WHO dismisses Fijian senior official after sexual misconduct accusations

Dr Temo Waqanivalu

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has dismissed Dr Temo Waqanivalu, a senior official accused of three separate instances of sexual misconduct over five years.

“Dr Temo Waqanivalu has been dismissed from WHO following findings of sexual misconduct against him and [the] corresponding disciplinary process,” the WHO told the Financial Times on Monday.

The Waqanivalu case raised concerns about the adequacy of the WHO’s reporting channels and processes for reporting allegations of sexual and other forms of misconduct, said victims and current and former employees. The WHO has said it is working to improve the organisational culture at the health body and make it easier for staff to report instances of misconduct.

Dr Waqanivalu was informed of his dismissal on Monday. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The FT reported this month that Waqanivalu, a Fijian physician who most recently served as a unit head at WHO headquarters in Geneva, was being investigated for a third allegation of sexual misconduct regarding a junior employee in her mid-twenties. The incident is alleged to have happened at a private networking event in 2017 dubbed “unwind/unwined” [sic], the report said.

A number of other middle-aged men were present, the FT reported. They witnessed the alleged incident but did not challenge the behaviour or report it. The victim was later advised against raising a complaint by a senior colleague in order to protect her career.

The Associated Press in January named Waqanivalu in a case of alleged sexual misconduct against Rosie James, a young doctor who encountered him at a World Health Summit event in Berlin last year. James had reported the incident publicly without naming him in October. The AP also reported that the WHO had been aware of a previous allegation of sexual misconduct against Dr Waqanivalu but allowed him to stay in the job and explore the chances of running for the WHO’s top job in its western Pacific region.

In a tweet, James said: “Sharing [the news] in solidarity with others to show that speaking up is (although not easy!) an option,” adding that she was not allowed to make further comments.

The WHO said on Monday: “Sexual misconduct of any kind by anyone working for WHO — be it as staff, consultant, partner — is unacceptable.”

It added: “We encourage all those who may have been affected by sexual misconduct to come forward through our confidential reporting mechanisms. All cases will be reviewed promptly.”

In matters unrelated to the Waqanivalu case, WHO employees in the Democratic Republic of Congo were embroiled in a wide-ranging sexual assault scandal during an Ebola outbreak in the African nation. In some cases, women were raped after being offered work. Some were forced to undergo abortions after being raped, according to a 2021 WHO-commissioned report into the matter. The WHO was “determined to bring perpetrators to account”, it said.

The WHO said it was “changing the organisational culture” at the health body. It is dealing with more reports of sexual misconduct, a trend it said was driven by improvements to its procedures for reporting such allegations rather than in the number of incidents. It has set aside $50mn for the years 2022-24 to strengthen its investigative capacities. The WHO said any administrative decision, including dismissal from service, “may be appealed through the internal justice system, and ultimately by filing a complaint before the International Labour Organization’s administrative tribunal”.