WHO regional director fired for alleged racist misconduct

Takeshi Kasai

The World Health Organisation (WHO) 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 behaviour that may have compromised the UN health agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In an email sent to employees on 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 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 behaviour “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 organisation’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 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 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 been for more than 15 years.

Days after the AP report, WHO chief 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 WHO’s reluctance to punish other perpetrators of abusive and sometimes illegal behavior, including sexual abuse and exploitation during the 2018-2020 Ebola epidemic in Congo.

More than 80 outbreak responders working primarily under 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 UN report found the agency’s response to one case of alleged exploitation did not violate the rules because of a loophole in how 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. With support of some WHO colleagues and his home country, Waqanivalu was preparing to run for the regional director job.

Javier Guzman, of the Centre for Global Development, said a robust internal justice system at 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.”