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Internal emails reveal WHO knew of sex abuse claims in Congo

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BENI, Congo (AP) — When Shekinah was working as a nurse’s aide in northeastern Congo in January 2019, she said, she was offered a job from a World Health Organization doctor at double her salary — in exchange for sex.

“Given the financial difficulties of my family … I accepted,” said Shekinah, 25, who asked that only her first name be used for fear of repercussions. She said the Canadian doctor, Boubacar Diallo, who often bragged about his connections to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, made the same proposition to several of her friends.

When a staffer and three Ebola experts working in Congo informed WHO management about sex abuse concerns regarding Diallo, they were told not to take the matter further, The Associated Press has found.

WHO has been facing widespread public allegations of systemic abuse of women by unnamed staffers, to which Tedros declared outrage and emergencies director Dr. Michael Ryan said, “We have no more information than you have.” However, an AP investigation has now found that despite its public denial of knowledge, senior WHO management wasn’t only informed of alleged sexual misconduct in 2019 but was asked how to handle it.

The AP has also for the first time tracked down the names of two doctors accused of sexual misconduct, Diallo and Dr. Jean-Paul Ngandu, both of whom were reported to WHO.

Ngandu was accused by a young woman of impregnating her. In a notarized contract obtained by the AP, two WHO staffers, including a manager, signed as witnesses to an agreement for Ngandu to pay the young woman, cover her health costs and buy her land. The deal was made “to protect the integrity and reputation” of WHO, Ngandu said.

When reached by the AP, both Diallo and Ngandu denied wrongdoing. The investigation was based on interviews with dozens of WHO staffers, Ebola officials in Congo, private emails, legal documents and recordings of internal meetings obtained by the AP.

Eight top officials privately acknowledged WHO failed to effectively tackle sex abuse during the Ebola outbreak, emails, recordings of internal meetings, legal documents and interviews with dozens of aid workers and WHO staffers show. WHO declined to comment on any specific sex abuse allegations or how they were managed and said it had taken steps to address the problem.

“We are aware that more work is needed to achieve our vision of emergency operations that serve the vulnerable while protecting them from all forms of abuse,” WHO spokeswoman Marcia Poole said in an email.

WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan acknowledged in internal meetings that sexual abuse problems during the agency’s outbreak responses were unlikely to be exceptional.

“You can’t just pin this and say you have one field operation that went badly wrong,” he said. “This is in some sense the tip of an iceberg.”

As WHO struggled to control spiraling Ebola cases in Congo in early 2019, emergency operations manager Dr. Michel Yao received an email with the subject line: “Private. Chat.”

“We cannot afford to have people tarnishing the sweat and effort of individuals sacrificing themselves thru (sic) inappropriate sexual harassment and bullying,” the staffer wrote, saying he was concerned about Diallo.

Yao responded that the matter would be handled, but the staffer said his concerns were dismissed. An internal WHO investigation failed to corroborate the charges, but those who complained about Diallo were not interviewed.

Diallo was described as a charismatic manager with connections to WHO’s senior leaders, including director-general Tedros. On WHO’s website, Tedros, Yao and Diallo are pictured smiling and bumping elbows during one of Tedros’ 14 trips to Congo during the outbreak.

Diallo rejected claims of sexual misconduct.

“I have never offered a woman a job in exchange for sex and I have never sexually harassed a woman in my life,” he told the AP.

In April 2019, Yao received another email detailing more alleged sexual misconduct, this time about the other doctor the AP tracked down, Ngandu.

“I hereby inform you that we have a colleague who has impregnated a girl from Beni,” outbreak manager Mory Keita wrote to Yao. Keita told Yao a young woman and her aunt had come to Beni’s Hotel Okapi looking for WHO managers, with two armed police officers. The woman’s aunt said the young woman had been having an affair with Ngandu and was now pregnant.

They asked WHO to cover the cost of the woman’s medical costs and for money to buy land, “given that Dr. Jean-Paul will abandon the girl and she will be obliged to raise her child alone.”

Keita said he felt that Yao should be informed “so that you would give us your directions for how to better manage this problem.”

One week after the email was sent, Ngandu signed a notarized contract confirming he would pay the young woman $100 a month until her baby was born, cover her pregnancy costs and buy her a plot of land. Keita and Achile Mboko, a WHO human resources staffer, signed as witnesses.

Ngandu said he wasn’t the father of the baby and the deal was a “private matter.” He said he agreed to it after his WHO colleagues, including Keita, “advised me to settle out of court to avoid sullying the reputation of the organization and myself.” The young woman declined to talk to the AP.

It is unclear if Yao reported the abuse allegations to his superiors, as required by WHO protocol. He has since been promoted to be director of WHO Geneva’s Strategic Health Operations Department.

On Oct. 15, Tedros appointed an independent panel to investigate sex abuse during the Ebola outbreak in Congo; no findings are expected until the end of August. At a town hall meeting in November, Ryan acknowledged sex abuse issues had been “neglected” for years.

Many WHO staffers, especially women, were unconvinced.

“This is not good enough,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, at the same meeting. “We know in every situation we go in, we’re at risk.”

Back in Congo, Shekinah said she “couldn’t count how many times” she had slept with WHO’s Diallo after accepting a job for which she was not qualified.

