WHO Denies Foot-Dragging on Sexual Misconduct Investigations as One Complainant Describes Process as ‘Scary’ and ‘Draining’
WHO investigator into sexual abuse allegations.
“We are fast, we are rigorous,” said Lisa McLennon, Head of Investigations at WHO’s Office of Internal Oversight Services.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has rebutted allegations that the agency takes a soft approach to senior staffers accused of sexual misconduct following a report by the Associated Press that the same WHO official who allegedly harassed a British doctor at the World Health Summit (WHS) in Berlin last October had been accused of similar misconduct in 2017 – which top officials at the agency largely ignored. 

Meanwhile, the British doctor, Dr Rosie James, who alleged that a senior WHO staff member groped her during the World Health Summit, told Health Policy Watch that WHO’s investigation of her case, now nearly three months old, seemed to be taking too long and the process had been “scary and emotionally draining”.

Dr Temo Waqanivalu, who heads WHO’s work on integrated delivery of noncommunicable disease services, was named by AP as the staff member who is reportedly the focus of a WHO investigation into the Berlin incident.

But WHO also was well aware of a prior complaint against Waqanivalu, flagged to senior officials in 2018 – and did little about it, according to the AP account. That case involved physical approaches that he allegedly made to a female colleague during a 2017 WHO workshop in Japan.   

Investigation is ‘taking too long’

“In my humble opinion, I definitely think the investigation is taking too long,” said James in a written message to Health Policy Watch. “If they have a zero tolerance policy, why is he still working there and being considered for a promotion?” she asked. “The UN should have the highest standards and set a good example to other organizations.  I understand why many people fear the reporting process. It is scary and emotionally draining.”

On the day that the incident was reported, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tweeted that he was “sorry and horrified”, and WHO sources said that the staff member in question had been sent immediately back to Geneva.

But at least in terms of his public profile, Waqanivalu has remained active at his WHO post while the current WHO investigation took place, and was even mounting a candidacy to be appointed as head of the WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office, with the support of officials in Fiji, his native country.   

Dr Temo K Waqanivalu
Dr Temo K Waqanivalu, a senior WHO staffer accused of sexual misconduct, is also campaigning to become Director of WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office.

Former WHO ombudsman reportedly expressed frustration over handling of 2017 case

A former WHO ombudsman had expressed frustration about how the 2017 case involving Waqanivalu was handled – after the woman who alleged the harassment was advised by senior WHO officials to drop the case, AP also reported, citing internal emails and documents that it had obtained. 

In the 2017 instance, the WHO staff member reportedly alleged that Waqanivalu groped her between the legs during a workshop dinner, and then on her buttocks after he followed her to a train station. In the 2022 Berlin incident, James reported that Waqanivalu had groped her similarly while they were with a group having drinks one evening after a full day of summit events. 

Months after raising her concerns in 2017, the WHO staff member alleging the misconduct in Japan was informed by the WHO Ombudsman’s office that Waqanivalu was to be given a general “informal warning” that didn’t reference the alleged misconduct, according to AP. 

The WHO Ethics Office told her it would be difficult to prove a sexual harassment case, saying it might “compromise” her name and that she likely lacked “hard evidence,” according to the series of internal emails and documents that AP obtained.

WHO – ‘we are fast, we’re rigorous’

Speaking to the allegations at a WHO press conference on Wednesday, Lisa McClennon, head of investigations in WHO’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, denied that the agency had glossed over recent sexual misconduct cases. 

“We are fast, we’re rigorous, we’re thorough. We take a contemporary and survivor centric approach to the matters that are referred to us in this effort,” she said. “This increased effort and focus in increased resources towards this matter began over a year ago, and we have been able to clear up several cases that had perhaps languished in the past. 

“We are working these types of cases in real time,” she added. “We encourage people to report any instances of wrongdoing, particularly those involving sexual misconduct. And we work as hard as we possibly can to protect those who make such reports. There are multiple channels through which the reporting can be made and we encourage those who have information to use those channels.” 

In terms of the 2017 allegations, the alleged victim reportedly turned to WHO’s “integrity hotline” in July 2018, and then the case was “tossed around in (Geneva) for months” among officials tasked with misconduct claims, according to emails obtained by the AP.

“It seems our internal process is not efficient enough to address such cases,” AP quoted the former WHO ombudsman as saying, expressing frustration with the inconclusive results of the investigation into that case.

In the Berlin incident, James tweeted about the encounter just hours after it occurred, saying that she had been “sexually assaulted”.

At least one other colleague who said that he witnessed the unwelcome physical approaches, publicly supported her report on social media. According to WHO the investigation of that incident is still ongoing, but the results will not be made public.

New Global Advisory Committee: most members to be appointed by the WHO Director General

Meanwhile, a new 15-member WHO “Global Advisory Committee” to advise the WHO on policies around complaints of abusive conduct would include just five members elected by staff – while the other 10 members would be appointed by Dr Tedros, whose office already controls the entire internal WHO judiciary process.

On Wednesday, WHO circulated an internal memo to staff describing the formation of the new “Global Advisory Committee on formal complaints of abusive conduct.”

According to a copy of the memo obtained by Health Policy Watch, the new 15-member committee “GAC” would advise on WHO’s policies around preventing and addressing abusive conduct.

Elected staff members

It would be composed of five elected staff members, five staff members designated by the WHO Director-General in consultation with WHO’s six regional directors and five “senior staff members” also designated by the Director General “following consultation with the Regional Directors.

That means that like other internal judicial processes within WHO, control of the new advisory committee on complaints of abusive conduct would remain overwhelmingly in the hands of the Director-General himself.


Image Credits: Screengrab from WHO presser, WHO campaign brochure.

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