LONDON (AP) — When a doctor tweeted that she was “sexually assaulted” by a World Health Organization staffer at a Berlin conference in October, the U.N. agency’s director-general assured her that WHO had “zero tolerance” for such misconduct.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus replied to her, saying he was “horrified” by the accusations of groping and unwelcome sexual advances. He offered his personal assistance, WHO suspended the staffer and the agency opened an investigation that is nearing its conclusion.
But internal documents obtained by The Associated Press show the same WHO staffer, Fijian physician Temo Waqanivalu, was previously accused by another woman of sexually harassing her several years ago. That claim was flagged to senior agency directors and others in 2018, before the accuser was informed that pursuing a formal investigation might not be in her best interests, according to the documents.
A former WHO ombudsman who helped assess the previous allegation against Waqanivalu noted the similarities between the two women’s accusations, several years apart, and suggested the agency had missed a chance to root out bad behavior.
“I felt extremely angry and guilty that the dysfunctional (WHO) justice system has led to another assault that could have been prevented,” said the staffer, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of losing their job.
The previous allegation didn’t derail Waqanivalu’s career at WHO. As the new accusation surfaced, he was positioning himself for an exceptionally big promotion with a very public role: He was seeking to become WHO’s top official in the western Pacific, with support from Fiji’s prime minister, other Pacific islands and WHO colleagues, messages show.
The regional director would support countries fighting problems including dengue, malaria and heart disease, as well as coordinating the first global response to any new emerging outbreaks — as was the case when the coronavirus was first detected in China in late 2019.
Waqanivalu hung up when the AP contacted him for comment. He didn’t respond to several follow-up requests sent through email and two messaging apps.
Waqanivalu “categorically” denied that he had ever sexually assaulted anyone, including at the Berlin conference, according to correspondence between him and WHO investigators that the AP obtained. He said the accusations were “false” and could “irreparably damage” his career and reputation.
The physician said there may have been “a mutual misunderstanding” in Berlin and that his accuser was possibly “under the influence of alcohol.” He said he was “bewildered” and “confused” by the sexual misconduct allegation.
The U.N. health agency said in an email that it could not comment on individual cases for confidentiality and due process reasons, but that sexual misconduct by anyone working for the agency is “unacceptable.”
WHO said its investigation into the Berlin conference complaint “is in its final stage” and that a report, which will not be publicly released, would soon be submitted to Tedros.
“Perpetrators of sexual misconduct face grave consequences, including dismissal,” WHO said. It added that the names of perpetrators are entered into a U.N. screening database, to avoid their future employment.
In a speech posted to Twitter in December, Tedros said that “sexual misconduct is particularly grave when the perpetrators are our own personnel.” He called sexual misconduct by WHO staffers “a violation of the trust placed in WHO to serve public health.”
On Wednesday, hours after this story was published, WHO told staffers it was forming a committee on “formal complaints of abusive conduct,” according to an internal email. The committee is to include 15 staffers, most of them designated by the U.N. agency’s director-general.
The claims against Waqanivalu are the latest in a series of misconduct accusations against people working for WHO, which is mandated to lead the international response to acute crises including COVID-19 and Ebola.
In May 2021, the AP reported that senior WHO managers were informed of sex abuse allegations during a Congo Ebola outbreak but did little to stop it. A panel appointed by WHO later found that more than 80 workers under WHO’s direction sexually abused women. No senior WHO officials tied to the exploitation have been fired.
And WHO’s last regional director in the western Pacific — the person Waqanivalu was seeking to replace — was put on leave in August, after AP reported that numerous staffers had accused him of racist and abusive behavior that compromised the U.N. agency’s response to COVID-19.
In the coming weeks, the agency’s highest governing body is meeting to set public health priorities and to address critical administrative concerns, including sexual misconduct. The officials also may discuss how and when the election for the region’s next director might occur.
The earlier accusation against Waqanivalu came after a 2017 chronic diseases workshop in Japan, where a WHO employee said that Waqanivalu had harassed her at a post-work dinner and on other occasions. Her report was shared with senior WHO officials, according to documents obtained by the AP.
“Under the table, (Waqanivalu) took off his shoes, lifted one of his legs and toe(s) between my legs,” the woman wrote in the 2018 report. “It took me a while to process what was actually happening.”
She left the restaurant and said Waqanivalu followed her to a nearby train station. That’s where he grabbed her hand, asked if she was seeing anyone and questioned why she was not attracted to him, she reported.
After she said goodbye, Waqanivalu “proceeded to give me a hug, grabbing my buttocks with both of his hands and trying to kiss my lips,” the woman said. She said she turned her head to avoid him and moved his hands.
The woman is identified in the documents, but the AP does not typically name people who say they have been sexually harassed unless they come forward publicly. The AP contacted the woman, but she declined to comment.
According to WHO protocols, her complaint should have been investigated by the organization’s office of internal oversight, following guidance from ombudsmen, who help staff mediate personnel problems.
