WHO to send in experts to prevent sexual abuse after Congo scandal - diplomats

FILE PHOTO: Kavota Mugisha Robert, a healthcare worker, who volunteered in the Ebola response, decontaminates his colleague after he entered the house of 85-year-old woman, suspected of dying of Ebola, in the eastern Congolese town of Beni in the Democratic Republic of Congo, October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization has pledged to deploy experts on preventing sexual exploitation in 10 field operations following a major scandal in Democratic Republic of Congo where its staff and other aid workers abused women, diplomats said on Friday.

Some 83 aid workers, a quarter of them employed by the WHO, were involved in sexual exploitation and abuse during the country's massive Ebola epidemic from 2018 to 2020, an independent commission said last month.

Major Western donors have pressed the WHO to launch a deeper external independent probe, demanding how the scandal was allowed to happen, diplomats told Reuters earlier this week.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus presented its management response plan to its 194 member states at a closed-door meeting on Thursday and is expected to announce it shortly, diplomats said.

"Countries urged the need for the commitment of WHO senior leadership to make use of all existing UN system-wide mechanisms to prevent, detect and address (sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment) without further delay, and the need for an independent evaluation of individual responsibilities within WHO," a Western diplomat told Reuters.

It was not clear whether Tedros was committing to a probe by the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services or another external body, several diplomats said.

The WHO did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Tedros said that the WHO had earmarked $7.6 million to imbed coordinators to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse in operations in 10 countries and would implement a long-term programme to spend double that annually, they said.

"The EU and its member states expect WHO’s senior management to take every possible action to consistently address the systemic issues and to follow up on each individual case, including possible judicial actions. It is clear from the (commission's) report that WHO has a lot of work to do," the European Union said in a statement to the meeting.

Effective mechanisms for prevention, safe reporting and robust responses needed to be enhanced, the EU said.

Another diplomat, speaking before the meeting, said that the WHO had made a "good start" in its response and that the report showed "systemic failures" of management, but that donors were not clamouring for dismissals.

Health officials in eastern Congo confirmed a second case of Ebola on Thursday in the latest flare-up of the deadly virus.

Among the first members of a 15-person WHO surge team deployed to Beni is an expert in the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, a WHO statement said on Wednesday.

The expert will brief WHO employees and partners on how to "prevent any inappropriate and abusive behaviour", it said.

(Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Hereward Holland in Kinshasa; Writing by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Nick Macfie)

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