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WHO regional chief based in Manila ousted for misconduct

By Agence France-Presse Published Mar 09, 2023 9:10 am

The World Health Organization has terminated the contract of its powerful Western Pacific regional director Takeshi Kasai following staff accusations of racist, abusive, and authoritarian behavior.

The move is a first for the WHO, which has faced accusations of not being transparent on internal misconduct.

Japanese doctor Kasai was in charge of the WHO's Western Pacific region, covering almost 1.9 billion people across 37 territories, and has its headquarters in Manila.

The WHO received allegations of misconduct against Kasai in the second half of 2021 and in 2022, it said.

"In line with the organization's policy of zero tolerance for abusive conduct, the allegations were investigated and subsequently reviewed," it said, which resulted in findings of misconduct.

"After careful consideration of the findings... the regional director's appointment has been terminated."

The decision came following a two-day special meeting of the WHO's 34-country executive board in Geneva.

The United States is on the board and US ambassador Sheba Crocker said that recognizing the "seriousness" of the findings, Washington voted for dismissing Kasai and reiterated its commitment to "zero tolerance of abusive conduct."

The regional committee in Manila last week called for the board to dismiss Kasai.

'Toxic atmosphere'

"Up to the 11th hour they were giving him the option to resign," but Kasai refused, a source told AFP.

"The vote was very close, 13-11... There were a lot of phone calls behind the scenes," the source said.

Unlike other UN agencies, the WHO's six regional directors are relatively powerful, with a lot of autonomy. They are elected by member states in the region, before being appointed by the global executive board.

Kasai had been in the post since February 2019. He was previously the region's number two and worked for the WHO for more than 15 years.

A slew of accusations against Kasai emerged in January 2022, in revelations first published by the Associated Press news agency.

An AP investigation indicated that dozens of WHO staff filed an internal complaint in October 2021.

They then sent an email in January 2022 to member states on the WHO's executive board, seeking their urgent intervention.

In the email, seen by AFP, the staff accused Kasai of "abusive and racist authoritarian leadership."

Kasai was accused of presiding over a "toxic atmosphere" at the WHO regional office in Manila, with a culture of "systemic bullying and public ridiculing."

'Hard on staff'

The staff, who wanted to remain anonymous "for fear of retaliation," accused him of making "derogatory remarks to the staff of certain nationalities," in particular local Filipinos.

They also accused him of mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic and wasteful spending of donor contributions; abusing his power to secure his re-election; and nepotistic staff recruitment.

In a document sent to the WHO, seen by AFP at the time, Kasai denied the allegations and rejected the accusation of racism.

"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 claims that he regularly gave Japan confidential data on COVID-19 vaccination needs in other regional member states, so that Tokyo could benefit from the diplomatic donation of doses.

Several countries, calling for a more transparent WHO, raised concerns after the case emerged.

In August, Kasai was put on leave and temporarily replaced by WHO number two Zsuzsanna Jakab.

The veteran Hungarian public health administrator will stay on until an election to replace Kasai is held in October, the WHO said. (AFP)