LONDON – The head of the World Health Organization’s Eastern Mediterranean region told staff in an email that he is “very disturbed” by allegations reported by The Associated Press that the U.N. health agency’s Syria director misspent millions, abused staff and violated the organization’s own COVID-19 protocols as the pandemic hit the war-torn country.
In a message sent to all staff in the Middle East on Friday, Dr. Ahmed Salim Al-Mandhari said “the allegations negatively impact the people of Syria, whom we strive to serve.”
This week, two members of WHO’s ethics department in Geneva, including its director, are visiting the agency’s Eastern Mediterranean headquarters in Cairo, which oversees Syria.
“The purpose of the visit is to advance awareness through various sessions, on the ethical conduct, principles, values and expectations,” staff were told in an email.
The AP on Thursday published an investigation based on more than 100 confidential U.N. emails, documents and other materials showing that WHO staffers told investigators that the agency’s Syria representative, Dr. Akjemal Magtymova, engaged in abusive behavior, pressured WHO staff to sign contracts with high-ranking Syrian politicians and plied government officials with gifts. Magtymova declined to comment and called the allegations “defamatory.”
A former Syrian official said WHO’s failures could jeopardize the country’s halting response to the emerging cholera outbreak, amid a global shortage of vaccines.
“People care about institutional failure because that affects the lives of millions of people,” said the former health official who worked in opposition-held northwestern Syria. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns in the deeply divided country.
He said U.N. aid has previously been used “as a weapon of war,” failing to provide timely aid for Syrians because of their political standings or views or because they live in areas beyond government control. He criticized WHO for cozying up to Damascus instead of acting in the best interest of all Syrians.
The misconduct claims regarding WHO's Syria director from more than a dozen WHO staffers have triggered one of the biggest internal probes in years.
“As the investigation continues, we have already taken mitigating action,” Al-Mandhari told the staff, referring to the decision to name an acting Syria representative in May and “proactively” inform their donors.
Still, Magtymova remains in her position and continues to draw a director-level salary.
Karam Shaar, a Syria expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said there have been rumors of U.N. corruption in Syria for years but the AP report showed that “they are more extreme than we ever thought.”
“What reportedly happened at the WHO Syria office is particularly egregious because at this point in time, Syrians have never been more vulnerable,” Shaar said. “It’s exactly at this time that WHO should be responsible, yet we have never heard as serious allegations from any other U.N. agency. The charges against WHO are by far the worst.”
Shaar calculated that over 80% of WHO's purchases from Syria, where it spent $39 million between 2016 and 2021, came from suppliers whose identities are hidden. He said it was the highest share of any U.N. agency working in the country.
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.
Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in global health at the European University Institute in Italy, said because WHO’s funds come from taxpayers, the agency must prove its spending is warranted.
Financial documents obtained by the AP showed, among other examples, that WHO’s Magtymova once spent more than $11,000 of WHO funds on a party mostly to honor her own achievements during COVID-19. WHO staffers also alleged that Magtymova used WHO funds to buy gifts for Syrian government officials, including gold coins and expensive cars.
“If it were any other context than the U.N. and there was a misappropriation of funds, you would likely see employees being held criminally responsible,” Kamradt-Scott said.
Eight WHO personnel who complained internally about Magtymova’s reported misconduct as early as last year told the AP that their concerns have yet to be addressed.
One former Syrian staffer wrote to the WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus earlier this month, pleading for help after earlier emails went unanswered.
“I would like to inquire about the next step regarding the damages due to stress caused by workplace and the potential loss of employment as a result of harassment,” wrote the former employee, who asked for $35,000 in compensation.
According to WHO figures, there are more than 250 ongoing internal investigations involving abusive behavior or sexual exploitation and harassment.
Sheba Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, said the U.S. was closely following WHO's internal probe in Syria.
“Responsible leadership as well as stewardship of member state resources must always be a requirement,” Crocker said.
Natasha Hall, a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said structural failures consistently allow U.N. abuses to occur.
“The knee-jerk reaction in the U.N. is to just cover up these violations and hope they go away,” she said, comparing the U.N. response in Syria to the Catholic Church’s handling of the sexual abuse of children. “Unless donor governments collectively push back on this, it’s likely we will keep hearing about these kinds of abuses.”
Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Lebanon, and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.