By Peter Kenny
GENEVA (AA) - An independent commission assigned by World Health Organization (WHO) to investigate allegations of sexual abuse by its staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) said Tuesday that 83 suspects have been identified, prompting the WHO’s chief to issue an apology.
In its report, the review team said it had established with certainty that in 21 cases, WHO employees were involved. Most of the alleged abusers were Congolese staff hired on a temporary basis.
At a press webinar, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the conduct that the report describes “is a sickening betrayal of the people we serve."
"The first thing I want to say to the victims and survivors...[is] I am sorry," said Tedros.
"I'm sorry for what was done to you by people who were employed by WHO to serve and protect you," and what happened was "inexcusable."
"It is my top priority to ensure that the perpetrators are not excused but are held to account," he said, taking personal responsibility.
The WHO in October appointed the independent commission to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse during the WHO’s response to the Ebola Virus Disease epidemic in North Kivu and Ituri provinces in the DRC from 2018 to 2020.
The perpetrators were verified through human resources records, organizational charts and emails.
"The alleged perpetrators include both Congolese nationals and foreigners," said the report, with the majority of them temporally hired local staff "who took advantage of their apparent authority to obtain sexual favors."
- Banning perpetrators
Based on the information the WHO has, it will ban the identified perpetrators from future employment and will notify the broader UN system, said Tedros.
"We are terminating the contracts of four people identified as perpetrators who were still employed by the organization when we were made aware of the allegations against them,” he said.
He was asked: "You have assumed full responsibility; will you resign?"
He replied that he had visited the DRC 14 times during the Ebola epidemic and was not informed about the allegations during these visits.
“I probably should have asked questions [during the visits],” he said. “Now we have to ask questions for the next step.”
The investigating team conducted 210 interviews, including with 75 alleged victims, 23 WHO staff, 32 UN agency staff and 23 international humanitarian staff, 34 local non-governmental organization staff and 23 other people with relevant information.
Among the senior WHO officials interviewed were the director-general and many others who were still with the organization or had left.
A total of 53 countries, including the US, European Union members, the UK and Japan called for an investigation of the sexual abuse allegations in the DRC on May 28.
During the 2018-2020 Ebola epidemic in the DRC, 2,299 people died, said the WHO.