A damning report has found that the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola reponse in Congo – a probe triggered by an investigation by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
WHO staff knew of allegations in early May 2019, but it wasn’t until October 2020 that an independent commission was established – a month after our investigation was published. It featured more than 50 women who said they had been lured into sex-for-work schemes. Additional reporting turned up more than 20 other victims.
Six victims reacted to the report on Wednesday, telling The New Humanitarian that investigators – paid for by the WHO (the commission chairs worked pro bono) – had failed to explain what its findings could mean. One woman said multiple investigators hounded her each day, asking her to relive details of the alleged abuse she suffered from a WHO worker.
Although the commission was established in October 2020, it took investigators nearly seven months to start interviews in Congo, where Ebola killed some 2,300 people in Ituri and North Kivu provinces between August 2018 and June 2020 – the second deadliest outbreak ever.
“It wasn’t clear when the investigators spoke to us how they were going to help or if they were just trying to track down the alleged perpetrators,” said one of 11 women who allowed The New Humanitarian to share her contact details with the commission’s investigators. “It also wasn’t clear whether they could help us find financial support. They just didn’t tell me anything.”
Another said she felt “harassed” by investigators working for the commission.
“Honestly, their investigation really started to bother me. I had to continually remember things I wanted to forget,” she said. “They called me every day. They started to really upset me, forcing me to return to bad memories. Since they were harassing me, I stopped talking to them.”
“They just didn’t tell me anything.”
The commission’s investigators confirmed that alleged victims were promised jobs in exchange for “relationships”, or were sexually exploited to keep jobs in the response.
“To get ahead in the job, you had to have sex… Everyone had sex in exchange for something. It was very common,” one woman told investigators, according to the commission’s 35-page report, published on Tuesday.
Although the commission recommended that reparations be considered for the victims, that’s unlikely to happen in the UN system: Up until now, sexual abuse victims have often only been offered psychological counselling or help in finding jobs, if anything at all.
Combined, reporters with The New Humanitarian and the commission’s investigators interviewed some 150 victims. At least nine said they had been raped, including a 13-year-old girl. The allegations involved both national and international WHO staff.
“This is a dark day for WHO,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, told a press conference on Tuesday in Geneva to announce the report’s findings. “But by shining a light on the failures of individuals and the organisation, we hope that the victims feel that their voices have been heard and acted on.”
Who knew what, and when?
The commission’s report raises serious questions about the WHO’s top leaders, and why they were unaware of the extent of the problem. Tedros, for example, visited Congo 14 times during the Ebola response, while other staff made even more visits.
Tedros, who on Tuesday said he took “ultimate” responsibility for the failings, stated that he was unaware of the allegations until the investigation by The New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation was published in September 2020.
But the independent commission’s report said WHO staff were aware of allegations as early as May 2019, noting that “individual negligence may amount to professional misconduct”.
The panel also said it should have been up to WHO’s senior leadership in the Ebola response at the time – Regional Emergency Director Ibrahima Socé Fall, Incident Manager Michel Yao, and Assistant Director-General for Health Emergencies Michael Ryan – to take adequate measures. These could, it suggested, have included asking for assistance from other UN bodies that are much better equipped to prevent and handle such allegations in emergency settings.
The widespread sexual abuse allegations against the WHO are the latest in a string of repeated sex scandals that have plagued the UN for decades. Despite pledges of “zero tolerance”, allegations against UN workers and peacekeepers continue to mount. And despite pledges of a “survivor and victim-centered” approach, little is often done for victims.
“The process itself is the opposite of justice.”
Some critics questioned the independence of the commission’s investigation and noted that many of the allegations were criminal.
“The process itself is the opposite of justice,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of the AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign, which seeks to end impunity for sexual offenses by UN personnel. “The UN is the only institution in the world that is allowed to investigate itself. WHO's head handpicked experts to lead a commission to look into criminal allegations against the agency's personnel and senior officials.”
Priyanka Chirimar, lawyer and founder of Action Against Prohibited Conduct, said she was surprised that the commission – given that some 500,000 documents were reviewed as part of the investigation – fell short in recommending specific actions against the alleged perpetrators.
“Despite the obviously criminal nature of the many incidents narrated in the report, the (independent commission) does not urge referral to national authorities for criminal proceedings parallel to the internal disciplinary process,” Chirimar said, noting that the commission’s report went some way towards absolving top WHO personnel even though it found the WHO to be aware of the abuse. “The report is unedited, claims patterns without demonstrating them, replete with incomplete sentences, and simply disorganised.”
Lack of training and SEA awareness
More than 80 alleged perpetrators were partially identified by investigators.
Of those, 21 were confirmed as working for the WHO. Four of the 21 have been dismissed, while the other 17 had already stopped working for the WHO. Two others, whom the WHO described as senior staff, were also placed on administrative leave to allow investigators to determine whether there were failures with regard to “activating investigation procedures” for complaints. The two senior staff were not named.
Most of the women interviewed by The New Humanitarian accused WHO workers of sexual abuse. Others accused NGO workers in the Ebola response.
The abuse, often perpetrated by men who refused to wear condoms, led to 29 pregnancies, according to the report.
The commission also noted that Ebola response teams were “completely unaware” of the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse or how to manage it, even though the UN has faced hundreds of sexual abuse allegations in other emergencies.
The commission also found that only a fraction of the WHO workers involved in the Ebola response – 371 out of some 2,800 – had participated in training on how to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation, and that more than 73 percent of the response roles were occupied by men – a finding consistent with that of The New Humanitarian.
“The review team was also able to establish that the WHO has not done much to raise awareness of sexual exploitation and abuse among local populations either,” the report notes.
The independent commission also criticised the WHO for a “systematic tendency” to reject all reports of sexual exploitation and abuse unless they were made in writing, noting “the disparity between the number of alleged victims… who came forward during investigations and the total absence of reports of sexual exploitation and abuse at the institutional level during the reporting period.”
Tedros, who said a number of reforms are already underway, promised to discuss a management action plan with the UN’s member states in the next nine days, putting “transparency” at its centre. He has also asked the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme to monitor and report on progress.
Paisley Dodds reported from London; Robert Flummerfelt reported from Goma. Additional reporting was conducted by Titilope Ajayi and Emmeline Booth. Edited by Andrew Gully.