When a doctor tweeted that she was “sexually assaulted” by a World Health Organization staffer at a Berlin conference in October, the U.N. agency’s director-general assured her that WHO had “zero tolerance” for such misconduct.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus replied to her, saying he was “horrified” by the accusations of groping and unwelcome sexual advances. He offered his personal assistance, WHO suspended the staffer and the agency opened an investigation that is nearing its conclusion.
But internal documents obtained by The Associated Press show the same WHO staffer, Fijian physician Temo Waqanivalu, was previously accused by another woman of sexually harassing her several years ago. That claim was flagged to senior agency directors and others in 2018, before the accuser was informed that pursuing a formal investigation might not be in her best interests, according to the documents.
A former WHO ombudsman who helped assess the previous allegation against Waqanivalu noted the similarities between the two women’s accusations, several years apart, and suggested the agency had missed a chance to root out bad behavior.
“I felt extremely angry and guilty that the dysfunctional (WHO) justice system has led to another assault that could have been prevented,” said the staffer, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job.
The previous allegation didn’t derail Waqanivalu’s career at WHO. As the new accusation surfaced, he was positioning himself for an exceptionally big promotion with a very public role: He was seeking to become WHO’s top official in the western Pacific, with support from Fiji’s prime minister, other Pacific islands and WHO colleagues, messages show.
The regional director would support countries fighting problems including dengue, malaria and heart disease, as well as coordinating the first global response to any new emerging outbreaks — as was the case when the coronavirus was first detected in China in late 2019.
Waqanivalu hung up when the AP contacted him for comment. He didn’t respond to several follow-up requests sent through email and two messaging apps.
Waqanivalu “categorically” denied that he had ever sexually assaulted anyone, including at the Berlin conference, according to correspondence between him and WHO investigators that the AP obtained. He said the accusations were “false” and could “irreparably damage” his career and reputation.
The physician said there may have been “a mutual misunderstanding” in Berlin and that his accuser was possibly “under the influence of alcohol.” He said he was “bewildered” and “confused” by the sexual misconduct allegation.
The U.N. health agency said in an email that it could not comment on individual cases for confidentiality and due process reasons, but that sexual misconduct by anyone working for the agency is “unacceptable.”
WHO said its investigation into the Berlin conference complaint “is in its final stage” and that a report, which will not be publicly released, would soon be submitted to Tedros.
“Perpetrators of sexual misconduct face grave consequences, including dismissal,” WHO said. It added that the names of perpetrators are entered into a U.N. screening database, to avoid their future employment.
In a speech posted to Twitter in December, Tedros said that “sexual misconduct is particularly grave when the perpetrators are our own personnel.” He called sexual misconduct by WHO staffers “a violation of the trust placed in WHO to serve public health.”
On Wednesday, hours after this story was published, WHO told staffers it was forming a committee on “formal complaints of abusive conduct,” according to an internal email. The committee is to include 15 staffers, most of them designated by the U.N. agency’s director-general.
The claims against Waqanivalu are the latest in a series of misconduct accusations against people working for WHO, which is mandated to lead the international response to acute crises including COVID-19 and Ebola.
In May 2021, the AP reported that senior WHO managers were informed of sex abuse allegations during a Congo Ebola outbreak 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.
And WHO’s last regional director in the western Pacific — the person Waqanivalu was seeking to replace — was put on leave in August, after AP reported that numerous staffers had accused him of racist and abusive behavior that compromised the U.N. agency’s response to COVID-19.
In the coming weeks, the agency’s highest governing body is meeting to set public health priorities and to address critical administrative concerns, including sexual misconduct. The officials also may discuss how and when the election for the region’s next director might occur. (Source: AP)