“I wanted to quit. But because of my financial problems, I endured it,” she said. Even after they separated, Shekinah said he continued to message her, asking her to send him nude pictures.

Diallo should be punished “for his sexual abuse of all those girls in Beni as a lesson to these international organizations that this should not happen again,” she said. “I would like justice to be done.”

___

Maria Cheng reported from London. Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

Maria Cheng And Al-hadji Kudra Maliro, The Associated Press

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Biden nominates Cindy McCain to UN food and agriculture post

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President Joe Biden is nominating Cindy McCain to be the U.S. representative to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, one of 17 nominations announced Wednesday that included major diplomatic and arts assignments.

McCain, the widow of Arizona Sen. John McCain, broke with Republicans and endorsed Biden for president, making her a key surrogate for the Democrat after Donald Trump spent years criticizing her husband. McCain is the chair and director of the Hensley Beverage Company, a Phoenix-based distributor of beer, wine, spirits and nonalcoholic drinks.

The president is also nominating Massachusetts state Rep. Claire Cronin to be ambassador to Ireland. Biden frequently emphasizes his Irish heritage and has stressed the U.S. support of the Good Friday Agreement, which provided for peace with Northern Ireland but has come under stress after the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

Michael Carpenter, managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, is being nominated to represent the U.S. to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Jack Markell, a former Delaware governor, is being nominated to represent the U.S. to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The president also announced nominations to the National Council on the Arts, including Fiona Whelan Prine, widow of the singer-songwriter John Prine and president of Oh Boy Records, the country’s second-oldest independent record label still in operation.

Josh Boak, The Associated Press

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O’Toole against cancelling Canada Day; ministers, NDP say it’s time for reflection

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OTTAWA — Federal politicians are faced with the country’s legacy of residential schools as July 1 approaches, with the Conservative leader railing against calls to cancel Canada Day, while Liberal ministers and the NDP leader say it should be a time of reflection.

Leader Erin O’Toole says Conservatives are committed to a renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples, but stands firm against so-called activist efforts to “cancel” Canada, particularly on the national holiday.

O’Toole offered his insights on the moment the country finds itself in to members of his caucus and staff gathered in Ottawa before the House of Commons breaks for summer.

He called the discovery in British Columbia of what are believed to be the remains of 215 Indigenous children from a former residential school “a necessary awakening for our country.”

O’Toole pledged that a government led by him would be dedicated to a renewed relationship with Indigenous Peoples, as speculation swirls that the minority Parliament may be headed toward an election.

The Conservative leader said the road to repairing the country’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples and better equality doesn’t involve attempts to destroy Canada.

“I’m concerned that injustices in our past, or in our present, are too often seized upon by a small group of activist voices who use it to attack the very idea of Canada itself,” he said.

Standing up to cancel culture and the “radical left” was part of the platform O’Toole ran on to win the party’s leadership last summer, where he billed himself as the “true blue” candidate to the Conservative faithful.

He’s also been trying to modernize some of the party’s positions and broaden its support base to include more people, including those who are Indigenous.

Like other federal party leaders, O’Toole has in recent weeks had to respond to the discovery of the unmarked burial site in late May and renewed demands for the government to make better progress on calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Canada Day, known for its fireworks, festivities and flapping Canadian flags, has in recent years become viewed with apprehension in some quarters, as more people reckon with the country’s colonial past and the harm it caused Indigenous communities.

The focus on unmarked burial sites at residential schools has pushed those feelings further. Where before some called for Canada Day celebrations to be boycotted, some organizers decided it was best to cancel.

St. Albert, a city northwest of Edmonton, said it wouldn’t have a Canada Day fireworks show because it was to be held on the site of a former residential school.

City councillors in Victoria also announced it would forgo its holiday broadcast to instead host another event later in the summer, where people could reflect on what it means to be Canadian.

At a press conference Wednesday, federal Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says he himself has mixed feelings about Canada Day. He drew on his own experience being from Quebec to say he knows the national holiday can be controversial, and is not universally celebrated.

For himself, he said, it’s a time of reflection and a chance to look at “what we are as a country.”

“The flags are still lowered to continue to commemorate the children that were stolen from their communities and taken to residential schools. Those wounds are still very much open in Indigenous communities,” Miller said.

Appearing virtually alongside Miller was Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, who agreed the holiday should be used to think about Canada’s ugly past.

She said the summer itself will be a time for people to wrestle with the country’s racist wrongdoings, as Canada prepares to mark its first statutory holiday remembering the legacy of residential schools on September 30.

“On Canada Day I will be wearing an orange shirt,” said Bennett.

New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh says people are looking at Canada Day differently this year.

“It does us a disservice when we ignore the injustice, we ignore the bad parts of our history and the ongoing legacy and the impact of those horrible things that have happened and continue to happen,” he said.

O’Toole, for his part, spoke out against calls from some to cancel Canada Day celebrations and singled out the actions of activists and those “always seeing the bad and never the good.”

“As someone who served Canada and will soon ask for the trust to lead this country, I can’t stay silent when people want to cancel Canada Day.”

O’Toole, who served in the military for 12 years, says he’s proud to be a Canadian, as are millions of others. He suggested that collectively, people use the pain felt from where Canada has failed in the past to build a better home.

“We are not a perfect country. No country is. There is not a place on this planet whose history can withstand close scrutiny.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2021.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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