LONDON (AP) — A confidential U.N. report into alleged missteps by senior World Health Organization staffers in the best way they handled a sexual misconduct case during an Ebola outbreak in Congo found their response didn’t violate the agency’s policies due to 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 didn’t reply 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 12 months, involving a U.N. health agency doctor signing a contract to purchase 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 easy methods to handle the inconsistencies between the 2 reports.
The investigators said Tedros was informed of the sexual misconduct allegations in 2019 and had been warned of worrying gaps within the WHO’s misconduct policies the previous 12 months.
“If these issues were dropped at Tedros’ attention and no motion was taken, (WHO) member states must demand accountability,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a world 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 precise case reported by the AP when it was published. He said anyone connected to sexual misconduct faced consequences including dismissal. So far, 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 in the course of the agency’s efforts to stop Ebola in eastern Congo from 2018-2020 but did little to stop it.
Among the many cases WHO management were warned about was the allegation that Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu, an infection control specialist sent to Beni, had impregnated a young woman. Ngandu met the girl at a restaurant one evening shortly after he arrived – and following mandatory WHO training on the prevention of sexual misconduct.
Based on the U.N. report, the 2 had sex later that evening and Ngandu gave her some money the following morning. The connection soured and the girl and her aunt later went to the WHO office in Beni to complain that Ngandu had impregnated her. AP obtained a notarized agreement Ngandu and the girl, during which he agreed to cover her health care costs and buy her land.
The deal, also signed by two WHO staffers, was meant to guard the WHO’s repute, Ngandu said.
“After the allegations were made to WHO (headquarters), a choice was made not to research the criticism on the premise that it didn’t violate WHO’s (sexual exploitation and abuse) policy framework,” the U.N. report said.
The review explained that the choice was made by officials from the U.N. health agency’s legal, ethics and other departments and was as a consequence of the proven fact that the girl 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 is likely to be considered a “loophole which had the potential to cause complaints to fall through the cracks.”
“Ngandu’s conduct didn’t violate any WHO (sexual exploitation and abuse) standards of conduct,” the report said, describing his agreement to repay the girl as a “private financial settlement.”
U.N. investigators noted there have been problems within 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 best standards in handling sexual exploitation because 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 usually are not taking sexual abuse seriously.”
After the reports of sexual misconduct in Congo arose, the WHO created a latest office to stop such behavior, headed by Dr. Gaya Gamhewage. In her interview with U.N. investigators, Gamhewage said that prior to starting her latest job, she had no knowledge of the WHO’s sexual misconduct policies and had not even read them.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse weren’t familiar terms to her,” the report said.
The U.N. investigation comes weeks after the AP published one other story detailing sexual misconduct on the WHO, involving a Fijian doctor with a history of sexual assault allegations throughout the agency, who was preparing to run in an election for the WHO’s top director within 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 may be policy after which there may be morality and ethics,” he said. “There’s something deeply uncomfortable about what happened here.”
Through 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 serious overhaul on policies and accountability,” Redlener said. “There might even be an expectation that he failed in his responsibilities and may subsequently resign.”
Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.