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Countries Urge Action on WHO Sexual Abuse

FILE - A logo is pictured outside a building of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, April 6, 2021.
FILE - A logo is pictured outside a building of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, April 6, 2021.

South Africa joined more than 50 countries Tuesday asking the World Health Organization (WHO) to swiftly hold to account perpetrators of sexual abuse within the U.N. health agency.

At an executive board meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the countries also told the WHO that survivors of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment (SEAH) must be given proper support.

The global health body has been under intense pressure to undertake reforms after revelations of widespread sexual abuse by humanitarian workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo surfaced in 2020.

British ambassador Simon Manley delivered a joint statement on behalf of 57 countries, voicing “deep concerns” about allegations of SEAH, and the alleged abuse of authority by WHO staff and contractors.

The countries included all 27 EU member states, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Chile, and Japan. The rest include the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, South Korea and Ukraine.

They acknowledged recent progress and praised the bravery of survivors as well as whistleblowers in speaking out.

“Building a culture based on integrity, transparency and accountability is crucial,” the countries said.

“We encourage WHO management to set the tone and lead by example in these areas, particularly by establishing clear responsibility and accountability lines.”

While expressing “strong support” toward the agency's capacity building investments and training for staff, these countries said “this work should build awareness of the power differentials and inequalities between victims and perpetrators that lie at the root of SEAH.”

They also called for a shift toward an approach centered on victims and survivors.

“Complaints must be addressed in a timely manner, and perpetrators held to account, so we strongly support efforts to strengthen WHO's investigative capacity,” the member states said.

“We expect prompt and confidential reporting to be provided to member states, including on the actions taken to address SEAH.”

The 34-member executive board is mandated to advise the World Health Assembly of member states — the WHO's decision-making body — and implement its decisions.

The 152nd session of the WHO executive board started on Monday and runs until Feb. 7.

The WHO has said that it has zero tolerance for any form of sexual misconduct by any of its workforce and takes prompt action whenever an allegation is raised.