LONDON (AP) — A confidential U.N. report into alleged missteps by senior World Health Organization staffers in the way they handled a sexual misconduct case during an Ebola outbreak in Congo found their response didn’t violate the agency’s policies because of what some officials described as a “loophole” in how the WHO defines victims of such behavior.
The report, which was submitted to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last month and wasn’t released publicly, was obtained by The Associated Press. The WHO hasn’t publicly described the report’s contents and did not respond to requests for comment.
The U.N. investigation comes after a 2021 review by a panel appointed by Tedros found that three WHO managers fumbled a sexual misconduct case first reported by the AP earlier that year, involving a U.N. health agency doctor signing a contract to buy land for a young woman he reportedly impregnated.
Last week, Tedros said U.N. investigators concluded the “managerial misconduct” charges were unsubstantiated and the three staffers returned to work after being on administrative leave. The WHO chief said the agency would seek advice from experts on how to handle the inconsistencies between the two reports.
The investigators said Tedros was informed of the sexual misconduct allegations in 2019 and had been warned of worrying gaps in the WHO’s misconduct policies the previous year.
“If these issues were brought to Tedros’ attention and no action was taken, (WHO) member states must demand accountability,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a global health expert at Columbia University.
Tedros has previously said he became aware of sexual misconduct complaints in Congo only after media reports in September 2020 and learned of the specific case reported by the AP when it was published. He said anyone connected to sexual misconduct faced consequences including dismissal. To date, no senior WHO staffers linked to the abuse and exploitation have been fired.
In May 2021, an AP investigation revealed senior WHO management was told of sexual exploitation during the agency’s efforts to stop Ebola in eastern Congo from 2018-2020 but did little to stop it.
The AP published a notarized agreement between former WHO doctor Jean-Paul Ngandu and the woman he allegedly impregnated, in which he agreed to cover her health care costs and buy her land. The deal, also signed by two WHO staffers, was meant to protect the WHO’s reputation, Ngandu said. The woman and her aunt went to the WHO office in Beni to complain about Ngandu, according to internal WHO correspondence.
“After the allegations were made to WHO (headquarters), a decision was made not to investigate the complaint on the basis that it did not violate WHO’s (sexual exploitation and abuse) policy framework,” the U.N. report said.
The review explained that the decision was made by officials from the U.N. health agency’s legal, ethics and other departments and was due to the fact that the woman wasn’t a “beneficiary” of WHO assistance, meaning she didn’t receive any emergency or humanitarian aid from the agency, and thus, didn’t qualify as a victim under WHO policy.
WHO staffers interviewed by U.N. investigators said this might be considered a “loophole which had the potential to cause complaints to fall through the cracks.”
“Ngandu’s conduct did not violate any WHO (sexual exploitation and abuse) standards of conduct,” the report said, describing his agreement to pay off the woman as a “private financial settlement.”
U.N. investigators noted there were problems in the WHO’s sexual misconduct policies, describing those as “a collective responsibility.” In February 2018, several staffers sent a memorandum to Tedros warning of the policies’ shortcomings.
Experts slammed WHO’s defense, saying the agency should uphold the highest standards in handling sexual exploitation since it coordinates global responses to acute crises like COVID-19 and monkeypox.
“Escaping accountability based on weasel words and technical language, like not being a ‘beneficiary’ of WHO assistance is unacceptable,” said Larry Gostin, director of the WHO Collaborating Centre on Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University. “That the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services excused this behaviour based on this legal technicality shows the U.N. and WHO are not taking sexual abuse seriously.”
After the reports of sexual misconduct in Congo arose, the WHO created a new office to prevent such behavior, headed by Dr. Gaya Gamhewage. In her interview with U.N. investigators, Gamhewage said that prior to starting her new job, she had no knowledge of the WHO’s sexual misconduct policies and had not even read them.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse were not familiar terms to her,” the report said.
The U.N. investigation comes weeks after the AP published another story detailing sexual misconduct at the WHO, involving a Fijian doctor with a history of sexual assault allegations within the agency, who was preparing to run in an election for the WHO’s top director in the Western Pacific.
“These repeated instances of sexual assault, and arguably worse, its cover-up, are grossly intolerable,” said Columbia University’s Redlener. “It’s possible this Ngandu case didn’t technically break WHO’s policy, but there is policy and then there is morality and ethics,” he said. “There’s something deeply uncomfortable about what happened here.”
During the Ebola epidemic, Tedros travelled to Congo 14 times to personally oversee the WHO’s response.
“At a minimum, Tedros should promise and deliver a major overhaul on policies and accountability,” Redlener said. “There might even be an expectation that he failed in his responsibilities and should therefore resign.”
Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.