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Exclusive: EU suspends funding to WHO programmes in Congo after sex scandal

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October 28, 2021

By Stephanie Nebehay and Francesco Guarascio

GENEVA (Reuters) – The European Commission has suspended funding to the World Health Organization’s programmes in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to concerns over the U.N. agency’s handling of the sexual abuse scandal.

An Oct. 7 letter from the Commission marked “SENSITIVE”, seen by Reuters, informed the WHO of the immediate suspension of financing for five WHO programmes, including its Ebola and COVID-19 operations.

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The total amount is more than 20.7 million euros ($24.02 million).

The Commission, in an emailed statement to Reuters in Brussels, confirmed the move, saying that it expected partners to have “robust safeguards to prevent such unacceptable incidents as well as to act decisively in such situations”.

“The Commission has temporarily suspended the payments and will refrain from awarding new funding related to the humanitarian activities undertaken by WHO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This measure does not affect EU funding for WHO operations elsewhere,” it said.

WHO officials contacted separately for comment did not immediately reply.

The EU funding suspension raises diplomatic pressure on the WHO and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to take further action on the documented violations and management negligence, and to prevent it from happening again anywhere.

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Tedros, widely believed to be seeking a second five-year term in May, has steered the global response to COVID-19, the worst public health crisis in a century. But major donors led by the United States and Germany have demanded fundamental reforms to its ability to deal with outbreaks and the scandal.

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

A copy of the EU letter was sent to the Code Blue Campaign, part of the Aids-free World, a watchdog group that aims to end impunity for sexual offences committed by U.N. civilian and military personnel.

The European Commission’s letter, addressed to Tedros, voices “extreme concern” over the “magnitude of the findings”.

It seeks assurances that victims have been protected and compensated; details of WHO’s recruitment process in Congo including background checks; WHO action to ensure alleged perpetrators are not re-hired by the UN or aid groups; and an independent review of “individual responsibilities within WHO for the negligence in the treatment of allegations and evidence”.

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“In view of the gravity of the reported situation, the Commission hereby suspends all payments relevant to the activities undertaken by your organisation in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” it reads.

The Commission seeks a WHO reply within 30 days and says that Brussels will then take another 30 days to decide whether to resume payments or confirm suspension for up to another 30 days. In the meantime, no new funding will be awarded to the WHO for activities in Congo, it adds.

“VIOLENT CRIMES”

The WHO last week issued its plan to prevent any further misconduct by aid workers deployed in its field operations, vowing to ensure the scandal would be “the catalyst for a profound transformation of WHO’s culture”.

Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, WHO acting director of prevention and response to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, told Reuters in an interview this week that more women have reported sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers during the Ebola crisis from 2018-2020.

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She reiterated that the WHO was referring the rape allegations to national authorities for investigation and said that WHO was sending all 83 case files to U.N. investigators in New York for action regarding employees of all agencies.

Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign, said in a statement this month after the WHO’s management response plan was issued that the agency was failing to pursue most perpetrators.

“This is a giant step backward. The WHO is treating dozens of violent crimes alleged against its own personnel and top officials as simple breaches of UN rules. If governments allow the UN to get away with this, it will be a solid victory for UN impunity.

“The entire process reinforces the bogus notion that UN personnel and senior officials are above the law,” she said.

($1 = 0.8617 euros)

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(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; editing by Nick Macfie)

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One of suspected killers of Saudi journalist Khashoggi arrested in France – RTL

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December 7, 2021

PARIS (Reuters) – One of the suspected killers of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was arrested at the Roissy airport near Paris on Tuesday as he was about to board a flight to Riyadh, French RTL radio reported.

RTL said the person arrested was a former Royal Guard of Saudi Arabia who is believed to have been involved in the killing of Kashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

(Reporting by Tassilo Hummel, Writing by GV De Clercq, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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Biden, Putin begin talks, RIA says, after U.S. warning of toughest sanctions yet if Russia invades Ukraine

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December 7, 2021

By Steve Holland and Andrew Osborn

WASHINGTON/MOSCOW (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden began a video conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, Russian state television said, after U.S. officials warned Moscow could be hit with the toughest economic sanctions yet if it invades Ukraine.

The officials said the sanctions, which one source said could target Russia’s biggest banks and Moscow’s ability to convert roubles into dollars and other currencies, were designed to dissuade Putin from using tens of thousands of troops massed near the Ukrainian border to attack its southern neighbour.

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The Kremlin, which said before the meeting it did not expect any breakthroughs, has denied harbouring such intentions and has said its troop posture is defensive.

But Moscow has voiced rising vexation over Western military aid to Ukraine, a fellow former Soviet republic that has tilted towards the West since a popular revolt toppled a pro-Russian president in 2014, and what it calls creeping NATO expansion.

Moscow has likewise questioned Ukrainian intentions and said it wants guarantees that Kyiv will not use force to try to retake territory lost in 2014 to Russia-backed separatists, a scenario Ukraine has ruled out.

“We’re looking for good, predictable relations with the United States. Russia has never intended to attack anyone, but we have our concerns and we have our red lines,” said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Calling for everyone to keep “a cool head”, Peskov said it was vital that Putin and Biden speak given what he called the extraordinary escalation of tensions in Europe.

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The Russian rouble weakened slightly on Tuesday, with some market analysts predicting the talks would de-escalate tensions and others saying that the U.S. sanctions threat eroded hopes of finding common ground.

Ahead of his first direct talks with Putin since July, Biden discussed the sanctions plan with European allies on Monday, seeking a strong joint stance in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

He spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

They called on Russia to defuse tensions and return to diplomacy and said their teams would stay in close touch, including in consultation with NATO allies and EU partners, on a “coordinated and comprehensive approach”, the White House said.

Biden’s team has identified a set of economic penalties to impose should Russia launch an invasion, a senior Biden administration official said.

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A separate source familiar with the situation said targeting Putin’s inner circle has been discussed but no decision made. Sanctions against Russia’s biggest banks and curbing the conversion of roubles into dollars and other currencies were also being considered, another source said.

(Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Gleb Stolyarov, Dmitry Antonov, Alexander Marrow, Tom Balmforth and Katya Golubkova in Moscow, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Catherine Evans and Mark Heinrich)

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Britain reports 101 more cases of Omicron coronavirus variant

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December 7, 2021

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain has found a further 101 confirmed cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, the UK Health Security Agency said on Tuesday, taking the total number of cases to 437.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by William Schomberg)

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