The World Health Organization 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 U.N. 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 found “findings of misconduct.”
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 electing a new regional director for the Western Pacific would begin next month.
A summary of an 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 racist comments.”
Senior WHO directors told the organization'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 organisation'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 stands in stark contrast to WHO's reluctance to punish other perpetrators of abusive and sometimes illegal behaviour, 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.
No senior WHO officials linked to the sexual abuse in Congo was fired.
“What we need now is consistency in how WHO applies the rules on abuse,” said Sophie Harman, a professor of international politics at the 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.”