The World Health Organization vowed to take action following a slew of allegations from staff past and present against its Western Pacific regional director, including racist, abusive and authoritarian behavior.
Japanese doctor Takeshi Kasai, who denied the allegations, is accused of presiding over a “toxic atmosphere” at the WHO regional office in Manila, with a culture of “systemic bullying and public ridiculing.”
The staff, who wanted to remain anonymous “for fear of retaliation,” accused him of making “derogatory remarks to staff of certain nationalities,” in particular local Filipinos.
“WHO is aware of the allegations and is taking all appropriate steps to follow up on the matter,” the organization’s global headquarters in Geneva told AFP, without elaborating.
Earlier Thursday, the Associated Press news agency published an investigation indicating that dozens of WHO staff filed an internal complaint in October.
They then sent an email in mid-January to member states on the WHO’s 34-country executive board—which is meeting in Geneva this week and was attended by Kasai.
In the email, seen by AFP, the staff accused Kasai of “abusive and racist authoritarian leadership.”
They also accused him of mismanaging the pandemic and wasteful spending of donor contributions; abusing his power to secure his re-election; and nepotistic staff recruitment.
They requested “urgent intervention” by the board’s member states to address their concerns.
Headquartered in Manila, the WHO’s Western Pacific region covers almost 1.9 billion people across 37 territories.
Appointed by the WHO executive board, Kasai has been in the post since February 2019. He was previously the region’s number two and has worked for the WHO for more than 15 years.
In a document sent to the WHO, seen by AFP, Kasai denied the allegations and said he would cooperate fully with any investigation.
“I take the concerns raised about my management style and working culture in WHO’s Western Pacific Region very seriously,” he said.
“I ask a lot of myself, and our staff. This has particularly been the case during the COVID-19 response. But it should not result in people feeling disrespected.
“I’m committed to making changes that will ensure a positive work environment for all of the WHO workforce in our region.”
He rejected the accusation of racism.
“It is true that I have been hard on staff, but I reject the suggestion that I have targeted staff of any particular nationality,” he insisted.
Kasai also disputed allegations that he regularly gave Japan confidential data on COVID-19 vaccination needs in other regional member states, so that Tokyo could benefit in the diplomatic donation of doses.
The staff letter also alleged that the WHO “failed to contain the pandemic in its early days”, particularly due to the regional office being “too China-centric, not daring to contradict or criticize the Chinese authorities.”
“I am ready to cooperate fully with any process to investigate the concerns which have been raised,” Kasai said.
Simon Manley, Britain’s ambassador in Geneva said in a statment that there was “no place for racism or discrimination in the WHO.”
“We expect the WHO to robustly investigate all allegations of misconduct and to provide support to those affected,” he said, pledging to hold the UN health agency to the highest ethical standards.
France takes the accusations “very seriously,” its permanent mission in Geneva said.
If the allegations were proven, it would be up to the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to take steps and, if necessary, consult the executive board “on a possible end of contract”, the mission said.
France will pay extremely close attention “to the smooth running of the investigation and its results.”
In his speeches to the WHO executive board this week, Tedros said his commitment to preventing all forms of abuse was “iron-clad.”
“You are right to expect the highest standards of conduct, and you are right to expect an organisation that has zero tolerance for sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment,” he said Monday.
The board is due to discuss management matters on Friday, including the prevention of harassment and abuse.