Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

James Cleverly warns World Health body it must stamp out abuse by aid workers

UK’s Middle East Minister tells WHO inquiry sexual exploitation cases continue to go unreported

James Cleverly, UK Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa. Reuters
James Cleverly, UK Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa. Reuters

The UK’s Middle East Minister has warned that the World Health Organisation (WHO) needs to crackdown on abuse by aid workers.

Giving evidence to a virtual inquiry into sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector by the UK's International Development Committee, James Cleverly said the government would be keeping a close eye on WHO’s internal investigation.

Some British politicians have complained to Mr Cleverly that the body was being allowed to investigate itself, with one describing the situation as “disturbing”.

“Some of WHO’s employees were perpetrators,” said Pauline Latham, who sits on the International Development Committee.

“They are being allowed to mark their own homework. We find that quite disturbing given that quite a few of their employees have been the perpetrators of sexual exploitation.”

The Middle East Minister said complaints received so far were the tip of the iceberg but vowed to hold organisations like WHO to account.

“Whilst I’m proud of the UK taking the lead and putting firm structures in place, ultimately we do not have the capability to be the investigative actor because there are so many potential organisations,” he told the virtual inquiry attended by members of the International Development Committee.

“Ultimately what we want to see, particularly the big organisations that have the internal capability, is them putting their own houses in order, having their own robust processes and dealing with it properly, rather than them leaning back and saying it is someone else’s problem to deal with.

“They have to get their houses in order and we are making sure we are looking over their shoulder while they are doing that.”

The UK, which contributes more funds to the WHO than any other country, launched its latest investigation into abuse committed by people working in the aid sector in July.

Charities have been under intense scrutiny since 2018 when it emerged that Oxfam staff had paid young women in Haiti for sex while responding to the 2010 earthquake.

Mr Cleverly said that cases of sexual exploitation were still under-reported and described the alleged abuse of Ebola victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year as “incredibly distressing”.

“Unfortunately we do think the allegations brought to the public’s attention are probably not the sum total,” he said.

“We do, of course, take these allegations incredibly seriously. We are very supportive of the WHO’s announcement of an independent commission.

“We hold our partners to a high level of accountability. We want to ensure through our relationships that they learn the lessons when mistakes are known and individuals are held to account.”

The inquiry is considering what progress has been made to protect aid recipients from sexual exploitation and abuse by charity workers and peacekeepers since an investigation in 2018, when a wide-ranging report was published issuing numerous recommendations.

However, last year’s follow-up report revealed a “lack of progress” in key areas.

Updated: November 17, 2020 10:59 PM

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