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More victims complain of sexual abuse in Congo scandal – WHO expert

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October 27, 2021

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – More women have reported sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers during an Ebola crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo since a report into the scandal was issued last month, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official told Reuters.

Some 83 aid workers, a quarter of them employed by the WHO, were involved in sexual coercion and abuse during the country’s 10th Ebola epidemic, an independent commission said last month.

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Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, WHO acting director of prevention and response to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, highlighted concerns about the scale of abuse as the WHO seeks to implement reforms and restore trust in the UN agency.

The report cited nine allegations of rape, the youngest victim a 14-year-old girl who accused a WHO driver of offering her a ride and raping her. She later gave birth.

Gamhewage said that more people had come forward alleging abuses by aid workers at the time. She could not provide a figure as she did not have access to the complaints due to confidentiality issues.

“The more work we do, the more cases that will come to light. So already we are hearing from partners, they are also receiving more complaints,” Gamhewage said in an interview.

“This is a sign that the systems that we would like to have in place are beginning to work. We have heard through the inter-agency network that there are more complaints in Goma.”

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The scandal had been a wake-up call for the aid community.

“The independent commission’s report and the testimonies of victims and survivors are a message to all agencies, not just WHO, that something is wrong with the system,” she said. “We are all shaken, we are all upset.”

She also reiterated that the WHO was referring the rape allegations to national authorities for investigation.

SCANDAL AND SUFFERING

Sexual abuse is generally believed to be under-reported in emergency operations worldwide, according to Gamhewage, a Sri Lankan doctor and WHO veteran.

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The independent probe was prompted by an investigation last year by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and The New Humanitarian in which more than 50 women accused aid workers from the WHO and other charities of demanding sex in exchange for jobs between 2018 and 2020.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus took a

“radically different approach” in the UN by launching the independent probe, Gamhewage said. WHO has already terminated the contracts of four employees identified as perpetrators.

Tedros issued a management response plan last week, vowing to ensure that the scandal and the suffering would be “the catalyst for a profound transformation of WHO’s culture”.

The WHO has also said it would investigate potential negligence by managers that may amount to misconduct.

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Because the commission only had a mandate to investigate abuse by WHO employees or contractors, the WHO is preparing to send all 83 case files to UN investigators for action, Gamhewage said.

“We will hand over all 83 case files to the UN investigation services because there could be alleged perpetrators that work for other UN agencies,” she said.

These included 62 case files “not identified currently with WHO and we have to make sure that perpetrators wherever they are are disciplined”, she said.

Suspects’ names were being uploaded in the UN ‘ClearCheck’ data base, a system-wide tool that screens potential employees, Gamhewage said.

“This is so serious that we want to prevent rehiring back into our system as well as other UN other agencies,” she said.

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(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)

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Pope says willing to go to Moscow to meet Orthodox Patriarch

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December 6, 2021

By Philip Pullella

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) – Pope Francis said on Monday he was willing to go to Moscow for to meet Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill “brother to brother” in what would be the first trip by a pope to Russia.

The pair’s meeting in Cuba in 2016 was the first by a pope and a leader of the Russian Orthodox Church since the great schism that split Christianity into Eastern and Western branches in 1054.

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Both sides have declared a willingness to work towards unity but they are still far apart theologically and over what role the pope would play in an eventually reunited Church.

“We are brothers and we talk straight to each other. We do not dance the minuet,” Francis told reporters aboard his plane returning from a trip to Cyprus and Greece.

“We have to move forward, walking and working towards unity.”

He said he was willing to go Moscow and that a top Russian Orthodox official was expected in Rome next week to decide the time and location of the meeting.

Francis said working out the protocols would be less important than meeting “brother to brother” with Kirill.

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The Pope normally travels to countries with a joint invitation from its religious authorities as well as one from the government, meaning that Francis would most likely need an invitation from President Vladimir Putin to visit Russia.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest in Christian Orthodoxy, with about 100 million members, is closely aligned with the Kremlin.

Francis said the meeting with Kirill was “on the not too distant horizon”.

He said Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, who is responsible for the Russian Orthodox Church’s external relations, would be coming to the Vatican to meet him to discuss where and when the next meeting can take place.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alison Williams)

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Yemen Houthis bury their dead as Marib fighting rages

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December 6, 2021

By Adel Al-Khader

SANAA (Reuters) – Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis held military funerals on Monday for 25 fighters killed in battles with a Saudi-led coalition, as fighting shows no sign of abating despite intense international diplomacy to end the seven-year-old conflict.

The funerals took place as fighting has raged in the gas-rich Marib region, while warplanes from the coalition have intensified their bombing of Sanaa, Marib and other areas.

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The Houthis have also stepped up cross-border attacks on Saudi Arabia using armed drones and missiles.

An honour guard carried the coffins – draped with flags, flowers and photographs of the dead – with military music through the capital Sanaa. Relatives gathered to mourn their loved ones.

“We are in these days inspired by these martyrs’ pride and dignity and say to them: ‘congratulations! You have preceded us to a paradise as wide as the heavens and earth’,” said Ali Muhyaddin, a relative of one of the dead.

The war in Yemen has killed tens of thousands and caused what the United Nations describes as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

U.N.-led efforts to agree a ceasefire have stalled in the conflict, which is seen largely as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Houthis say they are fighting a corrupt system and foreign invasion.

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Houthi media showed fighters exchanging heavy artillery fire with coalition forces in Marib on Sunday as warplanes flew overhead. All the 25 fighters buried in Sanaa were killed in Marib, Houthi officials said.

The Houthis have launched a year-long offensive to take Marib, which hosts Yemen’s biggest gas fields. The city is the last stronghold of the internationally recognised government.

Marib is home to 3 million people, including nearly 1 million who fled other parts of Yemen after the Houthis ousted the government from the capital, Sanaa, in late 2014, prompting the Saudi-led coalition to intervene.

The number of displaced people in camps in the province has risen nearly 10-fold since September, with more than 45,000 people fleeing their homes as Houthi forces press the offensive, the U.N. migration agency IOM said last month.

(Writing by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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Putin and Modi discuss trade, humanitarian situation in Afghanistan

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December 6, 2021

By Alasdair Pal and Neha Arora

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin in New Delhi on Monday, with trade and the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan both on the agenda.

Afghanistan’s takeover by the Taliban earlier this year has led to a humanitarian crisis in the country, which New Delhi and Moscow have both previously said risks destabilising the region.

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“The fight against terrorism is also a fight against drug trafficking and organised crime,” Putin said in introductory remarks broadcast by Indian media. “In that regard, we are concerned about developments of the situation in Afghanistan.”

The visit by Putin and several top Russian officials comes amid increasingly strained relations between Russia and the United States, also a key Indian ally.

Earlier on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a deal to supply India with S-400 air defence missile systems was being implemented despite what he said were U.S. efforts to undermine the accord.

India and Russia are expected to cement several trade and defence pacts at the summit.

“The relation between India and Russia is truly a unique and reliable model,” Modi said.

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(Reporting by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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