WHO panel finds 80 alleged abuses during agency's Congo Ebola response

Report comes two years after management was informed of abuse claims

A panel commissioned by the World Health Organisation has identified more than 80 alleged cases of sex abuse during the UN health agency’s response to an Ebola outbreak in Congo.

Twenty WHO staff members are implicated.

The panel released its findings on Tuesday, months after an Associated Press investigation found that senior WHO management was informed of several abuse claims in 2019 but failed to stop the harassment and even promoted one of the managers involved.

WHO Director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appointed the panel’s co-chairs to investigate the claims last October after media reports claimed that unidentified humanitarian officials sexually abused women during the Ebola outbreak that began in Congo in 2018.

At the time, Mr Tedros said he was outraged and vowed that any staffers connected to the abuse would be dismissed immediately. Western diplomatic sources say four people have been fired and two placed on administrative leave, based on a closed-door briefing involving the WHO that was provided to diplomatic officials in Geneva on Tuesday.

The review team was able to obtain the identity of 83 alleged perpetrators, both Congolese citizens and foreigners. In 21 cases, the review team was able to establish with certainty that the alleged perpetrators were WHO employees during the Ebola response.

Most of the alleged perpetrators were Congolese staff hired on a temporary basis who took advantage of their apparent authority to obtain sexual favours, according to the report.

AP published evidence in May showing that Dr Michel Yao, a senior WHO official overseeing the Congo outbreak response, was informed in writing of several sex abuse allegations.

Mr Yao was later promoted and recently led the WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, which ended in June.

WHO doctor Jean-Paul Ngandu and two other agency officials also signed a contract promising to buy land for a young woman Dr Ngandu allegedly impregnated. Dr Ngandu said he was pressured to do so to protect the WHO’s reputation.

A health care worker carries a baby suspected of being infected with Ebola virus in a hospital in Oicha, North Kivu Province of Democratic Republic of Congo, December 6, 2018.   REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic         TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The panel said that during its interview with Dr Tedros, he said he was made aware of the sex abuse allegations when they were revealed in the media and had not heard of the incident involving Dr Ngandu until AP published its story. The panel criticised the WHO’s tendency to “reject all reports of sexual exploitation and abuse unless they are made in writing”.

Some of the women who say they were victimised by WHO officials said they hoped those involved would be severely punished.

Shekinah, a young Congolese woman who said she accepted an offer to have sex with WHO’s Boubacar Diallo in exchange for a job, said she hoped he would be punished by the UN health agency and barred from working for the WHO.

“I would like him and other doctors who will be charged to be punished severely so that it will serve as a lesson to other untouchable doctors of the WHO,” said Shekinah, who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution. “He has no place at WHO.”

Others said disciplining the WHO employees involved would go a long way towards ending violence against women.

“I have been waiting for this big moment for more than a month to see how WHO will sanction these (doctors),” said Anifa, another woman who alleged she received a similar sex-for-jobs offer from Dr Diallo. “We would like to see justice done.”

Mr Tedros made 14 trips to Congo during the last outbreak and publicly commended Dr Diallo’s work. The AP spoke with three women who said Dr Diallo offered them jobs in exchange for sex.

Nearly 50 countries, including Britain, the US, Canada and the Netherlands, later issued a statement expressing their “deep concerns” about WHO’s handling of sex abuse concerns, alluding to the AP story. Even the WHO’s own staff committee urged management to act over allegations that “senior management may have suppressed concerns”.

The WHO panel did not include any external police or judicial authorities, and resorted to asking journalists for their contacts of women who made the sex abuse charges, including their names, addresses and photos.

According to leaked recordings of UN meetings obtained by AP, WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan acknowledged that the Congo sex abuse allegations were likely “the tip of an iceberg” and revealed a problem that “does reflect a culture as well”.

Following the publication of AP’s investigation, the WHO appointed a person to oversee the prevention of sexual abuse, but that official has no authority to fire anyone found guilty.

Julie Londo, a member of the Congolese Union of Media Women, a women’s organisation that works to counter rape and sexual abuse in Congo, applauded the WHO for punishing staffers involved in the abuse allegations but said more was needed.

“WHO must also think about reparation for the women who were traumatised by the rapes and the dozens of children who were born with unwanted pregnancies as a result of the rapes,” she said.

“There are a dozen girls in Butembo and Beni who had children with doctors during the Ebola epidemic, but today others are sent back by their families because they had children with foreigners … We will continue our fight to end these abuses.”

Updated: September 28th 2021, 2:59 PM