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Panel finds 80 alleged abuse cases tied to WHO's Congo work

A panel commissioned by the World Health Organization has identified more than 80 alleged cases of sex abuse during the U.N. health agency's response to an Ebola outbreak in Congo, including allegations implicating 20 WHO staff members.

The panel released its findings on Tuesday, months after an Associated Press investigation found senior WHO management was informed of multiple abuse claims in 2019 but failed to stop the harassment and even promoted one of the managers involved.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus appointed the panel's co-chairs to investigate the claims last October after media reports claimed unnamed humanitarian officials sexually abused women during the Ebola outbreak that began in Congo in 2018.

At the time, Tedros declared he was “outraged” and vowed that any staffers connected to the abuse would be dismissed immediately. Western diplomatic sources say four people have been fired and two placed on administrative leave, based on a closed-door briefing involving WHO that was provided to diplomatic officials in Geneva on Tuesday.”

The review team was able to obtain the identity of 83 alleged perpetrators, both Congolese nationals and foreigners. In 21 cases, the review team was able to establish with certainty that the alleged perpetrators were WHO employees during the Ebola response.

The majority of the alleged perpetrators were Congolese staff hired on a temporary basis who took advantage of their apparent authority to obtain sexual favors, according to the report.

The AP published evidence in May showing that Dr. Michel Yao, a senior WHO official overseeing the Congo outbreak response was informed in writing of multiple sex abuse allegations. Yao was later promoted and recently headed WHO’s response to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, which ended in June.

WHO doctor Jean-Paul Ngandu and two other agency officials also signed a contract promising to buy land for a young woman Ngandu allegedly impregnated; Ngandu said he was pressured to do so to protect WHO’s reputation.

The panel said that during its interview with WHO chief Tedros, he said he was made aware of the sex abuse allegations when they were revealed in the press and had not heard of the incident involving Ngandu until the AP published its story. The panel criticized WHO's tendency to “reject all reports of sexual exploitation and abuse unless they are made in writing.”

Some of the women who say they were victimized by WHO officials said they hoped those involved would be severely punished.

Shekinah, a young Congolese woman who accepted an offer to have sex with WHO’s Boubacar Diallo in exchange for a job, said she hoped he would be sanctioned by the U.N. health agency and barred from working for WHO again.

“I would like him and other doctors who will be charged to be punished severely so that it will serve as a lesson to other untouchable doctors of the WHO,” said Shekinah, who declined to give her last name for fear of retribution. “He has no place at WHO.”

Others said disciplining the WHO employees involved would go a long way toward ending violence against women.

“I have been waiting for this big moment for more than a month to see how WHO will sanction these (doctors),” said Anifa, another woman who alleged she received a similar sex-for-jobs offer from Diallo. “We would like to see justice done.”

WHO chief Tedros made 14 trips to Congo during the last outbreak and publicly commended Boubacar Diallo's work. The AP spoke with three women who said Diallo offered them jobs in exchange for sex.

Nearly 50 countries, including Britain, the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, later issued a statement expressing their “deep concerns” about WHO’s handling of sex abuse concerns, alluding to the AP story. Even WHO’s own staff committee urged management to act over allegations that “senior management may have suppressed concerns.”

The WHO panel did not include any external police or judicial authorities and resorted to asking journalists for their contacts of women who made the sex abuse charges, including their names, addresses, and photos.

According to leaked recordings of U.N. meetings obtained by the AP, WHO emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan acknowledged that the Congo sex abuse allegations were likely “the tip of an iceberg” and revealed a problem that “does reflect a culture as well.”

Following the publication of AP’s investigation, WHO appointed a person to oversee the prevention of sexual abuse, but that official has no authority to fire anyone found guilty of abuse.

Julie Londo, a member of the Congolese Union of Media Women (UCOFEM), a women’s organization that works to counter rape and sexual abuse of women in Congo, applauded WHO for punishing staffers involved in the abuse allegations but said more was needed.

“WHO must also think about reparation for the women who were traumatized by the rapes and the dozens of children who were born with unwanted pregnancies as a result of the rapes,” she said. “There are a dozen girls in Butembo and Beni who had children with doctors during the Ebola epidemic, but today others are sent back by their families because they had children with foreigners...We will continue our fight to end these abuses.”

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Cheng reported from London. Jamey Keaten contributed reporting from Geneva.

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