‘Humbled and horrified’: WHO Reacts to Findings on DR Congo Sexual Abuse – But Will High-level WHO Officials be Investigated Too?  
Healthworkers raise awareness of Ebola virus in the community in Beni, DRC. Massive recruitment of a predominantly male emergency teams, inadequately screened or trained, created the conditions for sexual abuse to flourish alongside the virus, the Independent Commission found.

A WHO independent commission concluded  that 83 emergency responders to DR-Congo’s 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak, including some 21 WHO employees and consultants, had likely abused dozens of Congolese women, obtaining sex in exchange for promises of jobs – also raping nine women outright.  

But the panel’s findings, which validate reports first published in September 2020 in an investigation by the New Humanitarian and Thomson Reuters Foundation, were billed as only a first step of investigations  – with no judgments or sentences meted out – or high-level WHO managers yet named as accountable.  

“Acts took place in hotels and in other cases in houses rented by the presumed perpetrators.  Most of the victims heard by the review team were women – but 12 men also said they were victims of sexual abuse and exploitation,” said Malick Coulibaly, a former Minister of Justice of Mali, speaking at a press briefing on Tuesday. 

Coulibaly was one of the members of the five-person panel commissioned to investigate claims by some 75 women, against 25 WHO staff and other UN workers, during the 2018-2020 Ebola crisis in Ituri and North Kivu provinces.

An inquiry directed by the commission interviewed some 3063 women witnesses, aged 13-43 years, along with 12 men – all alleged to have been exploited and abused by the Ebola response teams that included about a dozen other UN organisations and NGOs, coordinated by WHO with the DRC government. 

WHO Africa Regional Director Matshidiso Moeti, who personally supervised much of the massive WHO response to the deadly Ebola outbreak in DRC’s North Kivu and Ituri provinces that killed some 2299 people, said the report had left her “humbled and horrified.” 

Field Staff recruited without background checks 

Malick Coulibaly, former Minister of Justice and President of the National Human Rights Commission, Mali.

The circle of sexual abuse cases multiplied as large numbers of local and international staff were recruited by WHO to combat the outbreak – “without call for tender “& without background checks”  Coulibaly said. 

He recited a long litany of allegations first reported in the press and confirmed by the commission, including rape, perpetrators’ refusal to use protection, forced abortions, and intimidation: 

 “Victims were promised jobs in exchange for sexual relations, in order to be able to keep their jobs.” Coulibaly said. 

“Most victims were in a very precarious, economic and social situation during that response. Very few had completed secondary education, some had never gone to school at all.  

“Most victims did not get the jobs that they were promised in spite of the fact that they agreed to sexual relations. Some women declared that they continue to be sexually harassed by men. And they were obliged to have sexual relations to be able to keep their job, or even to be paid, and some were dismissed for having refused sexual relations, 

The WHO perpetrators included staff medical officers and consultants recruited both locally and internationally – as well as some drivers and security personnel, the commission found, 

In 29 of the cases investigated, Congolese women became pregnant at the hands of their abusers, with 22 women giving birth while others were forced by their abusers to abort, Coulibaly added. Nine victims also said they were raped. 

“In spite of poignant narratives of the SEA victims, most perpetrators denied the facts & even stated that the sexual relations were consensual,” added Coulibaly. “Everything contributed to increased vulnerability of the alleged victims – they did not benefit from aid and assistance.” 

Higher-level WHO coverup? Report Leaves questions unanswered 

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

WHO’s Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called it “harrowing reading” and said he held himself personally responsible. 

But Tedros, who visited DRC 14 times during the Ebola outbreak, also said that he had never heard word of the widespread abuse when he was in DRC on the ground.

“The issue was not raised to me, probably I should have asked questions. As for the next steps.  What we’re doing is we have to ask questions,” he said.

In the written report published Tuesday, the Independent Commission said that it had “”no information at this time that would give rise to personal responsibility on the part of Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Dr Michael Ryan or Dr Matshidiso Moeti in relation to wrong handling of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse by WHO staff or in relation to allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse published in the press.”

Investigation of any senior WHO staff left to WHO internal justice  

Aïchatou Mindaoudou, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Social Development, Niger.

All but four of the WHO staff and consultants alleged to have been  directly involved in the abuse were no longer working for the organization – and those last four were recently terminated, the director-general added, noting many of the alleged abusers were on short-term emergency contracts in the first place.  

