Los Angeles Times

WHO fires director accused of racist misconduct

Dozens of staff had reported abusive and unethical behavior by the top official in the Western Pacific.

- By Maria Cheng Cheng writes for the Associated Press.

LONDON — The World Health Organizati­on has fired its top official in the Western Pacific after the Associated Press reported last year that dozens of staff members accused him of racist, abusive and unethical behavior that may have compromise­d the U.N. health agency’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an email sent to employees Wednesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu­s said Dr. Takeshi Kasai’s appointmen­t had been “terminated” after an internal investigat­ion resulted in “findings of misconduct.”

Tedros did not refer to Kasai by name, referencin­g only his title as regional director in the Western Pacific. It is the first time in the WHO’s history that a regional director has been dismissed.

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

The Japanese government, which supported Kasai’s nomination for the role, declined to comment. Kasai previously denied acting in a racist or abusive way, saying that although he asked a lot of his staff, his behavior “should not result in people feeling disrespect­ed.”

A summary of the internal WHO investigat­ion presented at a meeting of the agency’s executive board this week in Geneva found Kasai regularly harassed workers in Asia, including engaging in “aggressive communicat­ion, public humiliatio­n, [and] making racial comments.”

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

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

Kasai’s removal follows an AP investigat­ion published in January 2022 that revealed more than 30 unidentifi­ed WHO staffers sent a written complaint about the director to senior WHO leaders and members of the organizati­on’s executive board.

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

Several WHO staffers working under Kasai said he improperly shared sensitive COVID vaccinatio­n 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 the WHO, where he has been for more than 15 years.

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

The terminatio­n of such a high-level official stands in stark contrast to the WHO’s reluctance to punish other perpetrato­rs of abusive and sometimes illegal behavior, including sexual abuse and exploitati­on during the 20182020 Ebola epidemic in Congo.

More than 80 outbreak responders working primarily under the WHO’s direction sexually abused or exploited vulnerable women; an AP investigat­ion found senior WHO management was informed of multiple exploitati­on claims in 2019 but refused to act and even promoted one of the managers involved.

A recent internal U.N. report found the agency’s response to one case of alleged exploitati­on did not violate the rules because of a loophole in how the WHO defines victims, a finding independen­t experts described as “an absurdity.”

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

“What we need now is consistenc­y in how WHO applies the 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 looking for justice; the WHO has to show them that they matter.”

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

Internal documents showed senior WHO managers were aware of past sexual harassment claims involving Fijian physician Temo Waqanivalu, who also was accused of assaulting a woman at a Berlin conference. Waqanivalu was preparing to run for the regional director job.

Javier Guzman of the Center for Global Developmen­t said a robust internal justice system at the WHO was still lacking.

“Making decisions on high-level cases such as the one on Dr. Kasai is not enough,” Guzman said. “WHO and Dr. Tedros should do better to guarantee that the zero-tolerance policy is real.”

 ?? Bullit Marquez Associated Press ?? THE DISMISSAL of Dr. Takeshi Kasai, pictured in 2019, is the first of a regional WHO director.
Bullit Marquez Associated Press THE DISMISSAL of Dr. Takeshi Kasai, pictured in 2019, is the first of a regional WHO director.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States