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WHO fires director in Asia for racist misconduct


LONDON — The World Health Organization has fired its top Western Pacific official after the Associated Press reported last year that dozens of staff accused him of racist, abusive and unethical behavior that may have jeopardized the UN health agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. brought.

In an email sent to workers on Wednesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Dr. Takeshi Kasai was “terminated” after an internal investigation led to “findings of misconduct”.

Tedros did not name Kasai, only referring to his title as Regional Director in the Western Pacific. It is the first time in WHO history that a regional director has been fired.

“This has been an unprecedented and challenging journey for all of us,” Tedros wrote. He said the process of naming a new regional director for the Western Pacific would begin next month, with an election in October.

The Japanese government, which supported Kasai’s nomination for the role, declined to comment. Kasai previously denied that he had behaved in a racist or abusive manner, saying that while he asked a lot of his staff, his behavior “should not cause people to feel disrespected”.

A summary of the internal WHO investigation presented this week at a meeting of the agency’s executive council in Geneva found that Kasai regularly harassed workers in Asia, including engaging in “aggressive communication, public humiliation and (and) racist remarks”.

Senior WHO directors told the organization’s top governing body that Kasai had created a “toxic atmosphere”, that staff members feared retaliation if they spoke out against him and that there was a “lack of confidence” in WHO.

The officials also found that Kasai had manipulated at least one performance evaluation of a subordinate, according to confidential material obtained by the AP.

Kasai’s removal follows an AP investigation published in January 2022 that found that more than 30 unidentified WHO staffers had sent written complaints about the director to senior WHO leaders and members of the WHO board of directors. the organisation.

Documents and recordings showed that Kasai made racist remarks to his staff and blamed the emergence of COVID-19 in some Pacific countries on their “lack of capacity due to their inferior culture, race and socio-economic level”.

Several WHO staffers who worked under Kasai said he inappropriately shared sensitive COVID vaccine information to help Japan, his home country, score political points with targeted donations. Kasai is a Japanese doctor who worked in his country’s public health system before moving to WHO, where he has worked for more than 15 years.

Days after the AP report, WHO chief Tedros announced that an internal investigation into Kasai had begun. Tedros informed staff in an August email that Kasai was “on leave” and that another senior official was being sent to temporarily replace him.

The dismissal of such a senior official stands in stark contrast to WHO’s reluctance to punish other perpetrators of abusive and sometimes illegal behavior, including sexual abuse and exploitation during Congo’s 2018-2020 Ebola epidemic.

More than 80 aid workers working mainly under WHO direction have sexually assaulted or exploited vulnerable women; an AP investigation found that WHO’s senior management was made aware of multiple exploitation claims in 2019, but refused to act and even promoted one of the managers involved.

A recent internal UN report found that the agency’s response to one case of alleged exploitation was not against the rules due to a loophole in the WHO’s definition of victims, a finding described by independent experts as “a absurdity”.

No senior WHO officials linked to sexual abuse in Congo have been fired, despite Tedros’s insistence that the agency has “zero tolerance” for misconduct.

“What we need now is consistency in the way WHO applies its rules on abuse,” said Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “The survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation from (Congo) are still seeking justice; the WHO needs to show them that they matter.”

In January, the AP reported that a WHO doctor who hoped to replace Kasai as regional director in the Western Pacific had previously faced allegations of sexual misconduct.

Internal documents revealed senior WHO managers were aware of previous sexual harassment claims involving Fiji doctor Temo Waqanivalu, who was also accused of assaulting a woman at a conference in Berlin. With the support of some WHO colleagues and his home country, Waqanivalu prepared for the position of regional director.

Javier Guzman, from the Center for Global Development, said WHO still lacks a robust internal justice system.

“Making decisions on high-level matters like the one about Dr. Kasai is not enough,” Guzman said. “The WHO and Dr. Tedros should do better to ensure the zero tolerance policy is genuine.”

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