'Loophole' justifies alleged misconduct by WHO officials

London: Because of what some officials called a "loophole" in how the WHO defines victims of such behaviour, a confidential UN report into alleged mistakes made by senior World Health Organization staffers in how they handled a sexual misconduct case during an Ebola outbreak in the Congo found their response didn't violate the agency's policies.

The Associated Press was able to obtain the report, which was presented to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last month but was not made available to the general public. When contacted for comment, the WHO did not provide one.

The UN investigation comes after a 2021 review by a panel appointed by Tedros found that three WHO managers bungled a sexual misconduct case involving a UN health agency doctor signing a contract to buy land for a young woman he allegedly impregnated earlier that year. The case was first reported by the AP.

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Tedros stated last week that the three staff members had been placed on administrative leave but had since returned to work after UN investigators determined the "managerial misconduct" allegations were unfounded. The head of WHO stated that the organisation would consult with experts to determine how to handle the discrepancies between the two reports.

According to the investigators, Tedros was made aware of the allegations of sexual misconduct in 2019 and had been alerted to concerning weaknesses in the WHO's policy on misconduct the year before.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, a global health expert at Columbia University, stated that "if these issues were brought to Tedros' attention and no action was taken, (WHO) member states must demand accountability."

Tedros has previously stated that he was only made aware of sexual misconduct claims in the Democratic Republic of the Congo after media reports in September 2020 and was made aware of the particular case covered by the AP when it was published. He claimed that anyone involved in sexual misconduct would face repercussions, including dismissal. No senior WHO employees connected to the abuse and exploitation have been fired as of yet.

Senior WHO management was informed of sexual exploitation during the organization's efforts to stop Ebola in eastern Congo from 2018 to 2020, according to an AP investigation published in May 2021, but little was done to stop it.

The allegation that Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu, an infection control specialist sent to Beni, had impregnated a young woman was one of the cases WHO management was forewarned about. After completing the mandatory WHO training on the prevention of sexual misconduct, Ngandu met the woman at a restaurant one evening shortly after his arrival.


The two allegedly had sex later that evening, and the next morning Ngandu reportedly gave her some cash. When their friendship ended, the woman and her aunt went to the WHO office in Beni to file a complaint about Ngandu having gotten her pregnant. Ngandu and the woman signed a notarized agreement in which he promised to pay for her medical expenses and purchase her land.

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The agreement, which was also signed by two WHO employees, was made to preserve the WHO's good name, according to Ngandu.

The WHO's (headquarters) decided not to look into the complaint after the allegations were made because the WHO's (policy framework against sexual exploitation and abuse) was not violated, according to the UN report.

The review stated that the woman was not a "beneficiary" of WHO assistance, which meant that she did not receive any emergency or humanitarian aid from the organisation, and as a result, did not meet the criteria for victim status under WHO policy. This decision was made by representatives from the UN health agency's legal, ethics, and other departments.

This may be regarded as a "loophole which had the potential to cause complaints to fall through the cracks," according to WHO employees questioned by UN investigators.

The report stated that Ngandu's actions "did not contravene any WHO (sexual exploitation and abuse) standards of conduct," referring to his decision to compensate the woman as a "private financial settlement."

The sexual misconduct policies of the WHO had issues, which UN investigators acknowledged as "a collective responsibility." Several employees wrote Tedros a memo in February 2018 alerting him to the shortcomings of the policies.

Experts slammed WHO's defence, arguing that since the organisation coordinates international responses to acute crises like COVID-19 and monkeypox, it should uphold the highest standards in handling sexual exploitation.

As the director of Georgetown University's WHO Collaborating Center on Public Health Law and Human Rights, Larry Gostin said, "Escaping accountability based on weasel words and technical language, like not being a 'beneficiary' of WHO assistance, is unacceptable." It demonstrates that the UN and WHO do not take sexual abuse seriously that the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services excused this behaviour based on this legal technicality.

The WHO established a new office under the direction of Dr. Gaya Gamhewage to combat sexual misconduct after reports of it in the Democratic Republic of the Congo surfaced. Gamhewage claimed in an interview with UN investigators that she was unaware of the WHO's sexual misconduct policies and had not even read them before beginning her new job.

The report stated that "sexual exploitation and abuse were not familiar terms to her."

The UN investigation comes weeks after the AP published another article describing sexual misconduct at the WHO involving a Fijian doctor who was preparing to run in an election for the WHO's top director in the Western Pacific region and who had a history of sexual assault allegations within the organisation.

According to Columbia University's Redlener, "These repeated cases of sexual assault, and perhaps even worse, its cover-up, are grossly intolerable." It's possible that the Ngandu case didn't technically violate WHO policy, but he added that there are laws and then there are moral and ethical rules. There is something very unsettling about what took place here. Tedros visited the Congo 14 times during the Ebola crisis to personally direct the WHO's response.

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Tedros should, at the very least, pledge and carry out a comprehensive overhaul of policies and accountability, according to Redlener. "There might even be an expectation that he failed in his duties and ought to resign," the author writes.

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