Two senior WHO staff also have been placed on leave while an investigation proceeds about their possible role in alleged cover-up of the sexual abuse activities in DRC, Tedros also confirmed. “And we have taken steps to ensure that others who may be implicated are temporarily relieved of any decision-making role.”   He did not name names.

But the Commission’s work, which included over 3,000 interviews on the ground in DRC, stopped short of detailed examination of WHO staff in Geneva or regional offices, who may have sanctioned or protected colleagues involved in the abuse. 

“We did not know, at the beginning of our investigation, that there were some at higher level, who were aware of what was going on, and did not act.  We only discovered this during our investigation,” said Dr Aichatou Mindaoudou, a UN special representative in the Ivory Coast, and Commission co-chair.  

Julienne Lusenge, DRC human rights activist and commission co-president.

Julienne Lusenge, the Commission’s other co-chair, said the group’s mandate had been to confirm the existence and extent of the sexual abuse allegations, first reported in the media September 2020 and again in May 2021. It lacked any mandate to judge and mete out sentences to the perpetrators.   

“It is now up to the WHO,” Lusenge said. “They are going to have a mechanism to be in charge of a deepening investigation … it is not up to us to say this person should be arrested and sentenced.”

The Commission did recommend, however, a range of follow-up measures, including reparations to victims, genetic testing of alleged abusers and their  offspring, as well as  an overhaul of WHO hiring practices and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) training, as well as of the ways in which the internal justice system responds to alleged victims with claims.

Speculation about high-level WHO cover-up has revolved mostly around the WHO Emergencies Official, Michael Yao, who was reported by the Associated Press to have received a series of confidential emails naming some of the alleged abusers, including Dr Boubacar Diallo – but did not take action against the alleged perpetrators. 

Diallo described by colleagues as having connections to WHO’s senior leadership, reportedly denied the wrong-doing. In one WHO photo, Tedros, Yao and Diallo are pictured smiling together during one of Tedros’ trips to Congo during the Ebola outbreak.   

Neither man was mentioned by name at Tuesday’s media briefing.  But the panel’s written report does refer to the “case of M. Boubacar Diallo, stating that “Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, during his interview with the investigators, acknowledged that he had instructed Mr David Webb, who had come to inform him in January 2021 of incidents involving Mr Diallo, to defer any internal investigation until the publication of the conclusions of the Independent Commission and to transmit to the latter all the information at his disposal. This version of events is consistent with that given by Mr David Webb to the review team.”

The report leaves open the question of whether the investigation is continuing now.

June 16, 2019, Dr Boubacar Diallo, WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and WHO Emergency Response Team leader, Dr Michel Yao, pose for cameras during a visit to DRC by the WHO Director General.

Sweeping Reforms Needed – And Survivor Support  

At Tuesday’s presser, Tedros pledged an overhaul of the current policies – saying that the investigation would lead to sweeping reforms in the process of staff recruitment and sensitization around sexual abuse issues.

Along with terminating the contracts of four alleged perpetrators still employed by the organization, WHO is pursuing investigations of still unidentified perpetrators, and would refer allegations of rape to national authorities in DRC or elsewhere, he added.

It’s a “sickening betrayal of the people we served… a dark day for WHO,” Tedros said. “But we want the perpetrators to know that there will be severe consequences for their actions. We will hold all leaders accountable for any suspected incident.“

“We will undertake wholesale reform of policies and processes to address sexual exploitation and abuse,” Tedros added. “But we must go further to identify and address any shortcomings in our culture or leadership that failed to adequately protect the people we serve.”

Gaya Gamhewage, WHO director of Prevention and Response to Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

Gaya Gamhewage, WHO’s Director of Prevention and Response to SEA, said that the organization also would seek funds to help rehabilitate vulnerable women and the children born to them, as a result of the abuse.  

We need funds on the ground for victim & survivor support,”  Gamhewage said, noting that as of now:  “There is no provision in the UN system for financial reparations to the SEA victims. But that does not stop us from making sure funds are allocated for support & assistance as we move forward.”

Until now, that is support has been far from forthcoming, Coulibaly observed, saying: 

“In spite of poignant narratives of the SEA victims, most perpetrators denied the facts & even stated that the sexual relations were consensual. Everything contributed to increased vulnerability of the alleged victims – they did not benefit from aid and assistance.” 

Image Credits: WHO/Chris Black, Twitter/@OMSDRCONGO, WHO.

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