France urges WHO chief to keep pledge on fighting sex abuse

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WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reacts during the opening of the World Health Organisation Academy in Lyon, central France, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. (Denis Balibouse/Pool Photo via AP)

GENEVA – 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.

“France expects the WHO director-general to uphold his commitment” on that 10-day timetable, the French Foreign Ministry said in an email.

The German Foreign Ministry and the German diplomatic mission in Geneva did not immediately respond to e-mails seeking comment.

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 acknowledged WHO's past failures to address sex abuse problems.

“We know the work we do in health emergencies is complex and dangerous,” he wrote. “But this is no excuse for sexual exploitation and abuse of the communities we serve, and no excuse for managerial inaction and delay.”

Tedros also said that WHO wasn't always sure what sexual abuse was.

“It is our responsibility to learn about what constitutes (sexual exploitation and abuse), 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.”

Earlier this year, during a closed-door meeting with WHO member states, Tedros described the agency’s response to the Congo sex allegations as “slow.”

The authors of the independent report that Tedros commissioned said that WHO often dismissed claims of sexual abuse unless they were made in writing.

The AP found in a May investigation that 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.

During one of those trips, Tedros publicly commended and was pictured with one of the men who has been accused of rape.

The WHO chief apologized to victims in Congo on Tuesday.

“What happened to you should never happen to anyone. It is inexcusable,” he said.


AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng contributed from London.