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WHO director of Western Pacific office fired over abuse claims

The director of the World Health Organisation’s Western Pacific Regional Office (WPRO) has been fired after a prolonged investigation of allegations of abusive conduct towards staff.

The announcement came at the conclusion of a two-day special session of the WHO Executive Board, tasked with reviewing the results of an internal WHO investigation into allegations of bullying as well as charges of racist behaviour levelled against Dr Takeshi Kasai, head of the WHO’s Manila office and one of six such regional offices maintained by WHO around the world.

Kasai was elected to the post in 2019, after more than 15 years with the global health agency, Health Policy Watch reports.

According to the announcement, the WHO received allegations of misconduct against him during the latter half of 2021 and in 2022.

The decision to fire Kasai is the first such decision to be taken after a string of high-profile investigations against a number of senior WHO officials.

Those have included allegations of a managerial cover-up of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment cases involving dozens of Congolese women during the agency’s 2018-2020 Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But those cases ultimately failed to lead to the termination of three staff who had been implicated. Since the victims were neither WHO staff nor “beneficiaries” of aid, the managers could not technically be held liable for failing to report their cases, an independent UN investigation decided.

Meanwhile, however, several other complaints have surfaced against a number of high-profile WHO staff – including allegations by a young British doctor that she was sexually harassed by a senior WHO official at the World Health Summit in Berlin in October 2022.  WHO has not yet announced any conclusion to its investigation into that case.

Kasai, in contrast, had been accused of abusive conduct and racism – but not sexual misconduct.  Sources said four of the six original charges against him had been confirmed by a formal WHO investigation – leading to the vote last week in the WPRO Regional Committee.

Election campaign begins in April

The election cycle for his replacement will begin in April 2023, “when WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus invites member states of the region to submit proposed candidates”.

Ironically, Dr Temo Waqanivalu, a senior WHO official from Fiji, had reportedly been eyeing a run as a candidate to replace Kasai – until he was named in the media as the WHO employee who allegedly harassed a young UK colleague at the World Health Summit in Berlin.  Investigation into that case has been under way for more than five months.

In response to the string of allegations and reports of abuse, WHO says it has strengthened its Office of Investigative Services (OIS), and is investing more heavily into the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in its offices worldwide.

But critics say that the agency’s internal justice system still lacks teeth, leaving victims intimidated and unwilling to pursue formal complaints against powerful officials whom they perceive as benefitting from protection at the top of WHO.

Until the new incumbent takes office, Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, who has served as Officer-in-Charge of the Western Pacific Region since August 2022, will serve as acting regional director, WHO said.  She has served as Deputy Director-General since 2019; previously, she was the WHO regional director for Europe.


Health Policy Watch article – BREAKING: WHO Fires Director of Western Pacific Regional Office for Abusive Behaviour (Open access)


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