Congo-Kinshasa: Director-General's Introductory Remarks On Agenda Item 30.2, Report A74/36 On the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment, and the Report of PBAC A74/51


Committee B, World Health Assembly

Thank you Chair, Ambassador Rahman.

Member States, colleagues and friends,

Last week the Programme, Budget and Administration Committee held an important discussion on sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment.

Specific focus was given to new reports in the media about allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse linked to WHO's Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

We are greatly disturbed by these allegations. Any form of abusive behaviour is totally incompatible with WHO's mission.

Our mission is to promote health, to keep the world safe, and to serve the vulnerable. If we are to realize this mission, we must have the full trust of communities, partners and Member States, and we must lead by example.

These allegations call into question the effectiveness of our policies and practices. They undermine trust in WHO and threaten the critical work we are doing, both in emergency settings and beyond.

The report at this Assembly on Preventing sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment provides an overview of the actions we have taken so far in response to these allegations.

It also outlines our organization-wide approach to the prevention and management of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment.

Following the allegations made in September 2020, I established an Independent Commission to conduct a thorough review, including broad fact finding and investigation of possible cases, to identify and support victims and to hold perpetrators to account.

But the remit of the Commission is far more ambitious - it has also been asked to identify the root causes of abuse, and recommend systemic solutions.

We are aware that some Member States have been frustrated by the pace of the investigations. The Commission is also very well aware of the keen interest of Member States in their work, your calls for swift action and your desire for regular reports. We hear your concerns.

The Commission Secretariat established a base in Goma in March and the investigative firm hired by the Commission, JRR, began its field investigations on the 3rd of May.

As you can imagine the situation on the ground is very challenging, starting with the security challenges that exist in North Kivu, with disruptions to the Goma area caused by the volcanic eruption over the past week.

Nevertheless, the team is doing its best to complete its work in time for the Commission to deliver its report by the end of August 2021.

The investigation team has received the case files from WHO's Independent Oversight Services department and the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services, including for the recent allegations.

As you would expect, our investigation department is in regular contact with OIOS and investigation colleagues in the UN system, including communicating since the PBAC meeting last week.

As requested, we have shared the Commission's terms of reference and its first two reports with Member States. The Co-Chairs have confirmed in writing that its terms of reference are sufficiently broad and that they will investigate the recent media allegations, including those of suppression of information. Its investigators are empowered to follow the evidence wherever it takes them.

If at any point the Commission discovers allegations that fall outside its remit, it will provide these to us so we can take immediate action as necessary and appropriate.

We understand that Member States need more information to have full confidence in the investigation. To this end, the Co-Chairs of the Commission have agreed to provide monthly updates, which will be made available directly to Member States along with additional briefings as appropriate to Member States, safeguarding units and other entities.

The Secretariat will also provide quarterly briefings to Member States, as required by the Executive Board. And we propose dedicated agenda items on this topic for future WHO governance meetings.

The challenges confronting WHO are complex and require a holistic approach. Over the coming months we will engage regularly with specialist expertise, including safeguarding units or equivalents that exists in Member States and other entities. We ask for your support in this regard.

The work of the Secretariat on the prevention and management of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment is much broader than that of investigating cases and it goes far beyond emergency settings. Our approach aims to be survivor-centred, holistic and comprehensive.

Already, much has been done since September 2020, as described in our report, and more is planned for the coming months.

At lunch time today, during the strategic briefing on Pillar 4, we heard about realities on the ground.

We heard about the critical importance of working as one United Nations system, collaborating with our sister UN agencies through the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

And we heard about our efforts to intensify training of WHO personnel and collaborators, including those in management positions, both through on-line and in-the-field, face-to-face training.

We also heard from three of our sexual exploitation and abuse country focal points who have been deployed in major emergency operations. Strengthening country capacity is essential if we are to move policy into effective action. Further deployments are planned before the end of the year.

We are also strengthening community engagement, to gain trust and empower communities to lead in prevention efforts. For example, WHO has joined UNFPA and UNICEF in implementing awareness campaigns for civil society and non-governmental organizations in eastern DRC.

We are reviewing our organization-wide policies and procedures along the full continuum from prevention and early detection through to timely investigation and disciplinary action.

We will systematically address weaknesses where they exist. Already, in March 2021, we launched a new policy on Preventing and Addressing Abusive Conduct.

We have allocated funding to further strengthen accountability functions for sexual exploitation and abuse, and the Programme Budget for the next biennium proposes an additional 28 million US dollars for this purpose at all levels of the Organization.

We are accelerating the adoption of technical solutions that help reduce the opportunity for abuse of power, such as cashless payments and the introduction of appropriate checks and balances.

But we do not comfort ourselves that these measures alone will address this issue. More needs to be done to address the root causes and further strengthen policies and systems at all three levels of the organization.

Pending receipt of the Commission's findings, we will take the following measures:

First, establish a WHO task team, led by a senior WHO female staff member, to accelerate the implementation of organization-wide WHO policies and procedures, adopting a holistic approach to prevention and management of sexual exploitation and abuse and sexual harassment. The task team will also oversee the implementation of the Independent Commission recommendations;

And second, establish an informal consultative group of external experts who can advise on 'best in class' approaches, recognizing that Member States and other entities have valuable experience and expertise that WHO can draw upon.

By the way, when we put together the Commission, the names came from external, civil society groups.

I know I speak for all my colleagues, and the organization as a whole, when I say that we take these allegations very seriously. Addressing and rectifying them is utterly essential to who we are as an organization.

We are also determined to address the underlying systemic issues and take whatever action is necessary.

That's why from the start we have decided to do it differently - new ways of doing things, by appointing an independent commission and letting the independent commission hire an external firm to investigate. Doing it the same way again and again will not get a different result. That's why we're doing it differently, to identify the perpetrators and any systemic problems.

And our commitment will continue.

Thank you. Chair, back to you.

More From: WHO

Don't Miss

AllAfrica publishes around 800 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 500 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.