WHO Rebuts Allegations Of Foot-Dragging On Sexual Misconduct Allegations

Lisa McLennon, Head of Investigations at WHO’s Office of Internal Oversight Services.

WHO has rebutted allegations that the agency takes a soft approach to senior staffers accused of sexual misconduct – following a report by the Associated Press that the WHO official accused of harassing a British doctor at the World Health Summit (WHS) in Berlin last October had been accused of similar misconduct in 2017 – which the agency ignored.

The Staffer Dr Temo Waqanivaluwho heads WHO’s work on integrated delivery of noncommunicable disease services, was named by AP as the staff member who is allegedly the focus of an investigation into the Berlin incident.

But according to the AP account, WHO was also well aware of a prior complaint against Waqanivalu, flagged to senior officials in 2018 – and did little about it. That case involved physical approaches that he allegedly made to a female colleague at a 2017 WHO workshop in Japan.

At least in terms of his public profile, Waqanivalu has remained at his WHO post while the new investigation took place, and was even mounting a candidacy to be appointed as head of the WHO’s Western Pacific Regional Office.

Former WHO ombudsman expressed frustration at handling of 2017 case

Dr Temo K Waqanivalu, sexual misconduct
Dr Temo K Waqanivalu, a senior WHO staffer, has been accused of sexual misconduct.

According to the AP reports and documents it had obtained, a former WHO ombudsman had expressed frustration about how the 2017 case was handled – after the woman who alleged the harassment was advised by senior WHO officials to drop the case against Waqanivalu.

In that instance, the WHO employee reportedly had complained that Waqanivalu had groped her between the legs during a workshop dinner, and then on her buttocks after he followed her to a train station. In the 2022 Berlin incident, James reported that Waqanivalu had groped her while they were with a group having drinks one evening after the World Health Summit.

Months after raising her concerns in 2017, the woman alleging the misconduct in Japan was informed by the WHO ombudman’s office that its director had decided to give Waqanivalu a general “informal warning” that didn’t reference the alleged misconduct, according to AP.

The WHO ethics office told her it would be difficult to prove a sexual harassment case, saying it might “compromise” her name and that she likely lacked “hard evidence,” according to documents AP obtained.

WHO – ‘we are fast, we’re rigorous’

Speaking to the allegations at a WHO press conference on Wednesday, Lisa McClennon, WHO’s Head of Investigations, Office of Internal Oversight Services, denied that WHO had glossed over its recent investigations of sexual misconduct cases.

“We are fast, we are rigorous, we are thorough. We take a contemporary and survivor centric approach to the matters that are referred to us in this effort. This increased effort and focus in increased resources towards this matter began over a year ago, and we have been able to clear up several cases that had perhaps languished in the past,” she said.

“We are working these types of cases in real time,” she added. “We encourage people to report any instances of wrongdoing, particularly those involving sexual misconduct. And we work as hard as we possibly can to protect those who make such reports. There are multiple channels through which the reporting can be made and we encourage those who have information to use those channels.”

In terms of the 2017 allegations, a A confidential report to WHO’s “integrity hotline” was reportedly made in July 2018, and then the case was “tossed around in (Geneva) for months” among officials tasked with misconduct claims, according to emails obtained by the AP.

“It seems our internal process is not efficient enough to address such cases,” AP quoted the former WHO ombudsman as saying, expressing frustration with the inconclusive results of the case.

In the Berlin incident, James tweeted about the encounter shortly after it occurred. According to WHO the investigation of that incident is still ongoing, but the results will not be made public.

Image Credits: Screengrab from WHO presser, WHO campaign brochure.

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organizational contribution click here on PayPal.

Leave a Comment