After submitting her confidential report to WHO’s “integrity hotline” in July 2018, the case was “tossed around in (Geneva) for months” among officials tasked with misconduct claims, an ombudsman wrote to the woman in an email obtained by the AP.
“It seems our internal process is not efficient enough to address such cases,” the ombudsman said.
Months after raising her concerns, the woman 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. Following that discussion, the office of the ombudsman and ethics considered the case closed, the woman wrote in an email to a WHO official.
In a follow-up message to a WHO ombudsman, the woman said the agency’s 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.” She said she was also warned that Waqanivalu could file his own complaint against her for “degrading/dishonouring” his name and was told that pressing for an investigation “may not be the best option for me.”
WHO’s human resources director at the time told colleagues in a November 2018 email that the director of the agency’s compliance, risk management and ethics department had been informed of the allegations against Waqanivalu.
“He is aware of the case … (and has) the matter in hand,” the human resources director said in an email obtained by AP.
It is unclear if any investigation was ever conducted.
In October, Waqanivalu sat on a panel at the World Health Summit in Berlin, a high-level conference with global heads of state.
In a hotel lobby one evening, numerous people were having drinks, including Waqanivalu and Dr. Rosie James, a young British-Canadian physician and former consultant for WHO.
“We were talking about his work at WHO and he just started putting his hand on my bottom and keeping it there,” James told the AP. She said she felt intimidated talking to a senior manager at the organization. “I felt this power dynamic and I was really uncomfortable,” she said, explaining that she moved away to join her friends, who told her Waqanivalu’s actions were inappropriate.
“Somehow I ended up talking to him again and he was literally holding my bum cheek,” she said. James said Waqanivalu “firmly held my buttock in his hand multiple times (and) pressed his groin” into her. Before Waqanivalu left, she says he cornered her and repeatedly asked for her hotel room number.
Later that night, she tweeted about the encounter, saying that she was “sexually assaulted” and that “this was not the first time in the global health sphere that this has occurred.” WHO chief Tedros replied, pledging to do “everything we can to help you.”
James was later interviewed by WHO’s investigators. She said WHO officials told her she would not be entitled to see its final investigation report. James also said Tedros never personally followed up directly but said the agency’s communications director contacted her and that the two had lunch during the Berlin conference. She said WHO also offered to reimburse her for any private therapy costs related to her encounter with Waqanivalu.
Waqanivalu told WHO investigators he greeted James that evening “by tapping her on her left upper arm” and did not believe that was inappropriate, according to a record of the discussion obtained by AP. He acknowledged asking for her hotel room number, saying he made the request “to connect, if need be.”
“I recall that we faced each other the whole time with about an arm’s length distance between us,” Waqanivalu told investigators, adding that the conversation lasted about five minutes. He said he believed people in the group, including James, “were under the influence of alcohol” and that he remembered the event as “a good evening mixing around with everyone.”
Waqanivalu is a unit head at WHO’s Geneva headquarters, overseeing a small team in the non-communicable diseases department. He has been featured in several WHO Facebook videos and also sits on the agency’s health, safety and wellbeing committee.
Last fall, he put himself forward as a candidate to be WHO’s next director for the western Pacific, a region that has a quarter of the world’s population.
“The experience and expertise I have gathered over the years … have given me the relevant credentials to lead the Western Pacific,” Waqanivalu wrote in a September letter addressed to Fiji’s then-Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama and other officials.
About a week after the Berlin conference, the chair of WHO’s top governing body in the region told Waqanivalu in a message seen by the AP that his name was mentioned “as a potential candidate” to be the next regional director. The chair messaged him to say that Pacific health ministers planned to push for a candidate from the region.
“That would be an opportunity for you, Dr. Temo,” Waqanivalu was told.
Correspondence obtained by the AP between Waqanivalu and a senior staffer in Bainimarama’s office also show Waqanivalu asked about formalizing his candidacy.
A memo from the prime minister’s office dated Oct. 17 and marked “approved,” confirmed “Fiji’s proposed candidacy” of Waqanivalu to the position. A handwritten note said officials should coordinate with the country’s ministry of health and inform all other Pacific nations of Waqanivalu’s candidacy. Bainimarama, who lost a December election in Fiji, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the AP.
Waqanivalu’s candidacy also had supporters within WHO itself. A WHO-produced election-style campaign brochure created in September — before the Berlin conference — outlined his vision for the region and was aimed to garner votes from member countries in the region.
“Under my leadership, WHO will empower people to serve within their countries,” the document reads.
Paula Donovan is co-director of the Code Blue campaign, which seeks to hold U.N. personnel accountable for sexual offenses. She said the allegations regarding Waqanivalu were unsurprising but deeply worrying.
She said it was particularly concerning that an official accused of sexual harassment had been potentially in line for such a prominent leadership role and that WHO seemingly had failed to uphold its own “zero tolerance” policy for unprofessional behavior.
“It’s patently false that WHO does not condone sexual misconduct,” Donovan said, calling for its member countries to overhaul the agency’s internal structures so that its officials are held accountable. “When WHO keeps this kind of stuff under wraps, they are giving sexual predators carte blanche to do it again with impunity.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.