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Middle East WHO chief ‘disturbed’ by abuse reported by AP

“The purpose of the visit is to advance awareness through various sessions, on ethical conduct, principles, values ​​and expectations,” staff said in an internal email sent on behalf of the business operations manager. of the WHO in Cairo.

The AP released an investigation Thursday based on more than 100 emails, documents and other classified UN documents showing that WHO staff members told investigators that the agency’s representative in Syria, Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, had engaged in abusive behavior, pressured WHO staff to sign contracts with senior officials. senior Syrian government politicians and presented gifts to government officials. Magtymova declined to comment and called the allegations “defamatory.”

Allegations of misconduct by more than a dozen WHO staff have sparked one of the largest internal investigations in years, involving more than 20 investigators.

“While the investigation continues, we have already taken mitigating measures,” Al-Mandhari said in his message to staff, referring to the decision to appoint an acting representative for Syria in May. “We have also proactively informed our donor partners of the ongoing investigation.” Yet Magtymova remains in her post and continues to receive a manager’s salary.

Karam Shaar, a Syria expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that although there have been rumors of UN corruption in Syria for years, the AP report showed that “they are more extreme than we thought”.

“What allegedly happened at the WHO office in Syria is particularly egregious because at this point Syrians have never been more vulnerable,” Shaar said. “This is exactly when the WHO should be responsible, yet we have never heard such serious allegations from any other UN agency. The charges against the WHO are by far the worst.

Syria’s health system has been devastated by more than a decade of war, and for years the country has relied almost exclusively on humanitarian aid. Nearly 90% of the population lives in poverty and more than 7 million people have been displaced by the conflict.

Adam Kamradt-Scott, a professor specializing in global health at the European University Institute in Italy, said that because the WHO’s funds come from taxpayers, the agency must prove that its expenditures are justified.

Financial documents obtained by the AP showed, among other examples, that the WHO’s Magtymova once spent more than $11,000 of WHO funds on a party, mostly to honor her own accomplishments during COVID-19. . Numerous WHO staff members have also alleged that Magtymova used WHO funds to purchase inappropriate gifts for Syrian government officials, including gold coins and luxury cars.

“If it was a non-UN context and there was embezzlement, you would likely see employees held criminally liable,” Kamradt-Scott said. “But we still have a situation where WHO staff are basically investigating other WHO staff, which is not exactly the best approach.”

In his email to WHO staff members in the Eastern Mediterranean, Regional Director Al-Mandhari encouraged officials to report suspected misconduct via WHO’s own “Integrity Hotline”. .

Eight WHO staff members who complained internally about misconduct reported by Magtymova as early as last year told the AP that their concerns had not yet been resolved.

A former Syrian staffer wrote to the WHO chief earlier this month, pleading for help after previous emails went unanswered.

“I would like to inquire about the next step regarding work stress damages and potential job loss as a result of harassment,” wrote the former employee, who sought $35,000 in compensation. “Your support and feedback in this regard is essential to save the image of WHO in my beloved country, Syria.” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus did not respond, despite insisting in the past that the WHO has “zero tolerance” for misconduct.

According to WHO figures, more than 250 internal investigations are ongoing regarding abusive behavior or sexual exploitation and harassment.

Sheba Crocker, US ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said the US was in contact with the WHO and was closely following its internal investigation in Syria, where it is a top donor to the UN.

“Responsible leadership as well as stewardship of member state resources should always be a requirement for senior positions in international organizations,” Crocker said in a statement.

Natasha Hall, senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said there were structural failures that systematically allowed UN abuses to occur.

‘The knee-jerk reaction of the UN is to cover up these violations and hope they go away,’ she said, comparing the UN’s response in Syria to the Catholic Church’s handling of sexual abuse. on children. “Unless donor governments collectively push back against this, it is likely that we will continue to hear about this type of abuse.

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.