lengthy discussion by WHO member states at last week’s World Health Assembly about a series of recent media reports  of extensive sexual abuse and exploitation of Congolese women by WHO aid workers supporting DRC response to the 2018-2021 Ebola epidemic. 

Coinciding with those debates, some 54 member states and the European Union signed a joint statement voicing concerns over the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse – and even more critically – the possibility that “WHO management knew” – but failed to report about some allegations or even acted to “suppress the cases.”  

“We expressed alarm at the suggestions in the media that WHO management knew of reported cases of sexual exploitation and abuse, and sexual harassment and had failed to report them, as required by UN and WHO protocol, as well as at allegations that WHO staff acted to suppress the cases,” said the joint statement


In remarks to the EB, the Staff Association President expressed the dismay of WHO staff over the reports and the way in which they had first been publicized by the media, but also pointed to the wider gaps and shortcomings this  had revealed in the internal justice system:    

“When misconduct on the part of members of the WHO workforce goes unaddressed. And this is not dealt with swiftly, transparently and rapidly, the reputation of the organization is damaged,” she noted in her presentation, which called for the implementation of a long-delayed  “360 degree” performance review system to address current shortcomings. 

Added the written statement: “With the required resources in place, like funding, Human Resources tracking and accountability systems, etc, incidents such as this would have been rapidly investigated, and more importantly, support would have been provided immediately to the women and children affected.”  

The statement laid out a six point plan for: “a more transparent and global approach” to WHO’s internal justice system; “fair and adequate access to justice mechanisms”; more “solutions-oriented” WHO administrative management of appeals; as well as more “transparent global reporting” and a “review of reporting lines” for review and judgment of staff cases. 

WHO Steps Addressing on Internal Justice 

In his remarks before the Executive Board, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that he had created an open door policy in the Director General’s Office – where staff issues and complaints could also be aired with him directly during designated hours. He said he was encouraging managers at other levels of the organization to do the same thing.

“Frequent dialogue helps to address issues,” he said. 

He added that WHO is beginning to pilot a 350 degree performance system – which has received broad endorsement from WHO member states at the EB meeting. 

Although he noted that there remain disagreements with staff about where those pilots should begin – with senior management – or with more rank-and-file staff , “we will continue the discussion and finalize as soon as possible.”  

Tedros also said that WHO’s Internal Oversight Services (IOS) department, which manages the first two steps of internal justice review, is receiving extra funds to clear its backlog of cases. 

“They have now designed a proposal to address the backlogs and focus on the fresh investigations that they need to do. We will continue to support them. The support we gave them this year is based on their proposal, we haven’t even reduced any penny from what they proposed to have in order to close the backlogs,” the Director General said.  “As the president said, justice delayed is justice denied.”

Tackling Sexual Abuse & Exploitation 

Dr Tedros addressed WHO staff today at the organisation’s 149th Executive Board meeting

Speaking last week at the WHA as well as a special strategic meeting on the Assembly’s margins,  Tedros also announced a series of new initiatives to tackle sexual harassment at all levels of the WHO. 

This effort involves the creation of an Independent Commission, based in Goma, DRC, supported by a “mass of inspectors” to prioritise investigations in at least eight countries.

“We have decided to adopt new ways of doing it by appointing an independent commission. And also, by letting the Independent Commission to hire an external firm  to investigate. 

“Doing things the same way again and again will not get us a different result. That’s why we’re doing it differently so we can get a different result with regard to identifying perpetrators and also identifying the systemic problems,”  Tedros said.

The sex-for-jobs scandal has been focused in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where dozens of workers alleged abuse by WHO employees during their work as responders in the 2018-2021 Ebola outbreak. One nursing assistant had charged that a WHO doctor offered her a double salary in exchange for sex, one of multiple misconduct cases WHO allegedly knew about but failed to act on.

Independent Commission Inquiry Interrupted by Volcanic Explosion 

Goma residents flee city night of 22 May after volcanic eruption


However, the work of the Goma-based Independent Commission had only just begun when it was interrupted. 

The Commission’s contractor Justice Rapid Response (JRR) began its field investigations in Goma on 3 May.   Then on 22 May, the eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano nearby, followed by constant earthquakes and tremors in the region, led to the suspension of activities. The ongoing risks of further eruptions, earthquakes, and the possible release of dangerous methane gas buried in adjacent Lake Kivu, has since led to the displacement of some 400,000 people, creating a massive humanitarian emergency.

“As you can imagine, the situation on the ground is very challenging starting from the security problems that exist in North Kivu, with disruptions to the Goma area caused by the volcanic eruption over the past week,” the WHO DG said last week. 

Over 50 Member States Express Concerns About Sexual Abuse & Exploitation In WHO

Stephanie Psaki, Senior Advisor on Human Rights and Gender Equity, HHS Office of Global Affairs, speaks out on sexual abuse issues at World Health Assembly

Speaking at the Assembly, Stephanie Psaki, Senior Advisor on Human Rights and Gender Equity in the US Office of Global Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services, said that member states needed to hold WHO to the highest standards of protection from sexual exploitation and abuse.

“We must work together to ensure that perpetrators face the full measure of accountability for sexual exploitation, harassment  and abuse of authority,” she said.

“Regular collaborative attention to these issues, especially in terms of ensuring locally appropriate prevention and risk mitigation measures, is necessary for decisively responding to these issues. We look forward to making tangible progress on this issue so accountability and healing can begin,” she concluded.

The focus of future inquiries should not be limited to DRC, noted Ghana’s delegate to the WHA, Iddrisu Yakubu.

“Moral grandstanding and tactic attempts to associate the problem with a particular WHO country or region, by fixating on a media report from a particular country while ignoring similar reports from other regions will not solve the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse, which as we all know, is a real danger in many countries and organizations. The WHO needs our support to address what is essentially a structural problem afflicting many of our own national institutions,” he said.

Image Credits: WHO, WHO, @GuerchomNdebo, WHO .

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