GENEVA (AP) — The French government called Wednesday on the head of the World Health Organization to uphold his pledge for an “action plan” to combat sexual abuse and exploitation by WHO employees after independent investigators found scores of accusations stemming from the agency’s response to an Ebola outbreak in Congo.
A WHO-commissioned panel reported Tuesday that it had identified more than 80 people accused of sexual misconduct and confirmed that 21 of them worked for the U.N. health agency during the outbreak. Some observers said the findings made Congo the scene of the biggest scandal of its kind in the history of U.N.-related field missions.
The French Foreign Ministry’s call for WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to take action within 10 days comes less than a week after France, Germany and other EU announced that they had nominated him for a second five-year term.
Word of the nomination came shortly after the candidacy deadline for the post expired on Sept. 23.
The investigative report released Tuesday, nearly a year in the making, said 21 workers for WHO had been accused of acts of sexual abuse or exploitation while in Congo, out of a total of 83 alleged perpetrators connected to the 2018-2020 mission.
Malick Coulibaly, a member of the panel that issued the report, said investigators uncovered a total of nine rape allegations.
In an internal e-mail to WHO staff following the report’s release and obtained by The Associated Press, Tedros expressed a commitment to “shifting to a victim and survivor-centered approach” when it comes to sexual abuse and exploitation.
He also said he would act to address management and staff failures, and launch a “wholesale reform of our structures and culture to address SEA (sexual exploitation and abuse).”
At the same time, Tedros acknowledged that WHO wasn’t always sure what sexual abuse was.
“It is our responsibility to learn about what constitutes SEA, and how to prevent it,” he wrote in the e-mail sent jointly with WHO Africa’s regional director, Matshidiso Moeti. “I remind you that all personnel are obliged to report any suspicions they may have.”
In the independent report that Tedros commissioned, experts said WHO often dismissed claims of sexual abuse unless they were made in writing.
The AP found in a May investigationthat senior management was informed in emails of multiple cases of alleged sexual abuse, but that little was done. One of the managers who was told of the incidents was subsequently promoted.
Tedros and WHO have declined to indicate whether he would seek a second term at the agency’s helm. The formal announcement of candidates isn’t expected until November.
At a news conference Tuesday, Tedros declined to say whether he was considering resigning over the events in Congo but said that he perhaps should have asked more questions during the more than a dozen trips he took to the African country to oversee WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak.
Tedros offered his apologies to the victims, and said: “What happened to you should never happen to anyone. It is inexcusable.”
AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng contributed from London.