53 countries ask WHO to respond to staff allegations of sexual exploitation in DRC

The United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and 53 other countries and the European Union issued a joint statement on May 27 expressing concern about media reports of allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation against local WHO employees in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the 2018-2020 Ebola response.

According to an Associated Press report earlier this month, leaked internal emails show that WHO management was aware of the sexual abuse allegations in the DRC in 2019 and was asked for instructions on how to address them. The statement called on the head of the WHO to show “strong and exemplary leadership in preventing sexual abuse. Previous media reports have suggested that WHO management was aware of the allegations but failed to act.

Leslie Norton, Canada’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva, called on WHO to strengthen its approach to preventing and addressing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment when she read a joint statement during the WHO conference that day. “We welcome the Director-General’s commitment to this issue, including through institutional culture change and a survivor-centered approach,” she said.

Norton stressed that the tone for addressing the issue “must be set at the top (of WHO)” and that the 53 countries want to achieve “credible results” in addressing the issue. “Since January 2018, we have been deeply concerned about allegations related to matters of sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment, and abuse of authority in the context of WHO activities,” she continued.

The statement said the issue was discussed in a “robust and transparent manner” by member states and the WHO secretariat during a meeting of the WHO Executive Board’s Programme, Budget and Administration Committee last week.53 The countries said, “We are alarmed by the suggestion in the media that WHO management was aware of reported cases of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment, but failed to report them as required by UN and WHO protocols, as well as allegations that WHO staff took action to suppress these cases.”

Countries including Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Switzerland and Uruguay noted that a cultural change throughout the institution and society is needed to adequately address the issue. WHO and two other U.N. agencies suffered last September after a report documented alleged exploitation and abuse of women by U.N. agency staff during the 2018-2020 Ebola crisis in the DRC. An investigative report published by Reuters and news agency The New Humanitarian cited the WHO, the International Organization for Migration and UNICEF as being involved.

The year-long investigation found that more than 50 women accused anti-Ebola aid workers, mainly from WHO but also from other UN agencies and major NGOs, of engaging in sexual exploitation, including propositioning them, forcing them to exchange sex for work, or terminating their contracts when they refused. Similarities in the accounts provided by women in the eastern DRC city of Beni suggest these practices are widespread, the report said.

A report submitted Friday by WHO’s external auditors said there were 14 cases of sexual misconduct involving WHO employees last year, including in the DRC, and 11 in 2019. “The number of complaints or misconduct reports reflects the ethical climate of an organization and its ‘tone at the top,'” the report said, “and therefore the increasing trend of such complaints should be of concern to management.”