The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday it was setting up a seven-person independent commission to investigate claims of sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers during the recent Ebola outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo.
In an investigation published last month by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian, more than 50 women accused aid workers from the WHO and leading charities of demanding sex in exchange for jobs during the 2018-2020 crisis.
Five out of seven of the organisations named in the expose have pledged to investigate, as has Congo’s health ministry.
Leading the WHO inquiry will be Aichatou Mindaoudou, former minister of foreign affairs and of social development of Niger, and Julienne Lusenge, a Congolese human rights activist, the U.N. agency said in a statement.
Lusenge is known for her work advocating for victims of sexual violence in eastern Congo and co-founded the Congolese women’s rights group SOFEPADI, which supports survivors.
Mindaoudou has been a U.N. special representative to Ivory Coast and to Darfur since working for the government of Niger.
The two co-chairs will choose up to five other people with expertise in sexual exploitation and abuse, emergency response, and investigations to join the commission, the WHO said.
“The role of the Independent Commission will be to swiftly establish the facts, identify and support survivors, ensure that any ongoing abuse has stopped, and hold perpetrators to account,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a briefing to member states.
The commission will be supported by a Secretariat based at WHO, which will also hire an independent and external organisation with experience in similar inquiries.
About 30 women in the almost year-long Congo investigation accused men who had claimed to work for the WHO. The agency has said it was “outraged” to hear of the reports and reiterated a zero tolerance policy against sexual exploitation.
The expose came after years of pledges by the United Nations and NGOs to ramp up efforts to end sexual abuse by workers.
Many women in the Congo said they had not known about helplines and other complaint services set up for complaints. Others said they did not report the abuse for fear of reprisals or losing their jobs. Most said they were too ashamed.
Some sexual abuse experts applauded the WHO decision to form an independent commission rather than investigate themselves.
“I’m really happy that they’ve agreed to that,” said Yasmin Sooka, a South African human rights lawyer who was part of an independent panel that investigated allegations of sexual abuse by French troops in Central African Republic.
The success of the commission will still depend on whether it is given sufficient resources and free rein, she added.
But Paula Donovan, co-director of the Code Blue Campaign which seeks accountability for abuses by U.N. personnel, said a truly independent investigation would need to be led by U.N. member states, not commissioned and supported by the WHO.
“I think the word ‘independent’ is being grossly misused,” she said. “It’s the fox watching the hen house once again.”