Top U.S. official urges WHO to address sexual misconduct

LONDON (AP) - A top U.S. health official urged the World Health Organization to address allegations first reported by The Associated Press that one of its doctors repeatedly engaged in sexual misconduct.

"There are many of us who stand with survivors and stand with those who identify as victims and are truly committed, but also frustrated by where things have stood to date," Loyce Pace, assistant secretary for global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told a meeting of WHO's Executive Board on Tuesday.

Last month, the AP reported that a WHO doctor accused of sexually assaulting a woman at a Berlin conference in October was flagged to senior WHO directors years ago for allegedly harassing another staffer. The earlier allegation didn't result in any significant consequences for the doctor, Temo Waqanivalu, who was preparing to run for regional director of the Western Pacific, with help from WHO colleagues and the presidential office in his home country of Fiji.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the meeting that a probe into the October incident had been completed.

"We regret that the media identified the alleged perpetrator," Tedros said during a discussion on preventing sexual abuse. There are no plans to publicly release the investigation into Waqanivalu's reported misconduct.

"If the allegations are substantiated, disciplinary action will be taken," Tedros said.

Speaking to the WHO board, Pace cited the issue of sexual misconduct by a staffer who reportedly "had a record of prior accusations," saying the case "really needs to be addressed by WHO."

"It's important to many of us who have faced this personally in our experience working in the global health and development space, and not just in terms of earlier in our careers, but even now," she added.

According to confidential documents obtained by the AP, senior WHO directors were informed of a sexual harassment allegation made against Waqanivalu in 2018. The accuser was later informed that pursuing a formal investigation might not be the best option for her. Waqanivalu was later given an informal warning that didn't cite the woman who made the claim or his specific behavior.

In his interviews with WHO investigators, Waqanivalu "categorically" denied that he had ever sexually assaulted anyone. He declined to comment to the AP.

In recent years, WHO has been plagued by numerous reports of misconduct. In May 2021, the AP reported that senior WHO managers were informed of sex abuse allegations during an Ebola outbreak in Congo but did little to stop it. A panel appointed by WHO later found that more than 80 workers under WHO's direction sexually abused women.

No senior WHO officials tied to the exploitation have been fired. Tedros said Tuesday that three WHO staffers who had been on administrative leave following the abuse allegations had now returned to work, after a U.N. investigation disputed findings by an independent panel that they had engaged in "managerial misconduct."

At the session on Tuesday, a Fijian delegate to WHO said all individuals accused of sexual misconduct should be treated fairly. She said the officials at WHO who had leaked "highly confidential information" should be held responsible. "Due process must be respected and all individuals involved must be treated fairly," the official said.

The Western Pacific regional director Waqanivalu was seeking to replace at WHO was put on leave in August, months after the AP reported that numerous staffers had accused him of racist and abusive behavior that compromised the U.N. agency's response to COVID-19.

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