US, EU call for 'full commitment' from WHO to prevent sexual violence

Geneva (AFP) –


Western governments on Friday called for "full commitment" from the World Health Organization to prevent a repeat of rapes and sexual abuse allegedly committed by its workers sent to fight Ebola in DR Congo.

Main donors the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Canada as well as the European Union made the appeal after dozens of women told investigators they were offered work in exchange for sex or were raped.

"We expect full commitment from the WHO to prevent and address such acts, including through fundamental reforms to the WHO," the governments said in a joint statement.

The UN health agency's member governments said that "we will ensure that the WHO leadership’s commitments lead to accountability, increased capability, action, and swift change", calling for an "immediate, thorough and detailed assessment" of what went wrong.

The 35-page report published Tuesday by an independent investigative committee centred on accusations against local and international personnel deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight an Ebola outbreak from 2018 to 2020.

Calling it a "dark day for WHO", the UN body's chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told victims he was "sorry" and that it was "top priority that the perpetrators are not excused but held to account".

- Structural failures -

The report cited "individual negligence that may amount to professional misconduct".

The authors also said they found "clear structural failures and unpreparedness to manage the risks of incidents of sexual exploitation and abuse" in the poor central African country.

Among the 83 suspects identified, 21 were employed by the WHO, though only four were working for the health agency when the report was published.

Four have had their contracts terminated and are banned from future employment at the WHO, while two senior staff have been placed on administrative leave.

The agency will also refer rape allegations to the Congolese authorities and those of other concerned states, Tedros said.

The allegations would not have come to light were it not for a year-long probe revealed a year ago by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian documenting alleged exploitation and abuse of women by international staff during the 2018-20 Ebola crisis.

The report said WHO's leadership was aware of sex abuse allegations in May 2019, a full six weeks earlier than it initially claimed.

Asked whether he intends to resign, Tedros, 56, and who will seek a second term at the head of the powerful UN agency based in Geneva, admitted he had been to the country 14 times without anyone raising the matter.

"Probably I should have asked questions," he said.

With more than 2,200 recorded deaths, the Ebola epidemic was the worst to hit DR Congo since the disease was first identified in 1976.