More than 50 women have accused aid workers from the World Health Organization and leading charities of sexual exploitation and abuses during the Ebola outbreak.

"In many ways, we're all to blame for what happens in these situations," says Dr Michael Ryan, WHO's emergencies chief. (Reuters Archive)

Fifty-three countries have voiced alarm at reports that World Health Organization (WHO) leaders knew of sexual abuse allegations against the UN agency's staff and sat on them.

In a joint statement to the WHO's main annual assembly, the United States, the European Union, Britain, Canada and others on Friday demanded WHO chiefs display "strong and exemplary leadership" on preventing sexual abuse, following media reports that WHO management knew of alleged cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and failed to report them.

The head of the WHO acknowledged the UN health agency's response to sexual abuse allegations involving employees who worked in Congo during an Ebola outbreak was "slow," following an Associated Press investigation that found senior WHO management knew of multiple cases of misconduct.

As WHO's highest decision-making body meets this week, countries were tackling subjects like how to reform the UN health agency's emergencies program after its missteps in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The World Health Assembly hasn't devoted a specific agenda item to the alleged misconduct in DRC, but held a roundtable talk on preventing sexual abuse on Friday.

"In many ways, we're all to blame for what happens in these situations," Dr Michael Ryan, WHO's emergencies chief, said.

READ MORE: WHO probing sexual abuse allegations in DRC

WHO Chief understands 'frustration' over 'slow' response

Diplomats have already pressed WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on the issue behind closed-doors. 

At least six countries raised concerns last week about how the agency was handling sexual abuse and exploitation, citing recent press reports. Tedros tried to allay their worries.

"I can understand the frustration," he told a committee meeting of WHO’s Executive Board on May 19.

According to a recording of the meeting obtained by the AP, the director-general said it took time to deal with security problems in Congo, to install a commission to investigate sex abuse claims and to get the group up and running.

"The way this thing was run until now, although it was slow...I hope it will satisfy," Tedros said.

WHO's press office declined to comment on Tedros' description of a slow response but said the commission was "committed to conducting a comprehensive investigation into all recent allegations, including those relating to management actions." 

The group's co-chairs were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement with WHO.

The panel commissioned by WHO does not include any law enforcement agencies to investigate if any of the reported sexual exploitation was criminal and its reports will be submitted only to WHO.

Tedros created the panel in October, after news reports surfaced about sex abuse during WHO’s efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic in Congo from 2018 to 2020. At the time, Tedros said he was “outraged” and would move quickly to punish those responsible.

But more than seven months later, the panel has yet to publicly release any details about its work or findings.

The commission began its work in Congo on May 3 and expects to publish a report at the end of August, the group said.

Many countries said they expected more action, citing the AP’s recent story.

“We have discussed the allegations in meetings with WHO leadership,” said Dag-Inge Ulstein, Norway’s foreign minister, in an email. “We have reiterated the imperative need to handle such allegations swiftly and thoroughly.”

READ MORE: Oxfam faces fresh sex abuse claims as UK stops funding to the charity

Investigation into sex abuse allegations

An AP investigation published earlier this month found members of WHO's senior management were told of sexual abuse concerns in 2019 involving at least two doctors employed by the agency during the Ebola epidemic in Congo.

The AP obtained a notarised contract showing two WHO staff members signed off on an agreement by Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu to pay off a young woman he reportedly impregnated. Another doctor, Boubacar Diallo, bragged of his relationship with WHO chief Tedros and offered women jobs in exchange for sex, three women told the AP.

Even some WHO staffers appear unsatisfied at how the agency has handled the claims.

“We cannot afford to ignore signs of repeated, systemic failure of our Organization to prevent such alleged behaviors and to address them in a just and timely manner,” the WHO staff committee wrote in an email to staff and senior management last week.

READ MORE: Congo leads in sexual abuse allegations against UN

Countries express outrage over mishandling of misconduct

The committee urged WHO directors to take immediate action over the allegations, including reports that “senior management may have suppressed concerns.”

Some countries told WHO’s top leadership during last week’s closed meetings they expected more details quickly.

"Now that WHO is considered a beacon to help us find our way out of this pandemic, it is so disheartening to learn about allegations of structural mishandling of cases of misconduct," a representative of the Dutch government said, according to a meeting recording.

"Reading the (press) articles made us doubt whether the many statements and discussions we have had (at WHO about sex abuse) have been truly heard."

The representative from the Netherlands called for more transparency to address "the gap in trust that is starting to emerge in this area."

Dr. Catherine Boehme, Tedros' Cabinet chief, responded that "some issues are still a work in progress." 

She said WHO officials would soon meet with the commission investigating the Congo sex abuse allegations to discuss "the investigation around failure to report or active suppression, including the allegation of a cover-up."

"We know there are weaknesses in the system, whether it's the WHO or the UN system," added Dr Ibrahima Soce Fall, WHO's assistant director-general for emergency response.

The United States also has called for "a full and transparent investigation" and is "in close communication with the WHO related to the allegations," USAID Acting Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala said.

Some experts said WHO’s failure to quickly punish those involved in sexual misconduct was disappointing, but not surprising.

"Aid organisations are operating in an accountability vacuum, in contexts where law and order has broken down and where there are no external systems able to hold them to account," said Asmita Naik, an international human rights consultant who co-authored a report on sexual exploitation involving UN personnel.

"Things will not change until those who perpetrate abuse or turn a blind eye are disciplined and conversely, those who speak up are rewarded," Naik said.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies